Bernini’s Rome .com

New St. Peter’s Basilica

Although precious art was sacrificed during the construction of the new Basilica, the basilica had become worn and was suffering throughout the many years of its standing.  During the 15th century a new building was urgently needed, and Nicholas V, perhaps with the Holy Year of 1450 in mind, initiated plans to rebuild the church.
Nicholas V’s plan for the new Basilica was one of the many innovative changes he planned within the Vatican. After inspection, it was Leon Battista Alberti, a Florentine architectural theorist of the Renaissance, who confirmed the poor condition of Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Not only did Nicholas V want an updated Basilica, he envisioned a large piazza in front of the church, a Vatican obelisk in its center, and extensions to the Vatican's buildings to the west creating a larger feeling of grandeur fit for the Renaissance. Conversely, demolition and reconstruction were not steady due to Nicholas V’s death in 1455 and therefore, progress was very slow and sporadic in recreating Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Seven pontifices succeeded Nicholas V, some adding contributions to the Basilica, such as Sixtus IV, under who the Sistine Chapel was built. Finally almost half a century later, Pope Julius II took over the rebuilding of the church, beginning its transformation from Old St. Peter’s Basilica into the regal St. Peter’s Basilica that is known today.
    1505 marked the year in which Pope Julius II announced his plans to completely tear down the old St. Peter’s to make way for a brand new Basilica. The new church would better house the tomb of St. Peter’s and the massive and magnificent tomb that Julius commissioned for himself to be made by the famous Michelangelo. As for the chief architectural position, Julius II considered the plans of four architects— Donato Bramante, Raphael, Sangallo and Michelangelo for each was a respected Renaissance architect and made significant contributions to Rome.

    Compared to the other architects at the time, Bramante had the least credentials. However, his one outstanding accomplishment was the Tempietto Chapel in the Gianicolo located in San Pietro de Montorio. His plan consisted of a Greek cross influenced by his peer Leonardo DaVinci; the two were working together in Milan and had worked on sketched for a central planned church. His plans also contained a large circular dome in its center inspired by the Parthenon. His dome was to be supported by four large piers and contained a lantern in its center, similar to the lantern in Brunelleschi’s dome in the Florence Cathedral. Julius eventually hired Donato Bramante to oversee the construction of his ambitious Basilica. By the innovative and creative fusion of Leon Battista Alberti’s original plans with his own, as well as a combination of Greek and Byzantine influences, Bramante succeeded in creating the plans for a building that exemplified the beauty, mystification, and complexity of the Catholic Church.

    During the Basilica’s progression, both Pope Julius II and Bramante died within one year of each other in 1513 and 1514. Future popes had their own vision of what they wanted the Basilica to look like and hired their own architects, whose style may have differed from Bramante’s to continue on with the church. Raphael, painter of the School of Athens, which hangs inside the Stanza della Segnatura and whose background was set in the unfinished center of St. Peter’s, proposed plans of his own to finish the Basilica’s designs—as did many other artists and architects.

    However, the one who was chosen to finish St. Peter’s plans was Michelangelo in 1546. Even at the age of , Michelangelo was able to com
plete his designs, which were taken from Bramante’s original Greek cross idea, as well as his dome, and either simplify or elaborate the plans to suit his and the papal aesthetics.   Michelangelo planned and rebuilt the Basilica of Saint Peter. Michelangelo built on what Bramante had started and was followed by Giacomo Della Porta and Carlo Maderno, who built the facade.

Following Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the dome is finally completed in 1590 and the beginning of the 17th century is near. With things seeming nearly complete, there was one last addition to be made to St Peter’s Basilica: St Peter’s Square.  Finally it is the great Gianlorenzo Bernini who would construct the final touches to St. Peter’s and ultimately become the title architect of the Basilica.     


As seen by the interior and exterior images here, Old St. Peter’s Basilica consisted of an atrium, where a courtyard and fountain was located at its center. Following the atrium is the church’s narthex, the entrance and vestibule of the basilica leading to a nave with two aisles on each side divided by rows of columns. The bema, a term used for a raised platform, extended laterally forming two arms so that the building took on the shape of a Latin cross with a projecting apse. The bema was also where the altar and most importantly, the Cathedra, was located. The bema also housed the focal point of the building—the memorial of St. Peter. A small door under a bronze canopy allowed pilgrims to see a glimpse of the tomb and to almost directly grant them contact with Peter’s remains.

Old St. Peter’s Basilica

Even before the St. Peter’s Basilica that we know today was built, pilgrims traveled to Rome to pay homage to both the memory and the physical presence of St. Peter’s remains. Three centuries later after his martyrdom, Emperor Constantine erected churches above the tombs of the apostles to commemorate the men of early Christendom. In 320–27 A.D., he built a basilica above the Christian necropolis, the burial places of the saints where St. Peter rests, with a shrine in the apse of the church to mark the location of Peter's tomb


St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, located on the left bank of the Tiber River in Rome, Italy, is one of the most holy sites of the Catholic tradition. The long and fascinating history of the Basilica and the Vatican begin with the life and death of St. Peter. As the story goes, one night Jesus asks his apostles, “Who do men say that I am?” The apostle Peter confidently replies that it is Jesus who is the Christ and the Son of the living God. Happy with his response, Jesus addresses Peter with the famous proclamation, “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18). This quotation appears today along the circumference of the drum of St. Peter’s dome inside the Basilica.

When Emperor Nero of Rome blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome that destroyed a majority of the city, his persecution of Christians resulted in the martyrdom of Peter in approximately 67 B.C. However, persecution and death did not stop Peter or the church from strengthening their faith in Christ. Through his work as chief of the apostles and the man hand-picked by Jesus to guide the Catholic Church, Peter is recognized as the first Pope of the Roman Catholic papacy lineage and rightfully so, his burial site on Vatican Hill in Rome is now the very location of St. Peter’s Basilica.


St. Peter’s & the Vatican

On This Page:


Old St. Peter’s Basilica

Constructing New St. Peter’s

Apostolic Palace

Elements of the Vatican

The Vatican Today


The fourteenth-century artist Giotto di Bondone created a large mosaic entitled Navicella located in the Basilica’s atrium. “Navicella”
is translated to little ship, referring to the large boat in from the biblical story of St. Peter walking on water during a tumultuous storm. Also, Pope John VII built an oratory dedicated to the Virgin decorated mosaics showing episodes of St. Peter’s life. According to Oxford Encyclopedia of art, seven episodes from the Life of St Peter, and other thirteen scenes of the Incarnation and Life of Christ arranged around an ornate Virgin with a figure of the Pope presenting the oratory. Just like Giotto’s mosaic on the atrium, this work as well as many other pieces were unfortunately destroyed during the construction of new St. Peter’s in the 15th and 16th century.

Giotto, Navicella

The Apostolic Palace

    The Apostolic Palace is a series of self-contained buildings within the outer structure, arranged around the Courtyard of Sixtus V, where the administrative functions of the Church take place, as well as where the popes reside. The building contains the Papal Apartments, the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Library, and the private and public chapels that make up the Holy See. Just like the other elements of the Vatican, the Apostolic Palace has a rich history in its evolution from once an ill kept residency to an ornate display of artistic splendor.
The popes did not always reside in the Apostolic Palace. During the years of 1309 to 1378, also referred to as the Avignon Papacy, the popes resided in France due to quarrel between the Catholic Church and French Royalty. This conflict and absence of the popes lead to a series of conflicts in papal history, such as the arise of anti-popes and the Papal Schism, a split within the Catholic Church from 1378 to 1417. It was not until 1449 when Nicholas V abdicated Felix V, the last anti-pope, officially ended the Schism, and commemorated 1450 as the jubilee year in which the unity of the Church was restored.
Nicholas V had a large collection of books that he eventually founded the library in the Apostolic Palace. As the Palace was being constructed, multiple popes had significant roles in transforming the once abandoned and “ill-kept” residence building into one housing the most famous pieces of art in all of Rome.  In the 15th century, Sixtus IV commissioned the well known Sistine Chapel—the venue for the papal conclave. Artists Michelangelo and Sandro Botticello are two of the high Renaissance painters who provided the artwork in the papal chapel. Seen here are details from Botticelli’s Trials of Moses and the Punishment of Rebels. The ceiling of the Sistine chapel painted by Michelangelo is one of the most impressive and sought for painting in the Vatican. Intimidated by the scale of the project, he was finally persuaded to take on the feat by his patron Pope Julius II in 1508 and the ceiling was completed by 1512. After Pope Julius II, it was Leo X who continued on with the construction of the Vatican and its decoration. On the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace are tapestries created by Raphael devoted to the Apostles. Finally, on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel is the fresco of the Last Judgment created by Michelangelo commissioned by Clement VII.

Bernini, Title Architect 

          The following is a brief description of some of the key elements in St. Peter’s Basilica which were projects undertaken by the title architect himself, Cavaliere Bernini. For more information, click on the links to be guided to the entries’ main pages.

        St Peter’s Sqaure is truly a sight to see and boasts two beautiful fountains, a twenty-six meter-tall obelisk, and a beautiful colonnade that outlines the square; however, the planning of St Peter’s Square proved to be one of the most time-consuming and difficult tasks Bernini had ever taken on.  Time came when members of the Congregazione at the Vatican agreed that a piazza “should be built in front of St. Peter’s and that Bernini, as Architect of St. Peter’s should offer suggestions on how the Congregazione should proceed. A month later, on august 19, 1656, Bernini did precisely that.” (Morrissey233).  Bernini first proposed that a trapezoid shaped piazza be built but this proved to be too difficult and impractical so he proposed a new plan for the piazza- an oval. This too proved to be unsuitable for St. Peter’s Square so Bernini finally decided upon a “more prosaic oval, the ovato tondo.... it was more of an ellipsis than an oval and was based on the geometric relationship between two overlapping circles.” (Morrissey236). By August of 1657, Bernini was able to place his proposed arcades with colonnades, resulting in one of the most successful pieces of architecture ever built. Atop the colonnade roofline sit ninety-six statues of saints that Bernini oversaw (though he did not carve them himself). The colonnades enclose an arena, which is nearly 200 meters across, with the capacity to hold three hundred thousand people in its vicinity at one time.

The interior décor of the new basilica was no easy feat either. Bernini’s art adorned not only the Piazza but also included the nave decorations, the Baldacchino (bronzed canopy structure located in the center of the crossing), statues that were located in the crossing were also sculpted and overseen by Bernini and lastly, the Cathedra (bishops seat) in the apse. One of the final masterpieces of Bernini’s life is also located in St Peter’s- the altar of the Cappela del SS. Sacramento.

His colonnade was colossal enough to cater to a mass of people assembling before the pope delivering a blessing from the Vatican Palace. Referencing back to the religious propaganda commissioned by the church, an army of giant saints and martyrs line the colonnade totaling to about 96 completed figures by 1667. This space is described as framed by two immense, curved colonnades, each composed of four rows of Doric columns. When viewed from above, frequently cited comment by Bernini describes the colonnade as inviting, outstretched arms that symbolize a welcoming to the Basilica.

Making the way through the colonnade, the entranceway to the Basilica is marked by Bernini’s Scala Regia staircase. Originally built by Sangallo the Younger in the early 1500’s, it was restored and finished by Bernini for Alexander VII in 1666, as the new monumental entranceway to the Vatican. It is on the Scala Regia that Bernini unveils a small commemorative figure of Constantine I leading its visitors inside the church that he spearheaded 13 centuries beforehand.11

Finally inside the doors of Basilica, the Baroque outshines Renaissance as one takes eyes upon the gigantic constructions that are the Cathedra Petri and the baldacchino. The Cathedra Petri, which is located behind the altar and under the dome of Michelangelo, invokes the namesake to the first apostle and consists of flying angels and the Holy Dove in its center bestowing blessings to the congregation. The Cathedra Petri translates to the Chair of Saint Peter. The original chair is a relic is enclosed in a gilt bronze casing that was designed and executed by Bernini from 1647-53. In front of the Cathedra Petri stands the massively high bronze baldacchino that acts as a canopy like structure over the altar. Despite Bernini’s flood of work to finish for the Basilica, his charming personality still found the time to tribute his baldacchino to the Barberini family, one of Bernini’s most important patrons. Through the familial symbols of golden suns and bees, the baldacchino represents the rebirth of the triumphant basilica under the guidance of the Barberini family. 

To further satisfy his patrons, Bernini creates a series of intricate papal tombs that were placed throughout the Basilica. Bernini created tombs for Urban VIII, Paul III, and for Leo X to Paul V. Bernini’s extravagant designs for the popes and their relics play a large role in why tourists come to visit the Basilica. Each pope’s statue is individualized and decorated by a gradient of white marble to create a variety of color. Before the 17th century, not many could say that they were able to paint with stone, a technique Bernini experimented with and mastered. The Vatican and St. Peter’s would not be the colossal epitome of Baroque art and design if it were not for Gianlorenzo Bernini and his contributions to the Basilica and to Rome. Through his intricate style and commission from his patrons, his talents will forever be remembered by his work in the Vatican City.

The Vatican Today

St Peter’s Basilica was officially completed in the year 1626 and quickly became a monument of pilgrimage and an office for liturgical functions.  The Vatican as a whole is constantly being worked and improved upon.  Toda
y the Vatican is part of the Vatican City State, which serves as its own state and is recognized under international law. “Vatican City State has the singular characteristic of being an instrument of the independence of the Holy See, and of the Catholic Church, from any earthly power. In a way, it is a sign of the Church’s supernatural character insofar as the structures of Vatican City are reduced to the minimum necessary to guarantee its functions.” (VaticanState). The Pope lives in Vatican City where he oversees several departments of the church and Vatican. He, along with bishops and other authorities of the Catholic tradition, make decisions for the Catholic Church and help spread the word of God throughout Rome and the rest of the world. At the Vatican, several libraries and museums can be found and important church goings can be witnessed. Millions of people every year make pilgrimages to the Vatican, as it still remains one of the most influential historical and spiritual sites in the world.






Art Within the Palace

The Trials of Moses


Punishment of Rebels


Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel


The Last Judgment


Old St. Peter’s Basilica was the site of significant ceremonies and was home to ancient religious artwork. Coronations of popes and even kings would frequently take place in the basilica. For example, King Charlemagne of France was crowned emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Leo III.