TMF Journey

A quick primer on St. Peter’s Square.

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by Paul L. Gleiser

(ROME) Almost 100 years after a four-thousand year old Egyptian obelisk was placed at this site, the Italian Renaissance genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini was given the task of making the forecourt of St. Peter’s Basilica worthy of the basilica itself.

At the direction of Pope Alexander VII, Bernini took the obelisk and a fountain to the right of the obelisk as you look at the facade of the basilica, and created a massive space so that “the greatest number of people could see the pope give his blessing.”

The Colonnades

The view of St. Peter's Square as seen from the cupola atop the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The view of St. Peter’s Square as seen from the cupola atop the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

From 1656 to 1667, Bernini created the colossal piazza using matching Tuscan colonnades, each four columns deep. The colonnades are symmetrical and encircle the piazza from the north and the south sides. They semi-circular colonnades represent the embrace of the “maternal arms of Mother Church.”

To keep the symmetry created by the colonnades, Bernini created a fountain to match Carlo Maderno’s fountain of 1513, and placed it to the left of the obelisk as you look at the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.

A grand avenue is formed in the space between the second and third rows of columns in the colonnade.

A grand avenue is formed in the space between the second and third rows of columns in the colonnade.

The Paving

In order that the square not be a sea of cobblestones, the paving is varied by radiating lines of travertine. In 1817 circular stones set to mark the tip of the obelisk’s shadow at noon as the sun entered each of the signs of the zodiac. There are also circular stones to mark the equinoxes and the solstices, effectively turning the square and the obelisk into a giant sundial.

The Obelisk

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Standing at 135 feet from base to cross on top at the center of St. Peter’s Square is an Egyptian obelisk.

“I’ll meet you at the obelisk,” is heard dozens, if not hundreds of times per day in Rome. Any Roman who hears those words knows exactly where to meet.

The obelisk was originally erected at Heliopolis by an unknown pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494 BC – 2345 BC). The emperor Augustus had the obelisk brought to the Julian Forum in Alexandria, where it stood until 37 AD.

The emperor Caligula ordered it moved to Rome and had it placed in the center of the Circus of Nero.

Under the direction of Pope Sixtus V, the obelisk was moved to its current site in 1586. The Vatican Obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome (and there are close to 100) that has not toppled since ancient Roman times.

One hundred years later, Bernini used the obelisk as the center of his colossal square.

"I'll meet you at the obelisk."

“I’ll meet you at the obelisk.”

Via della Concilliazione

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The approach to St. Peter’s Square from Castel St. Angelo was dramatically revised by Mussolini starting in 1936. The buildings that obscured the view of St. Peter’s were demolished and the avenue that runs from the Tiber River at Ponte St. Angelo to the opening of St. Peter’s Square was created.

Finished in 1950, the Via della Concilliazione (Road of the Conciliation) was intended to honor the Lateran Treaty of 1929, which gave formal recognition to the city state of Vatican City and ended decades of tension between the Holy See and the Italian government.

Here’s the story that we ran on KETK NBC 56.