On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

The Vatican


The Obelisk in St. Peter's Square marks the center of Vatican City, the heart of the Catholic Church and the world's smallest independent state. In size, it measures only 109 acres, but has its own police force, telephone and mail system, and publishes its own newspaper — the Roman Observer. The state is ruled by the pontiff himself, in accordance with the terms of the Lateran Treaty, concluded in 1929.

The square was laid out by the artist Bernini and finished in the mid-1600s. Its shape was meant to suggest the gathering embrace of the Church. The Egyptian obelisk is 131 feet high, and was the first one to be raised in modern times. It set a trend which led to the raising of the well-known obelisks in Paris and London. The obelisk used to stand to the left of St. Peter's, but in 1586 Pope Sixtus V had it moved to its present site. The work was carried out by 900 men, using 140 horses, and took more than four months. At one point, the obelisk nearly slipped out of the ropes and crashed to the ground, but was saved by pouring water on the ropes to make them shrink and hold the obelisk more tightly.

Practically every major architect in 17th-century Rome had a hand in planning the basilica. Michelangelo's plans were largely followed for the dome, though the rest of the building was designed first by Bramante, then altered by Raphael, Michelangelo himself (who was now 71 years old), della Porta, and finally Maderno, who completed the façade in 1614. The building was consecrated with great pomp on November 18, 1626.

The second window in from the right (on the top floor) is where the pope gives his blessing every Sunday except in the summer, when he is at Castelgandolfo.

The Facade  Up until 1940, it was believed that the basilica stood on the site of Nero's circus, where so many early Christians were martyred, including St. Peter himself. But excavations begun in 1940 under Pius XII revealed no trace of the circus. All that we know for sure is that the original basilica of St. Peter, built by the Emperor Constantine, stood here and that several ancient tombs (some Christian, some pagan) lie under the altar.

Just above the central portal is the papal loggia — a balcony from which each newly-elected pope gives his first Apostolic Blessing. Twenty-nine popes have given that blessing here since the building was completed.

Proceed into the front portico. You will see five doors leading into the basilica proper. The one on the extreme right is opened every 25 years for Jubilee Year. The rest of the time it is walled up. The bronze central door is one of the finest in Rome. It is the work of Filarete, who spent twelve years (1433-45) on it.

The Nave  While standing at the back of the nave, your first impression of the interior might well be a little disappointing. Only gradually does the mammoth proportions of the building dawn on you. One thing you will notice right away is the huge canopy over the altar, known technically as the baldacchino. It is one of the greatest of Bernini's achievements, and took over 10 years to make. The canopy was fashioned with bronze taken from the portico of the Pantheon, and inaugurated on the 28th of June, 1633.

Proceed up the side aisle, past papal tombs and monuments, to the cathedra (bishop's chair) of St. Peter.

Cathedra of St. Peter  Of all Bernini's works, this has long been considered his chief glory. It is an elaborate bronze throne encasing a primitive wooden chair which was believed to be the one used by St. Peter himself. Surrounding and supporting the throne are Bernini's bronze statues of four great Doctors of the Church: SS Augustine and Ambrose in front, Athanasium and Chrysostom in back. Over and above this group clouds, gilded rays, and a mass of angelic figures are entwined, providing a frame for the central window in which the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers.

Main Alter  This area is known as the Confessional. It was designed to enable the faithful to pray on the tomb of St. Peter, and is surrounded by a balustrade upon which 95 gilded lamps burn perpetually. The excavations of the 1940s took place underneath the sunken floor.

Facing the altar, looking to the right, is a famous bronze statue of St. Peter, cast in the 13th century by Arnolfo di Cambio. You will notice that its right foot has been worn smooth by the kisses of pilgrims. Above the statue is a medallion, placed there in 1871 and portraying Pius IX, who was the first pope to exceed the 25 years of St. Peter's presumed pontificate, which according to an old tradition would never be exceeded. The medallion records the fact that it was.

The Pieta  This is the only sculpture that Michelangelo ever signed. He carved it in a single year when he was 24 for a commission of 450 gold ducats. It was once damaged by a fanatic who swung at it with a hammer, but has been painstakingly restored and is now protected by bullet-proof glass. If you look through the grille on the right, you will see the Colonna Santa (Holy Column), one of the spiral columns from the original basilica that preceded St. Peter's. It was believed to have been the one against which Christ leaned in the Temple of Solomon.


The Sistine Chapel is located in the Vatican Museums, approximately 7 blocks from St. Peter's. Go up the stairs of the Museums and down a long corridor to the Sistine Chapel. On the way you will pass such masterpieces as Raphael's School of Athens. Finally, a small passageway will bring you into the chapel itself. The dimness of the light may make the frescoes seem less bright than they really are, although during recent renovations, the colors were once more brought back to their initial vibrancy. Use your imagination to grasp the stupendous proportions of this undertaking.

The circumstances of its creation were extraordinary. In 1595, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to design a magnificent sculptured tomb. Michelangelo spent six months selecting the marble for the sculpture, but then Julius suddenly changed his mind and asked Michelangelo to finish decorating the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The chapel itself was built for an earlier pope, and the walls had been partially decorated during his reign by Botticelli and Pinturicchio. But to his astonishment, Michelangelo proposed painting the entire ceiling. Without experience of fresco technique, Michelangelo had taken on the greatest work of fresco the world had ever seen. Locking the door of the Sistine Chapel, he started on his Herculean task alone.

It was the summer of 1508, and Michelangelo was working only a few yards away from his arch-rival Raphael, who happened to be painting Pope Julius' apartments in the same building. Each must have had the other constantly in mind, and each strove to do his utmost and each produced a masterpiece: Michelangelo the ceiling, Raphael the School of Athens and other paintings. For months Michelangelo lay on his back on the scaffolding, with paint dripping onto his face and eyes, Finally he had part of the scaffolding taken down to show the pope what he had done. He had worked for four years, without rest, but was paid a mere 3,000 ducats.

The figures on the ceiling depict the "first epoch of creation". The major themes of this period are the Creation, Birth of Eve, the Fall, and other episodes from the book of Genesis. The most famous of these scenes is the creation of Adam, showing God extending his hand to give a portion of his own life to the first man.

The Last Judgment, on the wall behind the altar, was the product of a very different frame of mind. It was painted 22 years after the ceiling. The optimism and classical harmony of the ceiling had given way to pessimism and despair. The city of Rome had been sacked by the French in 1527, and Michelangelo, with many of his contemporaries, viewed this as a divine judgment on the luxury and excess of the Renaissance church. Pope Paul III aimed to reform the church, and he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment from the book of Revelation. During the seven years he worked on it, Michelangelo also was caught up in this spiritual regeneration. The most famous picture in the Last Judgment shows a man at the moment he realizes his damnation. As he slumps to his knees and clasps his head in one hand, he reminds us of Michelangelo himself, who too thought he had corrupted himself with his earlier art. How strange it is that these two very different outlooks — the optimism of the High Renaissance, and the pessimism which ushered in the baroque era — should come together in this chapel. They are the ceiling and the Last Judgment: Michelangelo's first, and his last, word.

In the spring of 1980, restorers cleaning frescoes in the entrance hall found themselves within reach of a Michelangelo lunette, one of the small architectural artifices between the ceiling and windows.

One restorer leaned over and dabbed a corner of the masterpiece. The result was breathtaking. The muted tones that had prompted generations of viewers to label Michelangelo and his work introspective turned out to consist almost entirely of grime caused by centuries of candle soot — beneath was a patch of incandescent color.

By early 1994, there was not a single patch of grunge left, the chapel's ceiling and frescoes were completely restored, and you are now able to enjoy the brilliant colors.

When you return to St. Peter's Square, take an elevator to the roof of the basilica. It takes you to the base of the dome, where you can walk around behind the huge statues on the facade. To reach the top of the dome, you climb a staircase that runs between the inner and outer domes. The view from the cupola at the tip of the dome stretches over the whole city and on a clear day reaches the sea.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2021 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy