Located directly in front of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, Italy, the Piazza San Pietro, popularly known as Saint Peter’s Square, is one of the famous squares in the world, visited around the year by thousands of people from all over the world. Bordered from two sides by semi-circular colonnades, the piazza, and the basilica, both were named after St Peter, an apostle of Jesus, and considered by the Catholics to be the first Pope.
The huge square, measuring 788 feet (240 m) wide and 1050 feet (320 m) long, consists of two parts, the trapezoidal section in front of the façade of St Peter’s Basilica, and the elliptical section framed by the colonnades. While the elliptical part of the square can accommodate around 60,000 visitors at a time, the square as a whole has the capacity to hold more than 300,000, especially gatherings on special occasions.
Piazza San Pietro was built on the site of the ancient Circus of Nero, where Saint Peter, the first Pope of the Catholic Church, was crucified in 67 AD, and much later, Emperor Constantine built a church on the spot in 324 AD, housing the remains of the saint. However, the old church was subsequently replaced by the present building of St Peter’s Basilica, constructed between the 16th and 17th centuries, and fully consecrated in 1626 under Pope Paul V. But gradually, it became evident that the space in front of the basilica is not sufficient to accommodate the huge gatherings of pilgrims from around the world to recite the Angelus, receive the Pope’s blessings, and to wait eagerly to watch the white smoke emerging from the Sistine Chapel signaling the choice of a new pope.
Finally, Pope Alexander VII commissioned the reputed sculpture and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1656 to create a massive square worthy of the majestic St Peter’s Basilica.
In response, Bernini designed an elliptical pizza with four rows of imposing Doric columns arranged in a stunning colonnade on both sides to signify the embracing arms of St Peter’s Basilica, the Mother Church of Christianity. Construction of the pizza started in 1656, and Gian worked tirelessly to complete it in 1667, although his pupils continued to work till 1670, to decorate it by installing 140 statues above the colonnades, depicting saints, martyrs, popes, and founder of religious orders within the Catholic Church.
Bernini was required to build the pizza around the 83 feet (25.31 m) tall Egyptian obelisk, built around the 15th century BC, and brought to Rome from Heliopolis in Egypt by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD. Originally it was installed to decorate the Circus of Caligula, later renamed Circus of Nero, which was used for chariot racing, and brutal public executions of Christians, who were allegedly blamed for the devastating fires in Rome in 64 AD. After several centuries, it was reinstalled in the present location in 1585 by the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana under the direction of Pope Sixtus V.
However, it was not an easy task, and it took over 900 men, 140 horses, and more than 5 months to move the obelisk and pull it upright. Carved from red Aswan granite, the Vatican obelisk is the only ancient Egyptian obelisk in Rome that remained standing since Roman times, but it remains a mystery why the obelisk has no hieroglyphic inscriptions on it. During the early days, the obelisk was crowned with a gilt ball, said to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar, but when Fontana removed the ancient gilt ball, now in a museum in Rome, nothing was found in it. Before being installed in its current location, the Vatican obelisk was crowned with an eagle and a sphere with a cross, as instructed by Pope Sixtus V. In 1818 the base of the obelisk was adorned with the lion sculptures. While the lions refer to Sixtus V, the eagles, added in 1713, signify the Conti family of Pope Innocence XIII, and the hills and stars belong to Pope Alexander VII‘s Chigi family. Recently, it was revealed by Pope Benedict XVI that the obelisk is actually a huge sundial that can accurately indicate midday.
The Piazza San Pietro is framed by a large and impressive colonnade of four rows, known as the Bernini colonnades, made up of 284 unfluted Doric columns and 88 pilasters. The colonnade is decorated with 140 intricately carved statues of saints, popes, martyrs, evangelists, and other important religious figures. The refined details of the statues, such as the folds in the tunics, create a definite sense of movement, which was probably an attempt to counteract the stiffness of the Doric columns below.
Saint Peter’s Square contains two fountains, located equidistant between the colonnade and the obelisk. The fountain in front of the basilica, originally erected in 1490 during the time of Pope Innocent VII, was renovated by Carlo Maderno in 1614 and came to be known as the Maderno Fountain. Later, it was shifted a few feet to the northeast by Bernini as a part of the construction of the square. To maintain the symmetry, Bernini built a matching second fountain in 1677 on the north side of the obelisk, closely following the design of the Maderno Fountain.