St. Peter’s Square
Piazza San Pietro
St. Peter’s Square (Italian: Piazza San Pietro, Latin: Forum Sancti Petri, pronounced [ˌpi̯aʦa san ˈpi̯ɛːtɾo]) is a massive plaza located directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, the papal enclave inside Rome, directly west of the neighbourhood or rione of Borgo.
At the centre of the square is an Egyptian obelisk, erected at the current site in 1586. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the square almost 100 years later, including the massive Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, which embrace visitors in “the maternal arms of Mother Church.” A granite fountain constructed by Bernini in 1675 matches another fountain designed by Carlo Maderno in 1613.
The open space which lies before the basilica was redesigned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667, under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, as an appropriate forecourt, designed “so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace” (Norwich 1975 p 175). Bernini had been working on the interior of St. Peter’s for decades; now he gave order to the space with his renowned colonnades, using the Tuscan form of Doric, the simplest order in the classical vocabulary, not to compete with the palace-like façade by Carlo Maderno, but he employed it on an unprecedented colossal scale to suit the space and evoke a sense of awe.
There were many constraints from existing structures (illustration, right). The massed accretions of the Vatican Palace crowded the space to the right of the basilica’s façade; the structures needed to be masked without obscuring the papal apartments. The obelisk marked a centre, and a granite fountain by Carlo Maderno stood to one side: Bernini made the fountain appear to be one of the foci of the ovato tondo embraced by his colonnades and eventually matched it on the other side, in 1675, just five years before his death. The trapezoidal shape of the piazza, which creates a heightened perspective for a visitor leaving the basilica and has been praised as a masterstroke of Baroque theater (illustration, below right), is largely a product of site constraints.
The colossal Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, frame the trapezoidal entrance to the basilica and the massive elliptical area which precedes it. The ovato tondo’s long axis, parallel to the basilica’s façade, creates a pause in the sequence of forward movements that is characteristic of a Baroque monumental approach. The colonnades define the piazza. The elliptical centre of the piazza, which contrasts with the trapezoidal entrance, encloses the visitor with “the maternal arms of Mother Church” in Bernini’s expression. On the south side, the colonnades define and formalize the space, with the Barberini Gardens still rising to a skyline of umbrella pines. On the north side, the colonnade masks an assortment of Vatican structures; the upper stories of the Vatican Palace rise above.
At the center of the ovato tondo stands an Egyptian obelisk of red granite, 25.5 metres tall, supported on bronze lions and surmounted by the Chigi arms in bronze, in all 41 metres to the cross on its top. The obelisk was originally erected at Heliopolis, Egypt, by an unknown pharaoh of the Fifth dynasty of Egypt (c. 2494 BC – 2345 BC). During its history of c. 4400 years (at the start of the 2010s), the obelisk has been successfully moved three times.
The Emperor Augustus (c. 63 BC – 14 AD) had the obelisk moved to the Julian Forum of Alexandria, where it stood until 37 AD, when Caligula ordered the forum demolished and the obelisk transferred to Rome. He had it placed on the spina which ran along the centre of the Circus of Nero, where it would preside over Nero’s countless brutal games and Christian executions.
It was moved to its current site in 1586 by the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana under the direction of Pope Sixtus V; the engineering feat of re-erecting its vast weight was memorialized in a suite of engravings (illustrated right). The Vatican Obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled since ancient Roman times. During the Middle Ages, the gilt ball on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. Fontana later removed the ancient metal ball, now in a Rome museum, that stood atop the obelisk and found only dust. Christopher Hibbert (page 178) writes that the ball was found to be solid. Though Bernini had no influence in the erection of the obelisk, he did use it as the centerpiece of his magnificent piazza.
The paving is varied by radiating lines in travertine, to relieve what might otherwise be a sea of cobblestones. In 1817 circular stones were set to mark the tip of the obelisk‘s shadow at noon as the sun entered each of the signs of the zodiac, making the obelisk a gigantic sundial‘s gnomon. Below is a view of St. Peter’s Square from the cupola (the top of the dome) which was taken in June, 2007.
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 which was centrally placed, (with some contrivance) to Maderno’s façade. The obelisk, known as “The Witness”, at 25.5 metres (84 ft) and a total height, including base and the cross on top, of 40 metres (130 ft), is the second largest standing obelisk, and the only one to remain standing since its removal from Egypt and re-erection at the Circus of Nero in 37 AD, where it is thought to have stood witness to the crucifixion of St Peter. Its removal to its present location by order of Pope Sixtus V and engineered by Domenico Fontana on 28 September 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 Benedetto Bresca, a sailor of Sanremo, and for his swift intervention, his town 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 façade. Bernini’s plan uses this horizontal axis as a major feature of his unique, spatially 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 façade 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 façade. The trapezoid plan, on the other hand, would maximise the apparent width of the façade, 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 façade, 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 façade is minimized 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 Catholic Church reaching out to welcome its communicants”. The obelisk and Maderno’s fountain mark the widest axis of the ellipse. 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.”