Old Saint Peter's Basilica
was the building that once stood on the spot where the Basilica of Saint Peter
stands today in Rome
. The name Old Saint Peter's Basilica
has been used since the construction of the current basilica to distinguish the two buildings.
Since the crucifixion and burial of Saint Peter in 64 A.D., the spot was thought to be the location of the tomb of Saint Peter
, where there stood a small shrine. Construction was begun on the orders of the Roman emperor Constantine I
between 326 and 333, and took about 30 years to complete. The design was a typical basilica
form. Over the next twelve centuries the church would gradually gain in importance, and even become a major place of pilgrimage in Rome. Papal coronations
began to be held here, and in 800, Charlemagne
was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire
. With its increasing prestige the church became richly decorated with statues, furnishings and elaborate chandeliers, and side tombs and altars were continuously added. However the church was falling to ruin by the 15th century, and discussions on repairing parts of the structure commenced upon the pope's return
. Two people involved in this reconstruction were Leone Battista Alberti
and Bernardo Rossellino
, who improved the apse and partially added a multi-story benediction loggia to the atrium facade, on which construction continued intermittently until beginning the new basilica. At first Pope Julius II
had every intention of preserving the old building, but his attention soon turned toward tearing it down and building a new structure. Many people of the time were shocked by the proposal, as the building represented papal continuity going back to Peter. Moreover, the structure was absolutely filled with tombs and bodies of saints and popes. Bones continued to be found in construction as late as February 1544. In the end, the design of the new basilica attempted to reconsecrate these remains as much as possible. The original altar itself was preserved in the new structure which would house it.
The building consisted of five aisles, a wide central nave and two smaller aisles to each side, which were each divided by 21 marble columns, which were all spoils from earlier pagan buildings. It was over long, built in the shape of a Latin cross, and had a gabled roof which was timbered on the interior and which stood at over at the center. An atrium, known as the Garden of Paradise, stood at the entrance and had five doors which led to the body of the church, but was actually a sixth century addition.
The great Navicella mosaic (1305-1313) in the atrium is attributed to Giotto di Bondone. The giant mosaic, commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi, occupied the whole wall above the entrance arcade facing the courtyard. It depicted St. Peter walking on the waters. This extraordinary work was mainly destroyed during the construction of the new St. Peter's in the 16th century, but fragments were preserved. Navicella means "little ship" referring to the large boat which dominated the scene, and whose sail, filled by the storm, loomed over the horizon. Such a natural representation of a seascape was known only from ancient works of art.
The nave ended with an arch, which held a mosaic of Constantine and Saint Peter, who was presented a model of the church to Christ. On the walls, each having 11 windows, were frescoes of various people and scenes from both the Old and New Testament.
The fragment of an eighth-century mosaic, the Epiphany is one of the very rare remaining bits of the medieval decoration of Old St. Peter's Basilica. The precious fragment is kept in the sacristy of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It proves the high artistic quality of the destroyed mosaics.
The exterior however, unlike earlier pagan temples, was not lavishly decorated.
The altar of the Old St. Peter's used several Solomonic columns. According to tradition, Constantine took these columns from the Temple of Solomon and gave them to the church; however, the columns were probably from an Eastern church. When Gian Lorenzo Bernini built his baldacchino to cover the new St. Peter's altar, he drew from the twisted design of the old columns. Eight of the original columns were moved to the piers of the new St. Peter's.