St Peter’s Basilica - History and Facts | History Hit

St Peter’s Basilica

Vatican City

St Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest of Christian sites in the world, with a history dating back to Ancient Rome.

Lily Johnson

19 Jul 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About St Peter’s Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is one of the most important Christian sites in the world, and is a church (rather than a cathedral) with a long and illustrious history.

Also known as the ‘Papal Basilica of Saint Peter’ and in Italian as ‘Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano’, St Peter’s Basilica sits over the site of the tomb of its namesake.

St Peter’s Basilica history

St Peter was one of the twelve apostles in Christianity and is believed to have been crucified at the Circus of Nero, on which St Peter’s Basilica was constructed. At that time, the Circus of Nero also had a cemetery.

The first basilica to be built over the Circus of Nero was constructed in 324 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Visitors to St Peter’s Basilica can still see the shrine in his honour, and the saint himself is thought to be buried under the Papal altar.

The current St Peter’s Basilica began to form in the 15th century and was expanded and added to by various popes and architects over the 16th and 17th centuries, transforming it into the largest church in the world.

Whilst much of the building was designed by Bernini, the most celebrated architectural aspect of St Peter’s Basilica is probably its vast dome. Designed by Michelangelo in the mid-16th century, but not finished until after his demise, the dome of St Peter’s rises a magnificent 448 feet in height.

St Peter’s Basilica today

Inside St Peter’s Basilica, visitors can view a wealth of historical art, mostly Renaissance-era, and the tombs of popes such as Pope Pius XI (d.1939), Pope John XXIII (d. 1963) and Pope John Paul II (d. 2005). Many of their tombs are located in the basilica’s Grottoes.

Some of the highlights in terms of the artistic masterpieces at St Peter’s Basilica include Michelangelo’s statue Pieta, Arnolfo di Cambio’s Statue of St. Peter Enthroned, the foot of which pilgrims traditionally touch, and Bernini’s golden Monument to Pope Alexander VII.

St Peter’s Basilica is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Historic Centre of Rome. This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Italy.

Getting to St Peter’s Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica is located in the Vatican City near central Rome. Roma S. Pietro train station is a 12-minute walk away, Ottaviano Underground station is an 11-minute walk away, and Risorgimento/S. Pietro tram stop is a 6-minute walk away. A number of bus stops are also dotted around the site, with the closest the Cavalleggeri stop, a 5-minute walk away.

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