Tag Archives: Rome

St. Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square, Vatican City State

We’ve always wanted to visit the Vatican City. Perhaps because it’s an entirely separate country within a country, the smallest internationally recognised independent state by area and by population, and the centre and focus of the Catholic faith, synonymous with the Pope and with the white smoke of conclave.

St Peter's Square and St Peter's Basilica, The Vatican City

Looking into the Vatican City from Italy across St. Peter’s Square

Or perhaps it’s because of the grandness of the Baroque architectural approach that one cannot help to be enticed. The giant oval cobblestoned plaza of St Peter’s Square simply invites. When we stood there we felt safe, surrounded by the giant Tuscan colonnades that block the peripheral vision of distractions, focussing the eye and attention on the staircase to St Peter’s Basilica. Such was Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s intent – the 4-column-deep colonnades certainly give the feeling of being embraced by “the maternal arms of Mother Church” as he described them.

Northern Tuscan colonnade, St Peter's Square, Vatican City

The northern colonnade. Another of Bernini’s touches are the two spots in the square where the rows of columns that are 4 deep appear as one

Before it was the site of St Peter’s Basilica, the area outside the early walls of Rome was known as vaticanus ager or “Vatican territory” and was a poor, destitute area. During Caligula’s short 4-year reign as Roman Emperor he started construction of a chariot race course which was finished by his nephew Claudius, but took the name of the subsequent Emperor, Circus of Nero. It was Caligula who had the Egyptian obelisk moved from Alexandria to Rome to be the centrepiece and central marker of the race course, and which now sits in the centre of St Peter’s Square.

The Egyptian obelisk, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

The Egyptian obelisk stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square. It was moved to this spot in 1586, and the square was designed and built around it 100 years later by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

It was during Nero’s brutal games and persecution of early Christians at this circus, next to this Egyptian obelisk that St. Peter was crucified. As we learnt in Pompeii, it was the custom that bodies were buried along the roads outside the towns and cities, and the remains of St. Peter were buried to the north of the circus, on the side of the Vatican hill.

Nearly 250 years later, Rome and Christianity united under the first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great. As well as ordering the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where it is believed Jesus was crucified, and the construction of the first St Peter’s Basilica on the site of Peter’s remains, Constantine also built a new imperial residence in Byzantium and renamed the city after himself.. Constantinople. It was to become the capital of the Empire for over a thousand years, and today we know it as Istanbul.

Maderno's façade of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The façade of St. Peter’s Basilica designed by Carlo Maderno, appointed chief architect by Pope Paul V in 1602 to complete the designs and work of the new St. Peter’s Basilica started by Pope Julius II in the 16th century

We’d read the queues to get into St Peter’s Basilica quickly go from a few minutes to an hour or more, so we saved the square for later and made straight for the entrance. 15 minutes later we were standing in the amazing façade where we also picked up an audioguide.

Façade of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Inside the very impressive Façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was built specifically to allow the Pope to address the congregation in St. Peter’s Square from a window above the main entrance archway. The doors into St. Peter’s Basilica are all different

After listening to the enthusiastic audio introduction, we stepped inside what is regarded as the greatest building of its age..

Looking down the nave of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Looking down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, the most important church in Catholicism

Wow. Our first impressions were every definition and application of splendid – gold and white, marble everywhere, and everything in amazing condition, especially considering its age and the number of visitors it receives. The building itself is a masterwork, both inside and out, and is similarly adorned with priceless works of art in celebration of the faith. Specifically, there were 3 main works we were keen to see up close. The first, Michelangelo’s Pietà..

Michelangelo's Pieta, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Like the museums of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica contains some of the world’s most acclaimed art such as Michelangelo’s Pietà

Statue of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The second major work of art is this bronze statue of Saint Peter holding the keys of heaven by Arnolfo di Cambio

The foot of the statue of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

.. apparently, rubbing or kissing the feett of St. Peter will curry favour and assist your entry into Heaven, but you’ll have to hurry – there’s not much left of them!

Bernini's bronze baldachin, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Finally, the 30m (98ft) bronze baldachin or canopy designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini sits over the high altar and the location of St. Peter’s remains. It is believed to be the largest piece of bronze work in the world

As the basilica started to fill up with coach parties and tour groups, we headed down the steps at the foot of the giant statue of St. Andrew into the peaceful grotto below. In this solemn space where 91 previous pontiffs rest in peace, we also saw some of the foundations of the original Constantine basilica. The remains of St. Peter himself are in a separate tomb below this one which it is possible to visit but needs to be booked well in advance.

The exit of the catacombs set us neatly at the entrance to the ~500 steps to climb the famous dome atop St. Peter’s Basilica. The first 170 or so are optional as there’s a lift that gets you to the roof, but we opted for the stairs all the way. After the roof, we entered the base of the dome and weren’t expecting the view inside St Peter’s..

Dome gallery, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Entering the base of the dome was an unexpected treat as we thought we’d just get to see it from the floor or to see the outside from the roof

Dome of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The incredibly detailed dome of St Peter’s is also the tallest dome in the world. That fact surprised us as it didn’t feel as tall to us compared to standing on the floor in Haghia Sophia in Istanbul

On exiting the dome we thought we’d just get a view of the square from the roof, but there was more! The stairs started up between the dome’s walls and quickly gained a slant..

Climbing St Peters Steps, Vatican City

The further we ascended, the more the walls curved and leaned with the shape of the dome. And yes, I am standing upright!

Of the changes to the plans for St. Peter’s Basilica that occurred during the 120 years it took to complete, the giant dome influenced by both the Pantheon and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence remained true to Donato Bramante’s initial vision. And the view is certainly worth the climb as you get to stand on the very top!

View of St. Peter's Square from the top of the dome, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica of the roof and St Peter’s Square is easily worth the climb – wow!

After taking far too many photos of the Vatican from the 360° viewpoint of the dome, we descended back to the roof where we found a gift shop, a Vatican post box and a small cafe, so we stopped for a quick coffee while writing out some postcards for friends and family back home – posted from the roof of the most important church in all of Christendom!

The dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as viewed from the roof – we were just up there!

Posting on the roof of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Us sending postcards from the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica!

From the Spanish Steps to Piazza Navona, a walk through historic Rome

Our walking tour through the historic centre of Rome took in history from ancient times through the 17th century Baroque and up to the 20th century. Many of the stops we’d heard of or seen in films and I was surprised to find how close together everything is – the whole walk was only about 2.5km (1.5 miles).

The Spanish StepsThe Spanish Steps and ‘Fountain of the Old Boat’ at their foot

Our first stop was at the Spanish Steps. In Italian they’re called Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti which refers to the church at the top, the English name comes from the Spanish Embassy which is at the bottom. The shops around here make up one of the most exclusive shopping areas of Rome and we spotted lots of designer label shops nearby. There are 135 steps linking the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Plaza) with the Church of Trinità dei Monti, apparently in the summer they are crowded with people but not many were in evidence at 9am on a rainy morning in February.

View from the Spanish StepsView from the top of The Spanish Steps, pretty good even on a grey and rainy day

At the foot of the Spanish Steps is the house where John Keats lived and died, and just a few doors further along is the former home of Giorgio de Chirico. We’d never heard of the 20th century Italian artist but his paintings looked interesting so we booked ourselves in for a tour of the House-Museum.

Giorgio de Chirico House MuseumGiorgio de Chirico House Museum (clockwise from top left): all of the furnishings are original; De Chirico began making sculptures late in his career; ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’

De Chirico described his art as Metaphysical. His work reminded us of Salvador Dali – classical subjects, lots of paintings of his wife, other-worldly protagonists – and, in fact, Dali cited De Chirico as an influence. Judging from the description of him by our guide it sounds as if his ego and eccentricities were similar to the Spaniard too.

Giorgio de Chirico's studioUpstairs was the artist’s studio including his easel with five or six lucky charms hanging from the back of it

If you’ve seen Federico Fellini’s 1960 film ‘La Dolce Vita’ you’ll probably remember the scene in which Anita Ekberg goes for a swim in the Trevi Fountain. Sadly, the fountain is currently undergoing major restoration works so we didn’t see it in all its glory but we could appreciate its size – it must occupy about 75% of the square that it’s built in. The only plus point of visiting during the restoration is that the authorities have set up a walkway for tourists over the basin which is closer than you can usually get to the statues – without going for a swim…

Trevi FountainAnita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita’ [source: The Times]; and us, similarly soaked but considerably less glamorous!

Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you are certain to return to Rome. A small pool has been set up in front of the drained fountain basin to allow tourists to continue the practice. It’s so popular that tens of thousands of euros are collected every year and subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needy.

Throwing a coin into the Trevi FountainAndrew ensuring that he will return to Rome

Just around the corner from the Trevi Fountain, but with far fewer tourists, we sheltered under the glass roof of Galleria Sciarra to eat our sandwiches. It was built in the late 1880s and was intended as a shopping centre although later it became the headquarters of a magazine and nowadays, amongst other things, houses an Anti-Corruption Agency. The walls of the courtyard were painted by Giuseppe Cellini in the Art Nouveau style.

Galleria SciarraThe beautiful Art Nouveau decoration in Galleria Sciarra represents twelve stages in a woman’s life on one row and twelve virtues of an ideal woman on the other

Moving on from there we continued through narrow cobbled streets and piazzas noticing that Romans seem to be obsessed with putting tall pointy things in the centre of their squares, it seems that practically every open space has an obelisk or column of some description.

Rome's columns and obelisksLeft to right: The Sallustiano obelisk at the top of the Spanish Steps is an ancient Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk; the Column of the Immaculate in Piazza Mignanelli; the 40m high Column of Marcus Aurelius commemorates the emperor’s victories in war; Bernini’s ‘Elephant and Obelisk’ behind the Pantheon reminded us of the one in Catania’s Piazza Duomo

On our way to the next stop we passed the remains of the Temple of Hadrian, only one wall and 11 columns of the 15 which would have lined that side survive. Each column is 15m high and it is still an impressive sight. The building that it is now part of was holding a Poetry Slam competition on the day that we passed.

Temple of HadrianThe remaining wall of the Temple of Hadrian

Other than the De Chirico Museum, the main ‘sight’ on the tour was the Pantheon which is one of the best preserved of all the Ancient Roman buildings. It was originally built in round 26BC by Marcus Agrippa but had to be reconstructed twice (following the original design) due to fire. The current structure dates from 126AD.

The PantheonThe Pantheon’s builder, Marcus Agrippa is commemorated in the inscription on the portico

The structure is essentially a cylinder topped by a dome and fronted by a rectangular portico. Nearly 2000 years after it was built it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome – we didn’t even know that concrete existed in Roman times! It has a diameter of 43.4m and rather pleasingly, for me at least, the height of the dome is also 43.4m which means that a sphere would fit neatly inside as demonstrated by this diagram which I found during my research.

Sphere inside the PantheonCross-section of the Pantheon showing its symmetry [source: pixshark]

At the top of the dome is a round opening called the oculus which is part of the reason that it could be built so wide. It was pretty cool to see the rain coming down through the hole and it was the only time during the day when we were even slightly glad that it was raining. The floor is designed to drain in the centre but even so a large section was cordoned off to prevent slippages.

Us inside the PantheonUs inside the Pantheon

The Pantheon was converted into a church in the 7th century which accounts for its good state of preservation. The sides of the cylindrical walls contain a number of small chapels and some tombs including two of Italy’s kings and the artist Raphael.

Interior of the PantheonInterior of the Pantheon (clockwise from left): Tomb of King Vittorio Emanuele II; wet floor; the main altar

Our final stop was just two blocks away through the winding streets, Piazza Navona. A long, narrow plaza, it was formerly the site of a stadium. Along one side is a very grand church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, and it contains three fountains, obviously the central one has an obelisk!

Piazza NavonaPiazza Navona

Unfortunately, the rain which plagued our stay in Naples seems to have followed us to Rome, initially at least. We comforted ourselves by taking hot chocolate breaks to warm us through and get some feeling back in our hands.