St. Peter’s Square is one of the most famous squares in the world and one of the most visited place in Italy – well, sort of. Indeed, did you know that this stunning monument is not politically Italian? Although its geographic position is undoubtedly in the center of Italy, and it’s referred to as one of the prettiest squares in Rome, St. Peter’s Square is actually part of the Vatican State, as the last possession left after the Catholic Church’s Empire was dismantled during the various post-Renaissance wars and revolutions.
Regardless of that, St. Peter’s Square is the very symbol of Rome. It’s a masterpiece of Baroque architecture that has seen artists like Raffaello, Michelangelo, Bernini, and many more contributing to its making and splendor.
Curious to find out more about it? Continue reading to find out everything you need to know before visiting this masterpiece which has always been the symbol of Christianity.
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What You Must Know About St. Peter’s Square, Rome
A Short History of St. Peter’s Square, Rome
The area where now you can admire St Peter’s Square has been used as a meeting point since the Roman eras. Being, in fact, in the center of Rome, it was an easy spot to group together and enjoy all sorts of activities. At some point, there even was a circus there, which became known as the Circus of Nero. It was under this emperor, and in his circus, that St. Peter was martyrized, leading to the birth of the most sacred place of all Christianity.
About two centuries after Nero’s death, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the building of the first St. Peter’s Cathedral. In order to build the church, the hills and steep streets in the area had to be leveled: this led to the discovery of an enormous necropolis and to the beginning of a centuries-long project to build a square that could bear the title of “Symbol of Christianity”.
During the time of Constantine, however, only the Cathedral was made and the leveled area in front of the church was left as it was. A fountain was added in the 5th century but the ever-growing population of Rome rapidly occupied the empty open space with houses and other buildings.
Throughout time, several pieces were added and others demolished, the old cathedral dating back to Constantine’s time was completely rebuilt, and many great artists took part in the constructions, but it wasn’t until the late 1600s that St. Peter’s square finally started to look like the modern masterpiece it is now.
The Papacy was well aware, at the time, that the Cathedral was the center and symbol of their religion, and wanted the whole area to look stunning and holy, to impress worshippers and pagans alike.
The project was entrusted, like many others at the time, to what became known as Rome’s favorite artis: Gian Lorenzo Bernini. After some twists and turns (and rejected sketches), Bernini finally got permission to destroy a part of the buildings on the square, to make the space broader, and started the construction of the semi-circular colonnades.
He then commissioned his apprentices with the 140 statues meant to decorate the building; moved one fountain a bit to the side, and built another, twinning one on the other. The final result is St. Peter’s Square as we know it today.
Where is St. Peter’s Square?
St. Peter’s Square is located slightly outside Rome’s historical center and is a part of the border between Italy and the Vatican. This border is so important and respected that, during WWII, even the Nazi soldiers who invaded Rome didn’t trespass. They kept standing guard around the square, but never dared to step one foot in the Vatican!
How to get to St. Peter’s Square
There are a few ways to get to St. Peter’s Square, Rome.
ON FOOT: You can walk along via della Conciliazione from Castel Sant’Angelo or get in from the sides.
BY BUS: Lines 23, 62, 64, and 982 all have stops close to St. Peter’s Square.
BY METRO: the closest subway stop “Ottaviano”, on line A. From there, you will need to walk for about ten minutes – in a straight line.
Guided tours of St. Peter’s Square, Rome
If you don’t want to miss a single detail or corner of St. Peter’s Square, you could try and book a guided tour. Some of them will also bring you to Castel Sant’Angelo, another amazing building less than 1 km away from the square.
What are the main attractions in St Peter’s Square?
St Peter’s Basilica
The first San Peter’s Basilica was built under Constantine in 320 AD, but was slowly buried and finally partially demolished during the 15th century, when the 200 years-long construction works for the new cathedral began.
This epic job involved architects and artists of national fame such as Michelangelo, who designed the dome; Bernini, who created the whole square’s arrangement; Carlo Maderno, the author of the church’s majestic front, and a hundred others.
The first thing you will see once you enter the Basilica is the worldwide famous Pietà, sculpted by Michelangelo at the age of 23. After that, it’s a continuous show of wonders for your eyes: from the Baldacchino (Bernini’s work) on the altar to the mosaics, from the tombs sculpted by Canova to the lamps made to eternally light St. Peter’s tomb, every step you’ll make will show you something you didn’t see before.
One of the main attractions of the Basilica is of course its dome. You will need to pay an extra €10 fee to climb up the stairs or use the elevator, but the view you’ll get once there it’s worth every penny! The Dome was designed by Michelangelo and was completed by Giacomo Della Porta.
My recommendation is to book a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. There is too much to see and it’s easy to miss some important details if you visit alone! You can book yours here.
Read my post A Guide To Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square is the second tallest in Rome and was originally erected in Heliopolis, in Egypt. Caligula ordered to bring it to Rome and the pillar was put in the Circus, which later became famous as the Circus of Nero. Since it is believed that St. Peter was martyrized there, the Obelisk was firstly moved from the square in front of the Cathedral and then never moved again.
When Bernini was asked to plan a new design for St. Peter’s Square, he faced a few difficulties because of the obelisk: since he couldn’t move it, he had to prepare several sketches before reaching an agreement with both the Pope and the civil engineers! In the end, he opted for leveling the square and keeping the Obelisk’s area as the lowest, so that the Basilica wasn’t covered by it.
The Obelisk is the only one in Rome without hieroglyphics and was “Christianized” by the Popes Sisto V and Innocent XIII with their respective symbols. Until Sisto V ordered its transfer, there was a metal ball atop of the Obelisk: it was believed that it contained Julius Caesar’s ashes. However, when the content was inspected, it turned out to be simple dust and not human remains. The ball is now exposed in the Capitoline Museums.
Read my post The Many Obelisks Of Rome.
There are two twin fountains in St. Peter’s Square, Rome. One was built in the 5th century to decorate the space in front of the fist cathedral, while the second one was added during the construction of the Colonnade.
The first fountain was completely restored by Carlo Maderno in 1614, when he destroyed the three-steps structure and added the Pope’s symbols together with dolphins and a bigger basin, to make everything more impressing. The fountain wasn’t, however, moved from its original position. It was Bernini who, later on, decided to put the Ancient Fountain on the south-western side of the square.
However, Bernini realized quite soon that moving the fountain had made the square look asymmetrical: therefore he decided to design a second, twin fountain, to install on the north-eastern side. The second fountain looks identical to the first except for the Pope’s emblem, because the previous Pope (Paul V) had been replaced by Clemente X.
Check out my post Where To See The Works Of Bernini In Rome.
The Colonnade with the statues
The Colonnade marks the border between Italy and the Vatican, and is one of Bernini’s masterpieces. It was designed so that the people entering the square and approaching the Basilica would feel like they were being hugged, in a majestic representation of God’s unconditional love for the worshippers. The two sides are, in fact, called bracci (arms, in Italian) and their semi-circular shape really gives the impression of something, or someone, ready to envelop whoever is close enough.
The Colonnade consists of 284 Doric columns and 88 pillars made with Tivoli travertine, divided into four lines. Above them, about 140 statues of saints and popes decorate the roof.
The whole building looks stunning especially when seen from the end of the square, and there even is an optical illusion that makes it all the more interesting. The most famous trick is the disk at the center of the square (the one saying “Centro del colonnato”): if you stand there, the Colonnade will look like a lonely row of columns instead of four!
Head over to my post The Most Beautiful Statues In Rome.
Where to get the best views of St. Peter’s Square
St. Peter’s Square is beautiful from every perspective, but if you want to have a breathtaking view of it you need to climb the Dome. From up there, you will be able to enjoy not only the square to its fullest but also a good portion of Rome. You can take some great pictures, too, so the €10 ticket you pay to climb up for the experience is well worth the money!
Read my post Where To Get The Best Views Of Rome.
Interesting events in St. Peter’s Square, Rome
The Pope’s mass
The Pope holds a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica during every big festivity and for special occasions. On other days, he celebrates mass in a small chapel in Santa Marta, his residence. This place, being a private space and not a big church, holds about 50 seats, 25 of which are reserved for Rome’s citizens and the other half for the general public.
Of course, you will need to book your seat and the competition is fierce, making it quite difficult to take part in one of these daily masses.
If you still want to give it a try, you will need to send a formal written request to Segreteria di Sua Santità Francesco, Casa Santa Marta, 00120 Città del Vaticano. If you are selected, you will be given a date for participation, which you can’t change.
The Pope celebrates the Angelus every Sunday from a window of the Apostolic Palace. If you want to be sure to see it, you should get to St. Peter’s Square between 6:00 and 7:00 am. The Pope usually makes a short speech and then gives his blessings to the crowd. The event is less than half an hour long (from 12:00 to 12:20 pm). The square is super crowded on Sundays, so if you aren’t there to see the Pope but only to visit the attractions, you’d better pick another day!
The Papal Audience
If you want to take part in the General Audience held each Wednesday by the Pope, you must book it in advance on the site of the Vatican, where you will find all the instructions.
Alternatively, you can book it via a third party site and have a guide that will show you around during the entire event. You can book it here.
Make sure to arrive on-site a few hours before the start of the event. The Vatican City is very strict with security measures and there will be a lot of people who, like you, want to meet the Pope and will be lining to get checked and access St. Peter’s Square.
Christmas in St. Peter’s Square
St. Peter’s Square is really beautiful during Christmas. There are several nativity scenes that are sent from all around the world, and starting from Pope John Paul II a Christmas tree has been added to the decorations as well.
Everything during Christmas time shines with a different, more magical light: the Nativity and the Christmas tree at the feet of the Obelisk are only the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of events prepared for people of all ages! After all, Christmas celebrates inclusion and tolerance, and what better place than St. Peter’s Square to keep that tradition alive?
Make sure to read my post The Most Interesting Facts About Vatican City.