Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free. Although admission to the Basilica is free, tickets are required to see some of the important attractions inside. There are separate queues for each of these places in different parts of the Basilica.
For example, climbing the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica costs a fee. To access the dome you have to pay €8 if you use the stairs or €10 by elevator. Similar to the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, other places where you have to pay an entrance fee are the Sacristy & Treasury Museum and the Vatican Necropolis. We recommend you to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the holiest place in Christianity, with a guided tour.
Previous buildings and St. Peter’s Basilica
An oratory was constructed over the tomb of St Peter in the second century. The Emperor Constantine built a basilica in its place, which was consecrated in 326. In the course of the centuries, the basilica was damaged by the Saracens and suffered further damage from floods and earthquakes. By the middle of the fifteenth century, this construction had become unsafe. In 1505, Pope Julius II entrusted Donato Bramante with the task of replacing it. His design was for a church in the form of a Greek cross with four arms of equal length extending from a central area around the high altar. Bramante was succeeded in 1514 by Raphael, Peruzzi, Sangallo and Michelangelo. The latter worked on the basilica from 1546 until his death at the age of 89 in 1564. Inspired by the cathedral of Florence and the Pantheon, Michelangelo designed the dome, which was completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1588-1589. It is an architectural masterpiece, which soars above the tomb of St Peter.
Pope Paul V decided to change the design to that of a Latin cross – the upright is longer than the cross beam – and the front nave was extended by the architect Carlo Maderna to cover the area that had been occupied by Constantine’s basilica. The funerary monuments from this basilica were transferred to the Grottoes which had been built in 1575-1605 under the new basilica. Bernini succeeded Maderna and worked on the basilica for fifty years. He was responsible for much of the decoration of the interior. The basilica was consecrated in 1626, the 1,300th anniversary of the consecration of the basilica of Constantine. With an area of 15,000 square metres, the new basilica of St Peter is a majestic building which incorporates masterpieces by the greatest artists of the seventeenth century.
Inside the Basilica
Inside the basilica, in front of the central door, there is a round porphyry slab where Charlemagne and his successors as Holy Roman Emperors knelt to be crowned by the Pope. In the first chapel in the aisle on the right is the famous masterpiece, the Vatican Pieta, sculpted by Michelangelo when he was twenty-five years of age: it is the only work which bears the sculptor’s name. The statue was attacked by a deranged man in 1972 and it has since been protected bv a glass partition. Farther down on the right of the nave is the thirteenth century black statue of St Peter in bronze – now considered to be the work of di Cambio (ca. 1296) – whose foot is gradually being worn away by the people as they touch it.
Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
Bernini’s ciborium of 1674 on the altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is modelled on the temple of Bramante at the Church of S. Pietro in Montorio. Behind the altar is Pietro da Cortonas Trinity, a rare example of a painting in the basilica. Other chapels are adorned by mosaic copies of famous paintings, including Raphael’s Transfiguration.
Papal Altar and Baldacchino
The interior of the basilica is dominated by the twenty-nine-metre high bronze Baroque baldacchino (canopy) over the Papal altar. This was built by Bernini in the period 1624-1633 and inaugurated by the Barberini Pope, Urban viii. The bronze from which it was made is said to have been taken from the Pantheon.
The Tomb of St Peter
Christians on pilgrimage come to the Basilica of St Peter to renew their faith at the tomb of the Apostle who was the first Vicar of Christ. St Peter was crucified upside down in the nearby Circus of Nero in 64 and buried in a necropolis nearby Excavations (scavi) conducted over the period 1940-1964 confirmed that this necropolis was situated under the present basilica, the left side of which overlaps the site of the Circus of Nero. One can apply in writing or in person to visit the excavations to the Ufficio Scavi ( Tel. 06-6988-5318; Fax 06-6988-5518), which is approached through the passageway under the Arch of the Bells, at the top left-hand corner of St Peter’s Square.
The Crypt (Grottoes)
After you enter St Peter’s Basilica, once you have seen the Pieta, walk towards the main altar. In the nave on your right hand side you will see the black statue of St Peter and beyond that a statue of St Longinus holding a spear in one of the great pillars supporting the dome. Beneath the statue you should find a sign which indicates that you should go down the steps to visit the tombs of the Popes including many of the recent Popes – Pius xii, John xxm, Paul vi and John Paul 1. On your way to the tombs you will pass a number of small chapels. The third chapel on the right is the Irish Chapel which is dedicated to Saint Columbanus, also known as Columban, who represents all Irish missionaries.
The Roof and Dome
The entrance to the dome is marked Cupola. You ascend to the roof by lift or by a stair. The view of the square, the Via della Conciliazione and the surrounding skyline is worthwhile. From the roof, two stairways lead to the interior gallery of the dome which gives a breathtaking view of the interior of the basilica – the altar, the mosaics and the floor which is fifty metres below. You begin to realise the immensity, the size, the symmetry and the beauty of the building.
A narrow and curving stairway between the two domes leads upward to a viewing deck under the Lantern. The deck is 537 steps from ground level. From here there is a wonderful view of the Vatican, the city of Rome and, on a fine day, there is a view of the Alban Hills.