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St. Peter´s Basilica - Vatican

St. Peter´s Basilica - VaticanThe Basilica of Saint Peter (Latin: Basilica Sancti Petri ), officially known in Italian as the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano and commonly known as St. Peter´s Basilica , is located within the Vatican City in Rome. It occupies a " unique position " as one of the holiest sites and as " the greatest of all churches of Christendom ". In Catholic tradition, it is the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to tradition, was the first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome and therefore first in the line of the papal succession. While St. Peter´s is the most famous of Rome´s many churches, it is not the first in rank, an honour held by the Pope´s cathedral church , the Basilica of St. John Lateran .

Catholic tradition holds that Saint Peter´s tomb is below the altar of the basilica. For this reason, many Popes, starting with the first ones, have been buried there. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century. Construction on the present basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed in 1626.

St. Peter´s is famous as a place of pilgrimage, for its liturgical functions and for its historical associations. It is associated with the papacy, with the Counter-reformation and with numerous artists, most significantly Michelangelo. As a work of architecture, it is regarded as the greatest building of its age. Contrary to popular misconception, Saint Peter´s is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop. It is properly termed a basilica. Like all the earliest churches in Rome, it has the entrance to the east and the apse at the west end of the building.

The Basilica of St. Peter is one of four major basilicas of Rome , the others being the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the Walls ). It is the most prominent building inside the Vatican City. Its dome is a dominant feature of the skyline of Rome. Probably the largest church in Christianity, it covers an area of 2.3 hectares (5.7 acres) and has a capacity of over 60,000 people. One of the holiest sites of Christendom in the Catholic tradition, it is traditionally the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Roman Catholic tradition, also the first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter´s presence or martyrdom in Rome, Catholic tradition holds that his tomb is below the baldachin and altar; for this reason, many Popes, starting with the first ones, have been buried there. Construction on the current basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed in 1626.

Although the Vatican basilica is neither the Pope´s official seat or first in rank among the great basilicas, ( St. John Lateran ) it is most certainly his principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place at St. Peter´s due to its size, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. In the apse of the basilica is Bernini´s monument enclosing the " Chair of St. Peter " or cathedra, sometimes presumed to have been used by Saint Peter himself, but which was a gift from Charles the Bald and used by various popes.

To the east of the basilica is the Piazza di San Pietro , ( St. Peter´s Square ). The present arrangement, constructed between 1656 and 1667, is the Baroque inspiration of Bernini who inherited a location already occupied by an Egyptian obelisk of the 13th century BC, which was centrally placed, (with some contrivance) to Maderno´s facade. The obelisk, at 25.5 metre (83.6 ft) and a total height, including base and the cross on top, of 40 metres (131 ft), is the second largest standing obelisk, and the only one to remain standing since it removal from Egypt and re-erection at the Circus of Nero , where it had stood since AD 37. Its removal to its present location by order of Pope Sixtus V and engineered by Domenico Fontana on September 28, 1586, was an operation fraught with difficulties and nearly ending in disaster when the ropes holding the obelisk began to smoke from the friction. Fortunately this problem was noticed by a sailor, and for his swift intervention, his village was granted the privilege of providing the palms that are used at the basilica each Palm Sunday.

The other object in the old square with which Bernini had to contend was a large fountain designed by Maderno in 1613 and set to one side of the obelisk, making a line parallel with the facade. Bernini´s plan uses this horizontal axis as a major feature of his unique, spacially dynamic and highly symbolic design. The most obvious solutions were either a rectangular piazza of vast proportions so that the obelisk stood centrally and the fountain (and a matching companion) could be included, or a trapezoid piazza which fanned out from the facade of the basilica like that in front of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena . The problems of the square plan are that the necessary width to include the fountain would entail the demolition of numerous buildings, including some of the Vatican, and would minimise the effect of the facade. The trapezoid plan, on the other hand, would maximise the apparent width of the facade, which was already perceived as a fault of the design.

Bernini´s ingenious solution was to create a piazza in two sections. That part which is nearest the basilica is trapezoid, but rather than fanning out from the facade, it narrows. This gives the effect of countering the visual perspective. It means that from the second part of the piazza, the building looks nearer than it is, the breadth of the facade is minimised and its height appears greater in proportion to its width. The second section of the piazza is a huge elliptical circus which gently slopes downwards to the obelisk at its centre. The two distinct areas are framed by a colonnade formed by doubled pairs of columns supporting an entabulature of the simple Tuscan Order.

The part of the colonnade that is around the ellipse does not entirely encircle it, but reaches out in two arcs, symbolic of the arms of " the Roman Catholic Church reaching out to welcome its communicants ". The obelisk and Maderno´s fountain make the widest axis of the elipse. Bernini balanced the scheme with another fountain in 1675. The approach to the square used to be through a jumble of old buildings, which added an element of surprise to the vista that opened up upon passing through the colonnade. Nowadays a long wide street, the Via della Conciliazione, built by Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties, leads from the River Tiber to the piazza and gives distant views of St. Peter´s as the visitor approaches.

Bernini´s transformation of the site is entirely Baroque in concept. Where Bramante and Michelangelo conceived a building that stood in " self-sufficient isolation ", Bernini made the whole complex " expansively relate to its environment ". Banister Fletcher says " No other city has afforded such a wide-swept approach to its cathedral church, no other architect could have conceived a design of greater nobility...(it is) the greatest of all atriums before the greatest of all churches of Christendom. ".


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