The most important church of the Catholic world, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, had to have a public square in front from which to be admired, to match its greatness. Though the curtain-like facade still blocks most of the height of the main dome, which can only be seen properly from a far, Piazza San Pietro is considered by many an attraction in itself, a place from which you can have a moment of meditation, either as a pilgrim or as an art lover. The large number of people present at any time does not prevent the visitor from sensing the air of glory and artistic excellence that Gian Lorenzo Bernini gave to the square.

The place was remodeled in the middle of 17 century, when the basilica was already finished. The entire design is composed of two trapezoidal spaces, in front of the basilica and at one end of the boulevard, with an enormous round space, called by Italian architect “ovato tondo”. The circle is suggested by two semicircles of Doric columns. Though massive in size, they employ this austere style not to compete with the Corinthian style columns on the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, made by Carlo Maderno.

There are 248 colonnades, made of Tuscan rock. The arches are composed of four rows of columns, two pairs with a corridor in between, and a tile roof. This way the space on each side is closed for the view, without an actual wall, orienting the eyes to the cathedral. This was a solution chosen after abandoning the idea of using the traditional arcades. The two pairs of columns seem to disappear and turn into a single colonnade, when standing on some marked spots.

In one of the drawings, Bernini envisioned the enclosed space like the opening arms of the church, and indeed, when viewed from above, the two arches, with the prolonged straight lines to the basilica, appear to be two protective palms, holding those in the square.

The eyes are attracted by the 25 m high obelisk that is 4.000 years old, brought by emperor Caligula from Heliopolis, Egypt. Not only eyes of tourists turn to this single slab of pink granite, but also the curious minds of conspiracy theorists, troubled by the passion of Roman emperors for these Oriental symbols of paganism. The effort of transporting them with the technology of Antiquity and re-erecting them was immense. Even the job of moving it to the current central spot, that took place in the Middle Ages, was and engineering achievement.

Though now it has a cross on top, and a Christian inscription, the largest obelisk in Rome has around it the signs of the zodiac and also acts as a sun-dial. The current inscription, that replaced the name of the emperor, reads: “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat.” The rays of cobalt stone also seem to imitate the rays of the sun. Heliopolis (“the city of the sun”) was the an ancient Egyptian city where the cult of pagan god Atum was officiated. Atum was said to have created himself, from the elevation of the first ground, that appeared when the primordial waters retreated. The shape of that bump of land was something like a pyramid, and indeed all obelisks have a little pyramid on top. Their pagan symbolism is mysterious and debated, probably standing for a ray of light or for the emerging earthly energies, that follow the rebirth of a rising sun. Atum used to be represented either as a king (he would take the soul of the Pharaoh out of the pyramid) or as various animals, including a serpent. He was associated with the idea of rebirth, of a setting sun, complementary to Ra, the rising sun.

Initially there was only one fountain, but another one was added for symmetry. Several spots in the square are marked by special stones, like the spots from where the columns seem to align or the spot where Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turk in an assassination attempt.

In front of the basilica there are two gigantic statues of apostle Paul, holding a sword that used to be gilded, symbolizing the Word of God, and apostle Peter, holding the keys to the kingdom of Heavens. Including the pedestal, the statues are over 9 m high. The statue of Peter is the work of Giuseppe de Fabris. while the statue of Paul is the work of Tadolini, sculpted in Carrara marble.

Like the facade of the basilica, the colonnades also have statues of travertine on top. A total of 140 saints are represented on top of the columns.

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Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, as modeled by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 10.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating

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