The Basilica of Saint Peter (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. 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. (See: Status)
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.
After the crucifixion of Jesus in the second quarter of the 1st century AD, it is recorded in the Biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles that one of his twelve disciples, Simon known as Peter, a fisherman from Galilee, took a leadership position among Jesus' followers and was of great importance in the founding of the Christian Church. The name Peter is "Petrus" in Latin and "Petros" in Greek, deriving from "petra" which means "stone" or "rock" in Greek. It is believed by a long tradition that Peter, after a ministry of about thirty years, traveled to Rome and met his martyrdom there.
According to the traditional story, Peter was executed in the year 64 A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. His execution was one of the many martyrdoms of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome. He was said to have been crucified head downwards, by his own request, near the obelisk in the Circus of Nero. This obelisk now stands in Saint Peter's Square and is revered as a "witness" to Peter's death. It is one of several ancient Obelisks of Rome.
The traditional story goes on to say that Peter's remains were buried just outside the Circus, on the Mons Vaticanus across the Via Cornelia from the Circus, less than 150 meters from his place of death. The Via Cornelia (which may have been known by another name to the ancient Romans) was a road which ran east-to-west along the north wall of the Circus on land now covered by the southern portions of the Basilica and Saint Peter's Square. Peter's grave was initially marked simply by a red rock, symbolic of his name, but meaningless to non-Christians. A shrine was built on this site some years later. Almost three hundred years later, Old Saint Peter's Basilica was constructed over this site. It is possible that the exact location of Peter's grave was known with certainty by Christians throughout all this time and that therefore the traditional location of Saint Peter's tomb is, in fact, its true location.
On December 23, 1950, in his pre-Christmas radio broadcast to the world, Pope Pius XII announced the discovery of Saint Peter's tomb. This was the culmination of 10 years of archaeological research under the crypt of the basilica, an area inaccessible since the 9th century. The burial place appears to have been an underground vault, with a structure above it believed to have been built by Pope Anacletus in the 1st century. Human remains were discovered, but it could not be determined if they were, in fact, the bones of the Apostle Peter. Indeed, the area now covered by the Vatican City had been a cemetery for some years before the Circus of Nero was built. It was a burial ground for the numerous executions in the Circus and for many years after the burial of Saint Peter many Christians chose to be buried near him. It is likely that any excavation anywhere on the Vatican grounds would discover human remains.
In 1505, Pope Julius II, failing to heed warnings that the death of Nicholas V was an omen to those who might interfere with St Peter's, in order to glorify Rome and also undoubtedly for his own self agrandizement, made a decision to demolish the ancient building and replace with something grander. A competition was held, and a number of the designs have survived at the Uffizi Gallery. A succession of popes and architects followed in the next 120 years, their combined efforts resulting in the present building. The scheme begun by Julius II continued through the reigns of Leo X (1513 1521), Hadrian VI (1522 – 1523). Clement VII (1523 – 1534), Paul III (1534 – 1549), Julius III (1550 – 1555), Marcellus II (1555), Paul IV (1555 – 1559), Pius IV (1559 – 1565), Pius V (saint) (1565 – 1572), Gregory XIII (1572 – 1585), Sixtus V (1585 – 1590), Urban VII (1590), Gregory XIV (1590 – 1591), Innocent IX (1591), Clement VIII(1592 – 1605), Leo XI (1605), Paul V (1605 – 1621), Gregory XV (1621 – 1623), Urban VIII (1623 – 1644) and Innocent X (1644 – 1655)
Pope Julius' scheme for the grandest building in Christendom was the subject of a competition for which a number of entries remain intact in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. It was the design of Bramante that was selected, and for which the foundation stone was laid in 1506. This plan was in the form of an enormous Greek Cross with a dome inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon. The main difference between Bramante's design and that of the Pantheon is that where the dome of the Pantheon is supported by a continuous wall, that of the new basilica was to be supported only on four large piers. This feature was maintained in the ultimate design. Bramante's dome was to be surmounted by a lantern with its own small dome but otherwise very similar in form to the Early Renaissance lantern of Florence Cathedral designed for Brunelleschi's dome by Michelozzo.
Bramante had envisioned that the central dome be surrounded by five lower domes at the diagonal axes. The equal chancel, nave and transept arms were each to be of two bays ending in an apse. At each corner of the building was to stand a tower, so that the overall plan was square, with the apses projecting at the cardinal points. Each apse had two large radial buttresses, which squared off its semi-circular shape.
When Pope Julius died in 1513, Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael. Sangallo and Fra Giocondo both died in 1515, Bramante himself having died the previous year. The main change in Raphael's plan is the nave of five bays, with a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. Raphael's plan for the chancel and transepts made the squareness of the exterior walls more definite by reducing the size of the towers, and the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory.
In 1520 Raphael also died, aged 37, and his successor Peruzzi maintained changes that Raphael had proposed to the internal arrangement of the three main apses, but otherwise reverted to the Greek Cross plan and other features of Bramante. This plan did not go ahead because of various difficulties of both church and state. In 1527 Rome was sacked and plundered by Emperor Charles V. Peruzzi died in 1536 without his plan being realised.
At this point Antonio da Sangallo (known as "Sangallo the Younger") submitted a plan which combines features of Peruzzi, Raphael and Bramante in its design and extends the building into a short nave with a wide facade and portico of dynamic projection. His proposal for the dome was much more elaborate of both structure and decoration than that of Bramante and included ribs on the exterior. Like Bramante, Sangallo proposed that the dome be surmounted by a lantern which he redesigned to a larger and much more elaborate form. Sangallo's main practical contribution was to strengthen Bramante's piers which had begun to crack.
On January 1, 1547 in the reign of Pope Paul III, Michelangelo, then in his 70s, succeeded Sangallo the Younger as "Capomaestro", the superintendent of the building program at St Peter's. It is he that is to be regarded as the principal designer of a large part of the building as it stands today, and as bringing the construction to a point where it could be carried through. He did not take on the job with pleasure; it was forced upon him by Pope Paul, frustrated at the death of his chosen candidate, Giulio Romano and the refusal of Sansovino to leave Venice. Michelangelo wrote "I undertake this only for the love of God and in honour of the Apostle." He insisted that he should be given a free hand to achieve the ultimate aim by whatever means he saw fit.
Even though the work had progressed only a little in 40 years, Michelangelo did not simply dismiss the ideas of the previous architects. He drew on them in developing a grand vision. Above all, Michelangelo recognized the essential quality of Bramante's original design. He reverted to the Greek Cross and, as Helen Gardner expresses it: "Without destroying the centralising features of Bramante's plan, Michelangelo, with a few strokes of the pen converted its snowflake complexity into massive, cohesive unity."
As it stands today, St. Peter's has been extended with a nave by Carlo Maderno. It is the chancel end (the ecclesiastical "Eastern end") with its huge centrally placed dome that is the work of Michelangelo. Because of its location within the Vatican State and because the projection of the nave screens the dome from sight when the building is approached from the square in front of it, the work of Michelangelo is best appreciated from a distance. What becomes apparent is that the architect has greatly reduced the clearly defined geometric forms of Bramante's plan of a square with square projections, and also of Raphael's plan of a square with semi-circular projections. Michelangelo has blurred the definition of the geometry by making the external masonry of massive proportions and filling in every corner with a small vestry or stairwell. The effect created is of a continuous wall-surface that is folded or fractured at different angles, but lacks the right-angles which usually define change of direction at the corners of a building. This exterior is surrounded by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters all set at slightly different angles to each other, in keeping with the everchanging angles of the wall's surface. Above them the huge cornice ripples in a continuous band, giving the appearance of keeping the whole building in a state of compression.
The dome of the Pantheon, 43.3 metres (142 ft), (the widest dome in the world until the 19th century), stands on a circular wall with no entrances or windows except a single door. The whole building is as high as it is wide. Its dome is constructed in a single shell of concrete, made light by the inclusion of a large amount of the volcanic stones tufa and pumice. The inner surface of the dome is deeply coffered which has the effect of creating both vertical and horizontal ribs, while lightening the overall load. At the summit is an ocular opening eight metres (27 ft) across which provides light to the interior.
Bramante's plan for the dome of St. Peter's follows that of the Pantheon very closely, and like that of the Pantheon, was designed to be constructed in tufa concrete for which he had rediscovered a formula. With the exception of the lantern that surmounts it, the profile is very similar, except that in this case the supporting wall becomes a drum raised high above ground level on four massive piers. The solid wall, as used at the Pantheon, is lightened at St. Peter's by Bramante piercing it with windows and encircling it with a peristyle.
In the case of Florence Cathedral, the desired visual appearance of the pointed dome existed for many years before Brunelleschi made its construction feasible. Its double-shell construction of bricks locked together in herringbone pattern (re-introduced from Byzantine architecture), and the gentle upward slope of its eight stone ribs made it possible for the construction to take place without the massive wooden formwork necessary to construct hemispherical arches. While its appearance, with the exception of the details of the lantern, is entirely Gothic, its engineering was highly innovative, and the product of a mind that had studied the huge vaults and remaining dome of Ancient Rome.
Sangallo's dome looks to both these predecessors. He realised the value of both the coffering at the Pantheon and the outer stone ribs at Florence Cathedral. He simplified, strengthened and extended the peristyle of Bramante into a series of arched and ordered openings around the base, with a second such arcade set back in a tier above the first. In his hands, the rather delicate form of the lantern, based closely on that in Florence, became a massive structure, surrounded by a projecting base, a peristyle and surmounted by a spire of conic form. The whole design achieves the vertical massing and complexity of a three-tiered wedding cake, complete with icing-sugar lace.
Michelangelo redesigned the dome, taking into account all that had gone before. His dome, like that of Florence, is constructed of two shells of brick, the outer one having 16 stone ribs, twice the number at Florence but far fewer than in Sangallo's design. As with the designs of Bramante and Sangallo, the dome is raised from the piers on a drum. The encircling peristyle of Bramante and the arcade of Sangallo are reduced to 16 pairs of Corinthian columns, each of 15 metres (50 ft) high which stand proud of the building, connected by an arch. Visually they appear to buttress each of the ribs, but structurally they are probably quite redundant. The reason for this is that the dome is ovoid in shape, rising steeply as does the dome of Florence Cathedral, and therefore exerting less outward thrust than does a hemispherical dome, such as that of the Pantheon, which, although it is not buttressed, is countered by the downward thrust of heavy masonry which extends above the circling wall.
The ovoid profile of the dome has been the subject of much speculation and scholarship over the past century. Michelangelo died in 1564, leaving the drum of the dome complete, and Bramante's piers much bulkier than originally designed, each 18 metres (59 ft) across. On his death the work continued under his assistant Vignola with Giorgio Vasari appointed by Pope Pius V as a watchdog to make sure that Michelangelo's plans were carried out exactly. Despite Vignola's knowledge of Michelangelo's intentions, little happened in this period. In 1585 the energetic Pope Sixtus appointed Giacomo della Porta who was to be assisted by Domenico Fontana. The five year reign of Sixtus was to see the building advance at a great rate. Michelangelo left a few drawings, including an early drawing of the dome, and some drawings of details. There were also detailed engravings published in 1569 by Stefan du Pérac who claimed that they were the master's final solution. Michelangelo, like Sangallo before him, also left a large wooden model. Giacomo della Porta subsequently altered this model in several ways, in keeping with changes that he made to the design. Most of these changes were of a cosmetic nature, such as the adding of lion's masks over the swags on the drum in honour of Pope Sixtus and adding a circlet of finials around the spire at the top of the lantern, as proposed by Sangallo. The major change that was made to the model, either by della Porta, or Michelangelo himself before his death, was to raise the outer dome higher above the inner one.
A drawing by Michelangelo indicates that his early intentions were towards an ovoid dome, rather than a hemispherical one. The engraving shows a hemispherical dome, but this was perhaps an inaccuracy of the engraver. The profile of the wooden model is more ovoid than that of the engraving, but less so than the finished product. It has been suggested that Michelangelo on his death bed reverted to the more pointed shape. However Lees-Milne cites Giacomo della Porta as taking full responsibility for the change and as indicating to Pope Sixtus that Michelangelo was lacking in the scientific understanding of which he himself was capable.
Helen Gardner suggests that Michelangelo made the change to the hemispherical dome of lower profile in order to establish a balance between the dynamic vertical elements of the encircling giant order of pilasters and a more static and reposeful dome. Gardner also comments "The sculpturing of architecture [by Michelangelo]... here extends itself up from the ground through the attic stories and moves on into the drum and dome, the whole building being pulled together into a unity from base to summit."
It is this sense of the building being sculptured, unified and "pulled together" by the encircling band of the deep cornice that led Mignacca to conclude that the ovoid profile, seen now in the end product, was an essential part Michelangelo's first (and last) concept. The sculptor/architect has, figuratively speaking, taken all the previous designs in hand and compressed their contours as if the building were a lump of clay. The dome must appear to thrust upwards because of the apparent pressure created by flattening the building's angles and restraining its projections. If this explanation is the correct one, then the profile of the dome is not merely a structural solution, as perceived by Giacomo della Porta; it is part of the integrated design solution that is about visual tension and compression. In one sense, Michelangelo's dome may appear to look backward to the Gothic profile of Florence Cathedral and ignore the Classicism of the Renaissance, but on the other hand, perhaps more than any other building of the 1500s, it prefigures the architecture of the Baroque.
Giacomo della Porta and Fontana brought the dome to a completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern and had an inscription to the honour of Sixtus V placed around its inner opening. The next pope, Clement III, had the cross raised into place, an event which took all day, and was accompanied by the ringing of the bells of all the city's churches. In the arms of the cross are set two lead caskets, one containing a fragment of the True Cross and a relic of St. Andrew and the other containing medallions of the Holy Lamb.
In the mid-18th century, cracks appeared in the dome, so four iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, like the rings that keep a barrel from bursting. As many as ten chains have been installed at various times, the earliest possibly planned by Michelangelo himself as a precaution, as Brunelleschi did at Florence Cathedral.
Around the inside of the dome is written, in letters 2 metres (6.5 ft) high:
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V.
The Pope had appointed Carlo Maderno in 1602. He was a nephew of Domenico Fontana and had demonstrated himself as a dynamic architect. Maderno's idea was to ring Michelangelo's building with chapels, but the Pope was hesitant about deviating from the master's plan, even though he had been dead for forty years. The Fabbrica or building committee, a group drawn from various nationalities and generally despised by the Curia who viewed the basilica as belonging to Rome rather than Christendom, were in a quandary as to how the building should proceed. One of the matters that influenced their thinking was the Counter-Reformation which increasingly associated a Greek Cross plan with paganism and saw the Latin Cross as truly symbolic of Christianity.
Another influence on the thinking of both the Fabbrica and the Curia was a certain guilt at the demolition of the ancient building. The ground on which it and its various associated chapels, vestries and sacristies had stood for so long was hallowed. The only solution was to build a nave that encompassed the whole space. In 1607 a committee of ten architects was called together, and a decision was made to extend Michelangelo's building into a nave. Maderno's plans for both the nave and the facade were accepted. The building began on May 7 1607 and proceeded at a great rate, with an army of 700 labourers being employed. The following year, the facade was begun, in December 1614 the final touches were added to the stucco decoration of the vault and early in 1615 the partition wall between the two sections was pulled down. All the rubble was carted away, and the nave was ready for use by Palm Sunday.
The façade designed by Maderno, is 114.69 metres (376.28 ft) wide and 45.55 metres (149.44 ft) high and is built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and eleven of the apostles. The inscription on the facade reads:
IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII
The façade is often cited as the least satisfactory part of the design of St. Peter's. The reasons for this, according to James Lees-Milne, are that it was not given enough consideration by the Pope and committee because of the desire to get the building completed quickly, coupled with the fact that Maderno was hesitant to deviate from the pattern set by Michelangelo at the other end of the building. Lees-Milne describes the problems of the facade as being too broad for its height, too cramped in its details and too heavy in the attic storey. The breadth is caused by modifying the plan to have towers on either side. These towers were never executed above the line of the facade because it was discovered that the ground was not sufficiently stable to bear the weight. One effect of the facade and lengthened nave is to screen the view of the dome, so that the building, from the front, has no vertical feature, except from a distance.
Five portals, of which three are framed by huge salvaged antique columns, lead into the basilica. The central portals has a bronze door created by Antonio Averulino in 1455 for the old basilica and somewhat enlarged to fit the new space.
To the single bay of Michelangelo's Greek Cross, Maderno added a further three bays. He made the dimensions slightly different to Michelangelo's bay, thus defining where the two architectural works meet. Maderno also tilted the axis of the nave slightly. This was not by accident, as suggested by his critics. An ancient Egyptian obelisk had been erected in the square outside, but had not been quite aligned with Michelangelo's building, so Maderno compensated, in order that it should, at least, align with the Basilica's facade.
The nave has huge paired pilasters, in keeping with Michelangelo's work. The size of the interior is so "stupendously large" that it is hard to get a sense of scale within the building. The four cherubs who flutter against the first piers of the nave, carrying between them two Holy Water basins, appear of quite normal cherubic size, until approached. Then it becomes apparent that each one is over 2 metres high and that real children cannot reach the basins unless they scramble up the marble draperies. The aisles each have two smaller chapels and a larger rectangular chapel, the Chapel of the Sacrament and the Choir Chapel. These are lavishly decorated with marble, stucco, gilt, sculpture and mosaic. Remarkably, there are very few paintings, although some, such as Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" have been reproduced in mosaic. The most precious painting is a small icon of the Madonna, removed from the old basilica.
Maderno's last work at St. Peter's was to design a crypt-like space or "Confessio" under the dome, where the Cardinals and other privileged persons could descend in order to be nearer the burial place of the apostle. Its marble steps are remnants of the old basilica and around its balustrade are 95 bronze lamps.
As part of the scheme for the central space of the church, Bernini had the huge piers, begun by Bramante and completed by Michelangelo, hollowed out into niches, and had staircases made inside them, leading to four balconies. There was much dismay from those who thought that the dome might fall, but it did not. On the balconies Bernini created showcases, framed by the eight ancient twisted columns, to display the four most precious relics of the basilica, the spear of Longinus, said to have pierced the side of Christ, the veil of Veronica, with the miraculous image of the face of Christ, a fragment of the True Cross discovered in Jerusalem by Constantine's mother, Helena, and a relic of St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter. In each of the niches that surround the central space of the basilica was placed a huge statue of the saint associated with the relic above. Only St. Longinus is the work of Bernini. (See below)
Bernini then turned his attention to another precious relic, the so-called Cathedra Petri or "throne of St. Peter" a chair which was often claimed to have been used by the apostle, but appears to date from the 12th century. As the chair itself was fast deteriorating and was no longer serviceable, Pope Alexander VII determined to enshrine it in suitable splendour as the object upon which the line of successors to Peter was based. Bernini created a large bronze throne in which it was housed, raised high on four looping supports held effortlessly by massive bronze statues four Doctors of the Church, Saints Ambrose and Augustine representing the Latin Church and Athanasius and John Chrysostum the Greek Church. The four figures are dynamic with sweeping robes and expressions of adoration and ecstasy. Behind and above the Cattedra, a blaze of light comes in through a window of yellow alabaster, illuminating, at its centre, the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The elderly painter, Andrea Sacchi, had urged Bernini to make the figures large, so that they would be seen well from the central portal of the nave. The chair was enshrined in its new home with great celebration of January 16, 1666.
Bernini's final work for St. Peter's, undertaken in 1676, was the decoration of the Chapel of the Sacrament. To hold the sacramental Host, he designed a miniature version in gilt bronze of Bramante's Tempietto, the little chapel that marks the place of the death of St. Peter. On either side is an angel, one gazing in rapt adoration and the other looking towards the viewer in welcome. Bernini died in 1680 in his 82nd year.
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 Publicco 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 mark 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."
The northernmost door is the "Holy Door" which, by tradition, is opened only for great celebrations such as Jubilee years. The present door is bronze and was designed by Vico Consorti in 1950. Above it are inscriptions commemorating the opening of the door: PAVLVS V PONT MAX ANNO XIII and GREGORIVS XIII PONT MAX. Recent commemorative plaques read:
IOANNES PAVLVS II P.M.|
ANNO IVBILAEI MCMLXXVI
A PAVLO PP VI
RESERVATAM ET CLAVSAM
APERVIT ET CLAVSIT
ANNO IVB HVMANE REDEMP
MCMLXXXIII – MCMLXXXIV
IOANNES PAVLVS II P.M.|
ITERVM PORTAM SANCTAM
APERVIT ET CLAVSIT
ANNO MAGNI IVBILAEI
AB INCARNATIONE DOMINI
PAVLVS VI PONT MAX|
APERVIT ET CLAVSIT
ANNO IVBILAEI MCMLXXV
|In the jubilee year of human redemption 1983-4, John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed again the holy door closed and set apart by Paul VI in 1976.||John Paul II, Pontifex Maximus, again opened and closed the holy door in the year of the great jubilee, from the incarnation of the Lord 2000-2001.||Paul VI, Pontifex Maximus, opened and closed the holy door of this patriarchal Vatican basilica in the jubilee year of 1975.|