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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of St Peter’s Square in Vatican City

What is St Peter’s Square?

St Peter’s Square is a 17th-century elliptical piazza designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, featuring two curving colonnades and decorated with hundreds of statues depicting saints and martyrs.

view of St Peter’s Square

St Peter’s Square History

With its elliptical shape, Bernini’s design for St Peter’s Square, commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, has been universally acclaimed as an architectural masterpiece. The square features 284 gigantic Doric columns in the colonnade, 88 pilasters (or rectangular columns), and 140 statues of saints and martyrs.

In the middle of the square are two fountains, one to your right as you enter designed by Carlo Maderno, and a copy created 50 years later by Bernini, as well as an Egyptian obelisk placed there before the creation of the colonnade. Sadly, little is known about the origins of the granite monolith (since it is devoid of hieroglyphs). However, we do know that it was brought from Alexandria in the 1st century AD by Emperor Caligula, who put it in the ancient racing stadium that previously stood nearby.

In 1586, Pope Sixtus V decided to erect the obelisk in St Peter’s Square. This arduous undertaking took four months to complete, and an astonishing 900 men, 150 horses, and 47 cranes were required to raise the 350-ton monument to its full height. In the 18th century a charming story was invented about the process: the Pope supposedly ordered all the labourers to be silent while the work was in progress. They dutifully began their wordless toil, however when the ropes began to chafe on the granite and threatened to snap, one of the workers broke the Pope’s command. He cried out, ‘Acqua alle funi!’, or ‘Wet the ropes!’. Rather than face punishment, the Pope congratulated him for disobeying the order and bestowed honours on him and his family.

To create surprise, Bernini wanted to enclose the square and mask the façade. As a result, the basilica would be hidden from view until visitors entered the gap in the colonnade. However, the architect changed his mind, and created a trapezoidal entrance court, with via della Conciliazione offering a distant view of the basilica. Bernini, therefore, managed to create a structure that appears both open and closed simultaneously. The shape of the square’s two curving arms is now symbolically explained as the Catholic Church opening its arms to the world.

Just in front of the basilica’s steps, on either side, are enormous 19th-century statues of St Peter (on the left) and St Paul (on the right) looking down from their grand pedestals. Before you leave, head to either halfway point between the obelisk and each fountain. There you’ll find a stone disk inscribed with the words ‘centro del colonnato’. Stand on one and you’ll see the illusion that each of the colonnades has only a single row of columns.

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