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St Peters Square - One of Rome's most stunning piazzas

Every time I set foot in St Peters Square, I am taken aback. 

I try to take it all in - Saint Peter's Basilica as backdrop, the perfectly symmetrical columns of Bernini's colonnade, the ancient Egyptian obelisk, the Baroque beauty of the façade and fountains.

One of the best ways to see Saint Peter's Square in Rome is to climb the dome of Saint Peter's basilica.


St Peters Square - Everything you need to know

If you're visiting Rome, chances are you are also visiting the Vatican

Whether you visit Saint Peter's Basilica and/or the Vatican Museums (to see the Sistine Chapel), you can easily visit Saint Peter's Square.

And if you do, you can say that you've visited a whole different country than Italy!

Here's everything you need to know about St Peters Square in Rome:

What is Saint Peter's Square and why should you see it?

Saint Peter's Square, Piazza San Pietro in Italian, is the huge open-air space in front of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Visiting St Peters Square is especially moving at Christmas when the tree and nativity scene are up.

The first impact it has on me is the sheer size - 320 meters long and 240 meters wide at the ellipse (1050 x 787 feet).

The second thing that strikes me is the jaw-dropping symmetry of the colonnade, wide open in embrace.

Once I let this feeling wash over me, I take in all the elements that make the piazza so beautiful - the ancient Egyptian obelisk at the center, the twin fountains on either side, their sparkling water droplets reflecting the sunlight, and of course, one of the most beautiful basilicas in the world.

Who designed St. Peter's Square?

What there was before

This engraving shows a crowd in St Peters Square with the Basilica of St Peter's dome under construction. You can see the Vatican Palace on the right. This is also before the obelisk was moved here. By Antonio Lafreri - Public Domain 1555

There is a saying that "Michelangelo designed Saint Peter's Basilica and Bernini decorated it".

While many artists and architects were involved in the design of this monumental church, without a doubt these two men were among the most famous.

The basilica of St. Peter you see today was built mostly during the Renaissance. The original basilica, now referred to as "old Saint Peter's" was built during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. By the late 15th century, it was literally falling apart, and leaning heavily to one side.

In 1506 Pope Julius II ordered a new basilica built.

Many artists and architects were involved in the design of the current basilica, most famously Michelangelo. 

The basilica was officially finished in 1626.

Now that the basilica was so stunning, it was time to turn to the space in front of it.

At this point, the only thing there was the ancient Egyptian obelisk that Domenico Fontana had moved there only decades prior.

Pope Alexander VII and Bernini

St Peters Square and St Peters Basilica - Viviano Codazzi. 1630. Prado Museum.

There are some theories that suggest Bernini may also have been influenced by heliocentric theory, which was considered heretic by the Church at the time.

In 1655 Fabio Chigi became Pope, taking the name of Alexander VII. He was an intelligent and well-read man with a taste for literature and the arts.

On the day he was elected, Pope Alexander VII summoned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to discuss ideas for repurposing the space in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. 

Bernini had already been working on the interior of the basilica for decades. Most famously, he'd made the "baldacchino", or bronze canopy above the papal altar.

Bernini conceived of the wide-open elliptical design you see today, as a way to give a sense of the church welcoming the faithful and non-faithful alike. The idea was also to awe and convert infidels, "enlightening them about the true faith" (Bernini). Finally, Bernini wanted to make sure as many people as possible could watch the Pope when he addressed the crowds from above.

Construction of piazza began in 1656 and was completed in 1667. The project used 44,000 cubic meters of travertine stone (brought from nearby Tivoli) and required hundreds of workers.

Painting of Bernini's colonnade and complete redesign of St Peters Square by Gaspar van Wittel, circa 1700.

What should you see in Saint Peter Square?

The obelisk

In the middle of Saint Peter's Square stands an un-inscribed Egyptian obelisk made of red granite. It is one of 8 ancient Egyptian obelisks in Rome. (There are 13 ancient obelisks in Rome but the other 5 were Roman-made. You can read more about Rome's obelisks on the Rome Art Lover website.)

The obelisk was originally erected in the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis (today part of Cairo), Egypt. It's possible it was built under Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BCE. Other scholars think it may have been carved during the reign of Nebkaure Amenemhet II (1992 - 1985 BCE).

Around 30 BCE the Roman prefect Cornelius Gallus raised the obelisk in the Forum Iulium in Alexandria, Egypt by order of Rome's first Emperor, Augustus.

In 37 CE the 3rd Roman Emperor, Caligula, had the obelisk transferred to Rome. It was lowered onto rollers, and moved to a specially constructed ship. You can see an image of what this was like in the Gallery of the Maps in the Vatican Museums.

I love this little painting in the Maps Gallery of the Vatican Museums. It's along the left wall, all the way at the end, almost as you exit the Maps room. This picture depicts and Egyptian obelisk being shipped to Rome on a specially-made boat.

The obelisk was placed on the central spine of the Circus of Caligula, where chariot races and other games were held. This circus later became known as the Circus of Nero, named for Rome's fifth emperor.

This is where Saint Peter is said to have been martyred under Nero's orders in 64 CE.

And that's why the basilica stands where it does today. (Click here to read about visiting Saint Peter's tomb.)

The obelisk is 25-meters (84 feet) tall, or 40 meters (135 feet) if we count its pedestal. It weighs about 330 tons.  It is supported by four bronze lions at its base and topped by a bronze coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V.

The Vatican obelisk is the only (ancient) obelisk in Rome that never fell and broke apart. 

In the Middle Ages, some attributed this to the fact that Nero was a sorcerer. Others have credited the fact that the obelisk was the last witness to the martyrdom of Saint Peter.

At one time, it was topped by a gilt ball that many during the Middle Ages thought contained the ashes of Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius. Eventually, Domenico Fontana studied the ball and determined that it was single-cast and seamless, and that therefore nothing could be inside. You can see the ball today in the Capitoline Museums

The obelisk is the oldest thing in St. Peter's Square, and may well be the oldest obelisk in Rome (that distinction officially falls to the Lateran obelisk, near San Giovanni in Lateran, because we are not sure of the exact dating of the Vatican obelisk.)

One of my favorite books about this period in Roman history is Murder in the Garden of God, a true story about murder, revenge, and intrigue...that also tells the story of the Vatican obelisk and how and why Pope Sixtus V had it moved.

POPE SIXTUS V - 1586

Beginning around the mid-1400s, various popes wanted to move the obelisk from its original spot close to the left transept so that it would be centered in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. This would require moving it just 300 meters (around 800 feet). Yet it seemed an impossible task. Supposedly even Michelangelo refused to try.

In 1586 Pope Sixtus V asked for architects and engineers to submit ideas for how to move the obelisk. Over 500 men offered proposals. In the end, the Pope chose his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana, who'd created a small model that demonstrated how the obelisk could be moved. You can actually see and read the book Domenico Fontana wrote about it, on the New York Public Library digital archive website.

The move required  900 men, 75 (or more) horses, and 44 winches.

Fontana succeeded on September 10, 1586 after a 5-month long operation.

And so the ancient Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula became the first element of what is today St Peters Square. 

There's a cute story about this event:

Supposedly, Pope Sixtus V had ordered absolute silence during the delicate operation, on pain of death.

But a sharp Genovese sailor by the name of Benedetto Bresca saw that some ropes were fraying from the heavy friction, and he yelled "Acqua alle funi!" (Water on the ropes!).

This saved the obelisk from falling and breaking. Rather than punish him, the Pope rewarded the man by offering him the favor of his choice.

The sailor asked, and was granted, that all the Vatican's Palm Sunday fronds be purchased in his home town of Bordighera. They still are to this day.

The Paving

The obelisk also acts as a sun dial (as many obelisks did in ancient times). You can follow the sun's shadow along 5 zodiac signs inlaid on the pavement.

When you look down on St Peters Square from the dome high above, you can appreciate the symmetry of the piazza and the designs in the pavement below.

The piazza is paved with a combination of cobblestones and travertine blocks. The white travertine strips radiate out from the central hub (the obelisk), to further emphasize the symmetry of the square.

Also on the pavement, you'll find two white marble disks - one for the summer solstice and one for the winter solstice.

At noon on December 21, the obelisk's shadow falls on the marble disk furthest from the obelisk's base. At noon on June 21, the tip of the shadow falls on the marble disk closest to the base of the obelisk.

A long, thin white travertine strip runs across the width of the piazza and acts as meridian line, which indicates when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.

The Fountains

In 1613 architect Carlo Maderno (Domenico Fontana's nephew), who'd designed the façade of Saint Peter's basilica, modified an existing fountain that was to the right of the obelisk as you faced the church. His fountain was proclaimed to be the most beautiful fountain in the world at the time.

There are twin fountains in St Peters Square. This one, by Carlo Maderno, was made first.

When Bernini designed the square some 50 years later, he realized that to maintain symmetry, there needed to be an identical copy of Maderno's fountain on the left side. He may have designed it himself or he may have had his contemporary Carlo Fontana (no relation to either Carlo Maderno or Domenico Fontana) design the fountain, which was completed in 1677.

This fountain is a twin of Carlo Maderno's fountain. It may have been designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini or it may have been by his contemporary, Carlo Fontana.

You can tell the two fountains apart if you look at the coats of arms on the bases. They represent the popes who commissioned them - The eagle and dragon belong to Pope Paul V (Borghese), while the stars belong to Pope Clement X (Altieri). 

The Colonnade

Bernini designed his colonnade so that it would seem as if the two arms were reaching out in a giant embrace. The shape symbolized the arms of the church embracing the world.

The colonnades consist of four rows of Doric columns, for a total of 284, with 88 pilasters. The columns are 20 meters high (66 ft) and 1.6 meters wide (5ft). 

The columns are 4-deep, which results in 3 parallel lanes. You can drive down the central one, and the other lanes are for pedestrians only.

The colonnade is crowned with the Chigi coats of arms, as he (Pope Alexander VII) was the one who commissioned it. In fact you will see his coat of arms in a lot of places in St Peters Square and in many other spots around Rome.

The statues

On top of Bernini's colonnade are 140 statues of saints. Disciples of Bernini made them in 1670. They are about 3 meters (9 feet) tall, and represent many important figures in Catholicism, like popes, saints, and martyrs. Thirty-eight of the statues depict women.

You will also see two statues on either side of the basilica, representing Saints Peter and Paul, patron saints of Rome.

Optical Illusions

One fun thing to do in St Peters Square is to check out the optical illusions.

The first optical illusion involves Saint Peter's dome.

If you stand right underneath the façade, you can't even see the dome. 

The further you move away from the façade, and even out of St Peters Square, the more and more you will see of the dome, and the taller it will seem.

In fact, the best way to see Saint Peter's dome is not even in St Peters Square, but from a bridge on the Tiber river.

One of the best ways to see Michelangelo's dome is from one of the bridges on the Tiber river. The closer you get to St Peters Basilica, the less you see of the dome.

The second optical illusion is the colonnade itself.

Just next to the obelisk in the center of the square, look for the circular marble plates that indicate the foci of the ellipse. They have the phrase "centro del colonnato" (center of the colonnade) on them. If you stand on either one of these and look towards the colonnade, you will see only one row of perfectly aligned columns instead of four. 

The border between Italy and Vatican City

The colonnade marks the border between Italy and Vatican State.

A strip of travertine on the ground joins the two ends of the colonnade, and marks the border between the two countries.

Bernini's Heart/Nero's Heart

Right near the obelisk, you can spot a stone that represents the Rose of the Winds, with the southwest wind the “libeccio”.

One of the nearby cobblestones is in the shape of a heart (you have to look pretty carefully).

Depending on which legend you prefer, this is:

  1. The heart of Roman Emperor Nero, responsible for the death of Saint Peter in Nero's nearby circus, who has re-emerged from the grave, like a curse on the church.
  2. The work of Bernini, as a symbol of a lost love.
  3. The work of Michelangelo, as a symbol of broken heart.
  4. Put there by a woman to remember her husband who was unjustly sentenced to death.
Can you find the heart-shaped cobblestone in St Peters Square?

What happens in St Peters Square?

On most Wednesdays when the Pope is in town, the Pope gives the Papal Audience in St Peters Square. The exceptions are July, when the Pope is on vacation, and on very cold or rainy days when the audience is held inside the Paul VI Hall instead.

On Sundays when the Pope is in town, he delivers the Angelus Domini from a window of the Apostolic Palace.

On Sundays when the Pope gives the Angelus Domini, St Peter's Square fills up so people can watch him deliver the Angelus from a window above.

On special occasions, such as the election of a new pope, a canonization, or on Easter, 3-400,000 people can fill the huge square.

One year I had the privilege of attending Easter Mass at the Vatican, and got to see St Peters Square from high above.

St Peters Square is a beautiful place to visit at Christmas, when there is a gorgeous tree and life-sized nativity scene right in the center.

St Peters Square Rome is so beautiful at Christmas!

When can you visit Saint Peters Square?

St Peters Square is free to visit and open daily from 6:30 am - 11 pm. It used to be wide open even all night long but in recent years they put up a small barricade and now it's closed at night.

You may freely visit Saint Peter's Square as long as there is no event happening there, such as a Papal Mass or Audience.

For any such event, you can expect to have to go through security before you even set foot in the square.

It's free to visit the piazza, and you can visit it (almost) every day from 6:30 am - 11 pm. And when you cross over the white line onto the square, you are literally leaving one country (Italy) and entering another one (Vatican state).

How can you get to St Peters Square?

Until the Mussolini era, there was a dense neighborhood full of buildings from the Medeival all the way through the Baroque periods. This was known as the spina del Borgo. It divided the roads of Borgo Vecchio and Borgo Nuovo. In 1936 this entire area was demolished by Benito Mussolini.

As a result, you could see St. Peter's Basilica unobstructed all the way from Castel Sant'Angelo.

Once this demolition was completed, most of the rest of the buildings in the area were also demolished (1937-1950). Priceless historical buildings, including places where Michelangelo and Raphael worked and lived, were destroyed forever.

Vatican City is on the west side of River Tiber. Most of the other tourist attractions in Rome (Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Piazza Navona) are on the east side.

So you'll need to cross the Tiber River to visit St Peters Square.

Walking

The best way to arrive at St Peters Square is by walking up the Via della Conciliazione, a street that begins at Castel Sant'Angelo. This gives you a dramatic introduction to the square and the basilica as you move closer.

You can also enter St Peters Square from either side.

Metro or Bus

Besides walking, you can also reach St. Peter's Square using public transport.

From Rome center: The easiest way to get to the Vatican is with the Metro. Take the red line A to Ottaviano. When you get out of the station, you won't see the Vatican but just follow the crowds. Walk down Via Ottaviano until Piazza Risorgimento. Continue to Via di Porta Angelica at the end of which you will catch a glimpse of the famous colonnade through a small archway.

This is the Ottaviano metro stop. You won't see St Peters Square from here, but it's not far. Just follow the signs and/or the crowds.

You can also get to St Peters Square by bus. Lines 62, 64, , 190, 916, 46, 98, 982, 46 and 881 all stop at Via di Porta Cavalleggeri.

From Roma Termini Station, you can take bus 40 (stop P.ZA PIA/CASTEL S. ANGELO) and after 7 stops get off at TRASPONTINA/CONCILIAZIONE, close to Via della Conciliazione.

From Civitavecchia

If you are coming to St Peters Square for a visit to the Vatican on a cruise stop, you can easily take the train.

At Civitavecchia train station take the first Rome-bound regional train. The ride should take under an hour. Get off at Roma San Pietro Train Station. It's about a 10-minute walk to the square from there.


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