We found our assigned car, and our compartment and were soon easily settled. The train pulled out right on time, which was typical of most trains in Italy. Our speed often topped 80 miles/hour; and trying to photograph the scenery produced only blurs.
We found our apartment, the best of the trip, which was fortunate because it was our longest stay. To my complete astonishment, I found it was only a two block walk to see St Peter’s Basilica; it was less than a 15 minute walk to get there. It could not have been more perfect!
Via Della Conciliazione, the street leading straight into Saint Peter's
On the Roof of Saint Peter's Basilica
These stairs lead from the dome down to the flat portion of the roof above the main aisle of the basilica.
Standing on the roof of Saint Peter's Cathedral!
There are larger than life statues of 140 saints around Saint Peter’s Square. Here are two of them.
The statues of Jesus and John the Baptist on the rooftop
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is 448 feet from the floor of the Basilica to the top of the external cross - the tallest dome in the world. At 136 feet in diameter, it is just slightly smaller than 2 of 3 other domes that preceded it - the Pantheon of Ancient Rome, and the Cathedral at Florence of the Early Renaissance. It is 30 feet greater in diameter than the third dome ; that of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia completed in 537.
It is a very long and arduous climb from this point to the base of the lantern at the very top of the dome, although it is permissible. Only the very physically fit, and those not troubled by claustrophobia should attempt it, because once started, there is no turning back. I knew I could never make it, so gave Art my camera, and described for him the view I wanted most from the whole trip. Here it is - exactly as I had dreamed of, for months in advance!
The view from the top of St. Peter's looking out over the piazza toward the Tiber River and central Rome.
From the cupola at the stop of the dome, it is also possible to look down upon the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, which we planned to visit soon.
Looking down from the dome at the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museum.
We walked over to the Basilica, and rode the elevator up to the roof of the Church. It was fun to look out over the Eternal City, and since no building may be higher than St. Peter’s Church, we could see a great deal.
We went inside the Basilica where Mass was being celebrated. From the base of the dome we could look down on Mass being celebrated.
Looking down at the main altar of Saint Peter's Basilica
Then we could look up to the inside of the beautiful dome of Saint Peter’s, designed by Michelangelo.
The main dome.
Night Visit to Saint Peter’s Square
The dome rises 435 feet and measures 138 feet across its base.
In 349 The Emperor Constantine built a church over the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope. With many alterations it stood for more than 1000 years, until the middle of the 15th century, when it bordered on collapse. In 1503 Pope Julius II instructed architect Bramante to raze all the existing buildings and build a new basilica, even more grand than Constantine’s. It was not until 1626 that the basilica was completed and consecrated.
Although Bramante made little progress in the actual building, he did succeed in building the piers for the massive pillars which support the great dome, and are still in use today. After Bramante died in 1514, Raphael, the Sangallos and Peruzzi made various changes to the original plan. For many reasons, including the 1527 Sack of Rome, little progress was made. In 1546 Pope Paul III pretty much forced Michelangelo to complete the building. Michelangelo, however, insisted on having the freedom to do as he wished. He returned to the original design of 4 arms of equal length; and completed most of the dome and the façade. After Michelangelo's death, however, Pope Paul V wanted a Latin cross church with one “arm” longer than the others, in order to allow for more dramatic processions. Giacoma della Porta also made the dome much smaller in proportion.
Saint Peter's at night
The obelisk in the center of Piazza San Pietro
I'm standing beneath the colonnade that surrounds Saint Peter's Square
One of the two fountains in Saint Peter's Square
Saint Peter's Square
In the center of the square is an 85 foot tall obelisk which was first erected in Alexandria by the Romans in the first century BC, and dedicated to Augustus. It has no hieroglyphs. It was moved to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 38 AD. This obelisk never fell, which was quite unusual. In 1586 Pope Sixtus V ordered it to be relocated in front of St. Peter’s. The top of the obelisk is decorated with the mountains and star which form the symbols of Sixtus V.
There are two fountains in St. Peter’s Square, one designed by Fontana del C Maderna in 1614 , and in 1677 a copy by Bernini was added to duplicate and balance it.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
There are only 3 women honored in St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Christina of Sweden is one of them. She abdicated her throne in order to become a Catholic.
Tomb of St Christina
St. Gregory the Great was a very important Pope who reigned from 1831 to 1846. He is buried here.
In this picture, we are looking toward the apse (back of the church), where Mass is being offered. Notice the letters around the base of the dome proclaiming in letters 7 feet tall, everything that Jesus said to Peter. The letters continue all around the church.
In the late 1200’s an artist named Arnolfo di Cambio made this bronze statue of St. Peter. A tradition has grown up, to kiss his extended right foot. It has become so popular, that his foot has been worn away by now.
First a statue of Saint Veronica (left) and then Pope Alexander VII (right)
We had timed our trip to be in Italy during the “shoulder season;” too late for students and summer crowds; and too early for winter sports such as skiing. Evidently so did a great many other people. I can only imagine what it must be like in this Basilica in summer!
Crowds of tourists inside Saint Peter's
It must be remembered that St. Peter’s is a church - not a museum. Masses take place at various times at the regular altar, near the apse (back part) of the church. They are always crowded, as was this one.
This alabaster window was designed by Bernini. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and actually measures 6 feet tall, but seems of normal height because of the massiveness of everything around it. In Rick Steeves Guide Book he writes that the dove has the wingspan of a 747; and then corrects himself that he was only joking. The point is that everything in St. Peter’s is huge.
The dove in the window represents the Holy Spirit, designed by Bernini
Below the dove window is the “Throne of St. Peter,” an oak chair which St. Peter never sat on, since it was built in medieval times for a king. It is very ornate with all the gold decorations.
The throne for Saint Peter
There are only 3 women who are honored in the Basilica. This one is probably Saint Helen.
The detail of these columns designed by Bernini, is interesting to study. The baldachino is as high as a 7 story building, but is well below the ceiling of St. Peter’s. Some of the bronze to build them was taken from the Panthenon, which aroused protests from the people. Here also, is a view from beneath the baldachino.
I thought it would be very unusual to photograph the inner ceiling of the baldachino. Later I found this same picture in several publications. It was not as original as I had thought, but I hope you will like it.
While we are looking at the inside of ceilings, it would be good to inspect the interior of the dome of St. Peter’s. Designed by Michelangelo, it rises 435 high. First the interior structure was built, and then the outer structure was put on to surround it. For those in good health, it is possible to climb a staircase between the 2 layers of the dome, to emerge at the very base of the lantern for a magnificent view of Rome. Art and Melanie did this, as mentioned previously.
One of the most popular stops to visit is, of course, the body of Pope John Paul II. His body had undergone very little decay, so it was waxed to prevent further decay, and was placed on view in the glass coffin. There was a long line to file past it for a quick view, but it was worth it.
We attended Mass and admired the dove representing the Holy Spirit in the Alabaster window. There is also a symbolic Throne of St. Peter (or St. Peter’s Chair) just below it, which is far too large for any human.
There were also many side altars and chapels at which one might stop and pray.
The Papal Audience
My ticket to see the Pope!
While we waited the hours for the Pope to appear I took the opportunity to photograph some of the sights of Saint Peter's Square.
Everything here was on a massive scale, and incredibly beautiful. Huge TV screens were set up, as large or larger than my living room, so people could see what was happening, even if they were not close enough to view it personally.
Eventually, a murmur and then a cheer went through the crowd “He’s coming, he’s coming.” Sure enough, the Pope was coming in his special jeep-like Pope-mobile. Swiss Guards dressed as plain-clothesmen surrounded the pope-mobile on all sides, as it drove up and down each aisle so that each person would have a chance to really see their pope.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums: The Egyptian Collection
This woman died 3000 years ago. Her corpse was disemboweled, and her organs placed in a jar. Then the body was refilled with pitch, dried with sodium carbonate, wrapped in linen, and placed in a wood coffin, which in turn was placed into a stone coffin, which was placed in a tomb. Inside the coffin lid see the list of what the deceased “packed” for the journey to eternity. The coffins were decorated with magic spells to protect the body from evil.
A boat with rowers to row the pharaoh across the river of death
A gold death mask
The Vatican Museums: Roman Art
These photographs show men with babies, an unusual subject for a Roman statue
These photographs are views of another hall. Note the beautiful marble floor as well as the statues
About this time we learned an important lesson: when entering an important building, especially a museum, always look UP! Here we found a most beautiful ceiling.
This red room was round. Some of its statues were of women, very nicely done, and beautifully preserved.
Most bronze statues from this time were eventually melted down into weapons by later cultures. This one escaped that fate by being buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii.
This is only a portion of the very large mosaic floor that once decorated the bottom of a pool in an ancient Roman bath. There was a HUGE basin of porphyry stone as a single block imported from the desert of Egypt. Purple was a rare, royal, expensive color - the stone of emperors and later popes. Long ago it has all been quarried out and the only porphyry available to anyone is recycled.
This large porphyry marble coffin was made (but not used) for Emperor Constantine’s mother. The scene depicts a battle game showing dying victims in their barbarian dress. The technique for working this extremely hard stone with a special tempering of metal, was lost after this, and porphyry was not chiseled again until Renaissance times in Florence.
The beautifully carved porphyry coffin
Laocoön, the high priest of Troy warned the other Trojans: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The attacking Greeks had brought the Trojan Horse to the city gates as a ploy to get inside the city walls, and Laocoön warned the people not to bring it inside. But the Gods wanted the Greeks to win, so they sent huge snakes to crush him and his 2 sons to death. The statue shows them at the height of their terror, when they realized that no matter how hard they struggle, they and their entire race were doomed. The figures are carved from 4 blocks of marble pieced together seamlessly, and their poses are as twisted as possible, accentuating every rippling muscle and vein.
The sensational statue of Laocoön and his sons battling the serpents
Laocoön, the most famous Greek statue in ancient Rome, was lost for more than a thousand years. Then in 1506, it was unearthed in the ruins of Nero’s Golden House near the Colosseum. It caused a sensation. The statue was cleaned off, and paraded through the streets. No one had ever seen anything like its motion and emotion. One of those who saw it was a young Michelangelo, and it was a revelation to him. Two years later, he started work on the Sistine Chapel, and the Renaissance took another turn
This is one of a pair of statues depicting Egyptian Lion/humans which seemed especially well preserved
This huge vase or urn was poised at the top of a marble staircase, so it must have been important. I never found out why.
The Vatican Museums: Renaissance Art
The wonderful ceilings inside the Vatican museum
We admired this beautifully constructed mosaic table
A gold model of a church
From this point on we had no time to take photographs. We had to hurry through the Raphael Rooms, but Art did manage to photograph Raphael’s The School Of Athens in 2 pieces and then seamlessly stitch them together.
In the center are Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest thinkers of the Renaissance. Plato points up, indicating that mathematics and pure ideas are the source of truth, while Aristotle points down, preferring the hands-on study of the material world. Socrates is midway to the left in green, and in the right front, bald Euclid bends over a slate.
Composite image of The School of Athens, by Rafael
Raphael believed that Renaissance thinkers were as good as the ancients. Leonardo daVinci was painted as Plato, Donato Bramante who designed St. Peter’s was Euclid, and Raphael himself was next to last on the far right in a black beret. And the “school” building was really an early version of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was under construction at that time.
While Raphael was painting this, Michelangelo was just down the hall, working on the Sistine Chapel. Raphael had just finished The School of Athens when he got a look at Michelangelo’s powerful figures, and dramatic scenes. He was astonished. From then on Raphael began to make his delicate, graceful figures more strong. He also added one more figure to The School of Athens; the dark brooding figure; Michelangelo, in front, leaning on a block of marble.
The Vatican Museums: Sistine Chapel
Many art scholars believe that the Sistine Chapel is the single greatest work of art by any one human being. Michelangelo’s task was to paint the 12,000 square foot ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, modeled after the Temple of Jerusalem. Pope Julius II pleaded, bribed and threatened until Michelangelo finally consented, on the condition that he be able to do it his own way. It required 4 years of work, with Michelangelo lying on his back. There are 343 figures, presented in a new way from Renaissance styles. His style is more dramatic, shocking and emotional than the balanced previous Renaissance works, but its subject matter is universal.
In the 9 center panels are painted the story of Creation and early humans.
1. The separation of light from darkness
2. The creation of the sun, moon and planets
3. The separation of land from water.
4. The Creation of Adam
5. The Creation of Eve
6. The Temptation in the Garden, and Adam and Eve’s Expulsion from it
7. The Sacrifice of Noah
8. The Flood
9. The Drunkeness of Noah
Along the sides of the biblical scenes are the prophets, and between the prophets are triangles showing the ancestors of Christ.
Years later, Michelangelo was again summoned by Pope Paul III to paint The Last Judgment on the wall at the end of the chapel. He spent seven years doing it, completing it in 1541. When it was first unveiled, there were some who objected to all the nude figures in it. Their leader subsequently found himself added to the painting in the lower right corner in hell with donkey’s ears.
The splendid 15th century mosaic floor is copied from medieval models, and is completely original. It is difficult to appreciate, however, because most of it is usually covered by people’s feet.
The tradition of the election of a new pope has not changed. Upon the death of a pope, all the cardinals are summoned to Rome for a conclave to elect his replacement. They are sworn to secrecy, forbidden to campaign for or against a candidate and must stay until they have elected a new pope. Although any Catholic male is eligible, a new pope has always been selected from within the ranks of the cardinals.
Another tradition, unbroken for 400 years was that the Pope was always an Italian. That was broken when John Paul II, of Poland was elected the 264th pope. Now we have a German pope Benedict XVI. And times do change.
To leave the Vatican museum, we walked down a new prize-winning spiral staircase. Someone won first place in a national contest with a photo of cardinals in various places on this staircase. The cardinals were missing for me, but the staircase really was interesting. Note that the size of the steps is large at the top, but decreases towards the bottom, until the very last steps are small and close together.
The spiral staircase at the museum exit