What’s important about St. Peter’s Basilica?St. Peter’s Basilica is the world’s largest and most important Catholic church, with the potential to hold 20,000 people. It also has the tallest dome in the world, with Michelangelo’s dome stretching 136 meters (446 feet) to the cross on the top. The church was completed in 1626 under Urban VIII after over 120 years of construction, which began under Pope Julius II in 1505. Construction of the church was partially funded using indulgences, monetary contributions intended to improve the giver’s chance of getting into heaven after death. This use of indulgences was criticized by Martin Luther and was one of the factors which triggered the Reformation. The church is technically not a cathedral because it isn’t the seat of the pope in the diocese of Rome - that’s the cathedral of St. John Lateran. It’s officially a major basilica, which means it’s a vital pilgrimage point, especially during the Roman Jubilee.
Who designed the Basilica?That’s a question with a complicated answer! Several architects ended up influencing the building of the basilica over the 120 years of building work. The design began with Donato Bramante, who won a competition to design the new basilica, and whose idea it was to base the shape on a giant greek cross, topped with a majestic dome similar to the Pantheon. Bramante was replaced in 1513 by a trio including Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo, and Raphael, though the former two died in 1515, leaving Raphael to do the bulk of the work before his death in 1520. His successor, Baldassare Peruzzi, kept the internal structure of the apses, but he largely reverted to the greek cross plan, getting rid of the naves planned by Raphael. Antonio Sangallo the Younger then proposed a plan that combined elements of Peruzzi, Raphael, and Bramante’s ideas, and made sure to reinforce some of the internal architectural elements which had already begun to crack. Michaelangelo took over in 1547, unwillingly, at the insistence of Pope Paul, and is credited with bringing the design to the point where it could be successfully executed. The nave and facade were designed by Carlo Maderno, who also added the nave. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the Baldacchino (the pavilion which covers the central altar) and adapted Bramante’s original piers, turning them into niches with staircases leading to balconies. The balconies held the four most precious relics owned by the Vatican - the spear that pierced Christ’s side, the veil of Veronica, a fragment of the True Cross, and a relic of St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter. He also designed the monument that holds the chair of St. Peter, which was becoming to frail to be used.
What are the most important artworks inside?The most famous piece of art inside St. Peter’s Basilica is probably Michelangelo’s Pietà, an emotional depiction of Mary holding the dead body of Christ after the crucifixion. You’ll find it in the first chapel on the left as you enter the basilica. You should also watch out for the larger-than-life statues of saints set in niches around the Baldacchino, which are by Bernini. They feature St. Helena, St. Andrew, St. Longinus, and St. Veronica, each holding one of the basilica’s most important relics. The northeast pier of the dome is home to a statue of Saint Peter Enthroned, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, a 13th-century sculptor. The statue’s foot has almost worn away due to pilgrims lining up each day to kiss it.
What’s the best way to visit? Do I need a guided tour?If you’re most interested in the atmosphere inside St. Peter’s Basilica, or you’re content to be awestruck without any context, then you don’t need to worry about picking up an audio guide or taking a guided tour. An audio guide is available if you’d like to learn more about the artwork and architecture inside the church. If you want the chance to learn a lot about the basilica, plus the opportunity to ask any questions that you might think of along the way, then a guided tour is a great idea! Just make sure not to get separated from your group when it's busy! You don’t need an audio guide or a guided tour to enjoy a trip up the dome of the basilica.
Should I climb the dome?Sure! The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica offers one of the best views in Rome. You’ll either climb 231 steps or take the elevator to the first level. Once there you can explore the interior of the Dome, and you can also go outside onto the roof to see the statues of the apostles which are visible from St. Peter’s Square below. Parts of this area are accessible for wheelchair users or those with limited mobility. To get to the very top of the dome, you’ll need to climb 320 extra steps in a very tight spiral staircase which might be difficult for claustrophobic visitors. You won’t encounter people coming in the opposite direction as the stairs down are in a different place, but it can still be challenging.
Who’s buried in St. Peter’s?In addition to St. Peter himself, who is buried underneath the church, there are a range of significant people buried inside the basilica. There are tombs on the ground level of the church, in addition to those underground in the Vatican Grottoes or the necropolis. In the Vatican Grottoes, which are free to visit, you’ll find the tombs of many past popes as well as those of the Stuart claimants to the throne of England, James III, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and his brother Cardinal Henry Benedict. You’ll also see the tomb of Queen Charlotte of Cyprus and Queen Christina of Sweden, both of whom ended their lives in exile in Rome. Of all the tombs available to visit in the main basilica, the most popular is probably that of Pope John Paul II. Since he was declared a saint in 2014, his tomb has been moved to the chapel of St. Sebastian, and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Can I attend mass at St Peter’s?Yes! St. Peter’s Basilica has its own local parish community and they have regular masses throughout the day. From 7 am to 8.30 am there are masses celebrated in multiple languages at different altars - so just pick your language and let the ushers know that you’re there to attend mass. From 9 am to noon there are masses in Italian at the altar of St. Joseph on the hour. At 5 pm there’s also a Latin mass. On Sundays, there are masses in both Italian and Latin at various times between 9 am and 5.30 pm. Confession is also available from 7 am to 12.30 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm daily, and from 7 am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm on Sundays and Holy Days. You’ll need to let the attendants know if you want to attend mass or go to confession as the areas are roped off so that those attending aren’t disturbed.