Spanning the reign of 20 popes and every famous Renaissance architect you can name, the St. Peter’s Basilica is the most important of the four major Basilica’s in Rome which makes it the most important Catholic Church on Earth. It is also easily one of Rome’s most recognizable buildings.
The Basilica’s elaborate dome reigns over the Eternal City’s skyline – a compass for all who wander Rome’s streets.
19 Astonishing Facts About St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
The St. Peter’s Basilica was one of the greatest accomplishments of the Renaissance which makes it one of the greatest structures ever assembled by mortals. An accomplishment of this size comes with some mind-blowing facts and numbers. Here they are!
19. St. Peter Was Killed by Emperor Nero
St. Peter found himself in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero in 64 A.D. after the death of Christ. It was not a very convenient time, considering that the Emperor had just faulted the Christians for a fire that destroyed half the city.
The Christians were looked like a radical cult so it was the best scapegoat for the Emperor with no conscience. He, therefore, initiated the persecution of Christians which, according to dogma martyred both St.Peter, St. Paul, and countless other Christians.
Peter attempted to flee Rome since he knew his days were numbered but Christ appeared to him and asked him to return to the city to meet his fate. As dogma goes, St.Peter was crucified upside down by Emperor Nero and buried in 64 AD. This was all part of Nero’s plot to fault Christians for his great fire which was semi-successful.
18. The Basilica is Built Over St. Peter’s Tomb
The position of St. Peter’s Basilica is not a coincidence in any way shape or form. The Stadium of Nero was located in the same spot the Vatican exists today. After St. Peter was taken their own from the cross he was buried in a nearby Necropolis together with pagans.
17. Emperor Constantine built the First Basilica Dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles
When Christ first met Peter he said, “You are the rock upon which I will build my Church.” His name wasn’t even Peter at the time, it was Simon. Jesus changed his name to Peter which means rock.
Constantine defeated Maxentius in 312 AD and legalized Christianity. He then took it upon himself to fulfill the literal version of scriptures above and built a church on top of St. Peter’s tomb. Constantine’s Mom, St. Helen, was a devout Christian and this was likely a big deal for her. It is not every day that your son fulfills the scriptures, right?
16. Constantine’s Basilica Stood for almost 1200 years
The original Basilica Constantine built lasted from the mid-fourth century AD (the 300s) until 1506. That is a very long time.
The current Basilica was built under Constantine and while it does not exist today in full form, the current basilica still utilizes foundational elements from the original structure. That means the foundation is nearly 1700 years old!
15. Construction Began on the Current St. Peter’s Basilica in 1506
Pope Julius II decided it was time for a new Basilica when he appointed Donato Bramante to design the current St. Peter’s Basilica. Bramante’s designs were later taken over by Raphael (the Raphael) a few years later. That said, the current Basilica involved every famous name in Italian art from Michelangelo to father and son Modernos and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
14. It Took 120 Years to Build
Yep, 120 years to build the St. Peter’s Basilica which is pretty impressive considering the magnitude of the structure. There were many works that went on even after that timeline. The last fountain, built by Bernini, was not finished until 1675!
13.There Were Five Main Architects
Bramante was the original architect of the structure appointed in 1506 but was replaced by Raphael in 1515. Raphael died in 1520 after only five years on the job. Raphael’s designed reduced the tower sizes which defined the squareness of the building’s exterior walls.
Both architects, Bramante & Raphael, were aiming for a Pantheon inspired dome for the structure and wanted to go big. Michelangelo was appointed by Pope Paul III in 1547 to finish overseeing the design and construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Michelangelo is highly regarded as the basilica’s principal designer who was coerced into the job by Pope Paul III. Michelangelo’s design paid reverence to the original aspects of Bramante’s design while reducing the definition of its geographic forms. Michelangelo definitely gets credit for the Dome without argument.
The Facade of the building was designed and constructed by Carlo and Stefano Moderno father and son. Gian Lorenzo Bernini also had a crack at the facade but failed which we will mention later.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the principal architect of one of the Basilica’s most defining features which is the square out front.
12. It is the Largest Church on Earth
The first thing you will notice when you enter is the sheer size of the Basilica. It was designed so well, however, that you won’t really understand how big it is, because everything is so proportional inside.
As you walk in, the gold coffered ceiling in front of you is 150ft high. The statues on both sides of you increase in size as you get higher up the wall, so all looks the same size, but the difference is astounding- On ground level the statues are 6ft while at the top, the same size looking statues are 24ft high!
Another crazy fact about the size are the letters that go around. the basilica. Each letter is actually 8ft in length. If you have nothing to compare it with, then it is impossible to think they are that big. However, at times there are people cleaning the basilica on the ceiling and you can see that they can actually fit inside the letters!
11. It is Also the Tallest Dome on Earth
St. Peter’s Basilica’s dome was inspired by that of the Pantheon. Its structure was also inspired by Brunelleschi’s Duomo di Firenze.
The dome of Saint Peters bears the distinction of being the tallest dome in the world. Its presence stands out amidst Rome’s skyline.
The dome is so tall, that you could fit the statue of liberty inside. Remember that this was built over 400 years ago.
The exact dimensions of St. Peter’s Dome are 448.1 feet tall (136.5m).
10. Materials Were Stolen from Other Roman Buildings to Build it
Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the Baldacchino with the purpose of marking the tomb of Saint Peter. Bernini’s Baldacchino is a 95-ft tall bronze canopy that towers inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.
This imposing sculpted canopy is one of the basilica’s most renowned works of art. As you can imagine, it requires a lot of bronze- where to get all that bronze you ask?
Just simply go to the Pantheon and you will notice the porch is quite bare today. That’s because Pope Urban VIII took all the bronze that was adorned to the top of the porch so Bernini could melt it down to make this amazing structure! Take from one pocket in Rome and add to another!
If you look very closely at the top part of the Baldacchino you will notice that there are little bumblebees carved into the bronze. These let you know who paid for it, since the Barberini pope Urban VIII’s papal emblem was with bumblebees!
Popular Tours from Rome
9. Bernini Built 288 Colonnades in St. Peter’s Square
There are many ways to arrive at the St. Peter’s Basilica but it would be hard to argue any are more epic than walking down Via della Conciliazione. Mussolini carved out a road to create an epic feeling when approaching the center of Christendom. There are many reasons to not like Mussolini but we can all thank him for this road. It is an epic way to approach an epic structure.
Furthermore, Bernini designed the Piazza San Pietro specifically to frame the Basilica well. Bernini built two massive arms of colonnades which are home to 284 columns topped by 140 saints. The square is not circular despite popular belief. It is more of an oval shape and the entrance to the square formed by the columns opposite of the Basilica is larger than the opposite side. Bernini’s concept formed two arms held open to accept and love the world with the help of the columns.
I can speak to if visitors receive the columns as such, but I can say every visitor that show up is enamored by the greatest of everything of its construction.
8. The Two Fountains Out Front Were Built by Different Artists
The square has two fountains on either side of a massive obelisk. Carlo Maderno designed the first fountain on the right in 1612 and also designed the facade of the building. Exactly 65 years later in 1677 Berinin created a second fountain on the opposite side of the square that is almost identical to Moderno’s design.
Today, fountains get very little appreciation unless they can move to the beat of a famous tune. Try to bring yourself back to the 17th century and think about the tools available. I am not talking about hammers and such to carve the fountain. I am talking about the water.
If you saw a fountain one of these fountains in St. Peter’s Square you’d probably say, “Where you get this water and how did you get it to go up that high? I don’t see a river of rushing water nearby.” The Tiber is in fact nearby, but at a far lower level which would not allow this fountain to propel water up in the air. Magic!
7. Bernini Suffered his Largest Failure Working on the Basilica
Carlo Maderno designed the Facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, but it did not always look the same. In the 17th century, Bernini added two bell-towers to the facade. Bernini placed the bell-towers to better frame the massive dome behind it. However, they failed and became the stain on Bernini’s career that he managed to overcome but was always present.
Eventually the towers began to show signs of poor construction and cracked. They removed the towers which you could imagine to be extremely depressing for Bernini.
6. St. Peter’s Basilica is home to la Pieta by Michelangelo
The iconic Renaissance artist Michelangelo sculpted La Pietà at the very end of the 15th century. You may remember Michelangelo as your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, or the classic artist who sculpted the David and painted the Sistine Chapel. La Pietà depicts Jesus after his crucifixion laying in Mary’s lap.
A French cardinal named Jean de Bilheres commissioned Michelangelo to create a sculpture to go into a side chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1497. With a large block of Carrara marble and his irrefutable artistic craft, Michelangelo within a year created this incredibly detailed work of art.
Anything constructed from the hands of Michelangelo is royalty in the art world. Art historians admire his incredible ability to envision something shockingly elaborate out of a blank wall or a rigid piece of stone.
Additionally, La Pietà is known for its pyramidal structure, with Mary’s head serving at the vortex of the shape. Though extremely out of proportion, the shape of La Pietà has been vastly lauded for its uniqueness and holiness.
Aside from the artist’s fame and the sculpture’s disproportion, La Pietà was involved in a breaking news scandal that contributed to the work’s fame. In 1972, a man named Laszlo Toth attacked the famous structure with a hammer after jumping over a rail inside of the Basilica.
He smashed the sculpture repeatedly while yelling “I am Jesus Christ.” He severed Madonna’s entire left arm and left blows to her entire body. This attack on such a renowned work of art led to one of the most difficult art restorations to date. The restored work of art now sits behind a large bullet-proof glass shield.
5. 91 Popes are Buried Under the Basilica
91 popes are buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, including the beloved John Paul II who was buried here in 2005. As you walk around the church you will see some of the most monumental ones decorating the various niches along the corridors. As time has gone on, it has been impossible to house all of them above ground, so they began housing them below ground in what is called the Papal tombs or crypt.
The mix of popes buried here is quite eclectic. For example, you can see the saint Gregory I and the powerful Pope Alexander VII. If you go underground you will find Bonficate VIII who was notoriously corrupt and a member of the Colonna family slapped him. On a more secular note, you even have the Queen Christina of Sweden buried here!
4. St. Peter’s Toes are Coming Off
As you near the Baldacchino by Bernini, you might notice a line forming on your right hand side. That is a line of people who are waiting to touch the foot of the statue of St. Peter as a blessing.
The statue was built by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century and is one of the only bronze statues that still exist from the middle ages. Tradition over the centuries has been to rub his right foot as a blessing. When you get close you will see that due to the constant rubbing, his toes have completely worn away! Now people have started rubbing his left foot as well!
2. You Can See a Dead Body in Plain Site
Innocent XI stands out as one of the most important popes of the 17th century. He stood out for his superior morals and his shunning of nepotism and corruption in a time when both of these attributes plagued the papacy. His involvement in the victory of Austria against the Ottoman Empire was key in stopping the spread of Islam into Western Europe.
Curiously he is buried in full view for all to see inside the church. He is fully clothed and has a mask over his face and hands so that you cannot see his bones. To view him, he is right below the painting ( mosaic, see below) of the Transfiguration by Raphael.
1. The Paintings are Actually Mosaic!
I will let you in on a little secret about the paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no paintings! They are actually all glass or ceramic mosaics. In the 19th century the many paintings that were in the church were beginning to deteriorate due to the humid conditions inside the Basilica.
This is why when you are in the Basilica you can take photos with a flash because you are taking a picture of glass and not of a painting so no damage will be done. You have to get up very close to the picture in order to see the glare of light on it and the little squares of glass and ceramic. A great surprise to show your friends when you are there.
I Want More Italy!
- Check out our YouTube video and step-by-step guide about how to do Rome in a Day. If you’d rather let us guide you, check out our Rome tours.
- Not sure where to stay in Rome? Read this guide!
- Follow our adventures in Italy on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Then, comment and tell us what you want us to cover next.