The History of Rome: The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica

 Introduction – The History of Rome: St Peter’s in the Vatican (San Pietro in Vaticano)

St Peter's Square Rome Italy
A panorama of St Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy

The history of Rome is fascinating and is occasionally the subject of posts here such as the history of the Colosseum and the history of the Pantheon. I have been to Rome many times and consider it my second home. The area we call the Vatican was in ancient Roman times a suburban area of Rome and included a Circus (horse chariot racing track). The circus had various names including Circus Vaticanus, the Circus of Nero and the Circus of Caligula and is the site of St Peter’s upside down crucifixion. The church you see today is the second such structure on this spot, sometimes called “New St Peter’s.” It has almost nothing in common with Old St Peter’s, the first church built here (by Constantine’s decree) in 321 CE.

The Ancient Topography and Architecture of the Vatican Area

The Circus

The original structure here, the circus, is now buried well below the current level of Piazza San Pietro – St Peter’s Square – and is the bottom most of three layers. The topmost layer is New St Peter’s, next is Old St Peter’s and the lowest is the aforementioned Circus Vaticanus. The spina (the long narrow center divider) of the Circus lines up a pair of Imperial mausoleums intended for Theodosius from Old St Peter’s  built over or near the traditional spot of Peter’s crucifixion.

His tomb is located in a spot that both churches use(d) as their centerpiece; the high altar. Assuming you approached St Peter’s Square from the typical direction (walking westward from Castel Sant Angelo or southward from the metro station), you are at the eastern edge of Piazza San Pietro, looking at the church façade. What you see in front of you is a vast flat area with the largest church in Christendom as the centerpiece.

Approach to St Peter's Square in Rome, Italy
Approach to St Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy

The Hill

This area did not always look like this; in ancient times the area where the church is now was a hill; the original architects of Old St Peter’s carted off part of the hill to make room for the church. The architects for New St Peter’s carted off more to make room for the bigger project. The spot you are currently standing on marks the corner of the north side of the track and the carcere (car CHAY ray), the starting gates. A slight turn to your left (counter or anti-clockwise) and you face down the northern edge of the track.

The spina, the central divide of the track, began at a point about a third of the way down the straight structure on the left that connects the ellipse with the front of the church. The far end terminated well beyond the back of the current basilica, but the spina ended at a point perpendicular to the current church’s outer apse wall.

The obelisk in the center of the square was originally placed on the center point of the spina in Nero’s time. Peter was crucified upside down on that spina in 64 CE. The legend is that Nero himself rode a chariot around the track as Peter was dying on his inverted crucifix. There’s nothing left of the stadium above ground, but a palazzo to your left apparently has some carcere remnants in it’s basement.

St Peter's Square Rome Italy at Night
St Peter’s Square Rome Italy at Night

Old St Peter’s in the Vatican

After Peter’s martyrdom, his followers buried him next to the circus, in a tomb set at the time into the bluff of the Vatican Hill. His was not the only tomb there, though. The necropolis was already well established, with a mixture of both pagan and Christian tomb sites. Constantine ordered a large church built on the site to commemorate Peter’s martyrdom and to encourage the growth of the religion. The area was leveled and the church’s altar center built directly over the tomb. Construction started in 321 and completed 8 years later.

The original church’s design included a large atrium in the front surrounded by porticoes. In the center of the atrium was a fountain called the Fountain of Symmachus whose centerpiece was a large bronze pine cone. This pine cone still exists and can be seen in one of the courtyards of the Vatican Museum today. To help orient yourself; the actual entrance to the old church was pretty much in the same location as the entrance to the current church. To get a very good idea of what Old St Peter’s looked like inside, we just need to visit San Paulo Fuori le Mura, a large basilica built next to the Ostiense Road south of the city. The layout and the style were very similar; both are and were five nave churches.

New St Peter’s in the Vatican

The New Church

Eventually Old St Peter’s began to feel its age; the walls were threatening to collapse inward and destroy the church. A new church was decreed by Pope Julius II in 1505, construction began the next year and the project completed in 1626, 120 years and 19 Popes later. Pope Julius II held a design competition and the winner was Donatello Bramante. Many of the entries can still be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Michelangelo was given the title of capomaestro (literally “headmaster”) in 1547 and was able to ensure the completion of the project with his vision of the design nearly intact. It was during his time that the dome was begun to his design, an ovoid shape with two shells, an inner one and an outer one.

Giacomo della Porta completed the dome in 1590. Standing above the altar under the dome is the 4 story high bronze baldacchino, created from the confiscation and melting of the bronze roofing tiles from the Pantheon. Designed by Bernini, the construction of this huge free-standing bronze altar cover and free-standing piece started in 1623 and completed in 1634.

St Peter Rome Italy Baldachino
St Peter Rome Italy Baldachino

Final Work

The final work in the area was to create the space of St Peter’s Square. The colonnade that surrounds the square emulates the welcoming arms of the Church, with a trapezoidal area near the building that gives the illusion of the church being closer than it is, and the second area further out, ellipsoidal in shape and surrounded by the almost but not quite enclosing colonnade.

The History of Rome: The Pantheon

In keeping with a previous post about another Rome monument, this entry will be about the Pantheon. Built in the early 2nd century, designed by Hadrian and a temple dedicated to all the gods, the Pantheon is truly one of the great buildings of the world.

Rome, Italy's Pantheon under a full moon
Rome, Italy’s Pantheon under a full moon

It is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world; 43 m across and from the top of the drum to the ceiling center is also 43 m – a perfect hemisphere.

It was preserved through Rome’s darkest hours; even the Popes knew this was a special building. It was dedicated as a Catholic church for all martyrs in the early 7th century.

The bronze doors you walk through are the originals; nearly 2 000 years old.

Rome Italy's Pantheon interior
Rome Italy’s Pantheon interior

The columns in the portico are granite. The dome’s roof was obronze plates but a Barberini Pope had them removed and melted down to make the bronze baldacchino in New St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican.

Rome, Italy's Pantheon with Motorcycle
Rome, Italy’s Pantheon with Motorcycle
Easily my favorite place in Rome, the Pantheon remains as beautiful and artful as it was the day it was completed.

The History of Rome: The Colosseum

 Rome was founded in 753 BC and eventually grew to be an ancient city of 2 million people. The Colosseum as we call it but called by the ancient Roman people as The Flavian Amphitheater was built over a period of between 8 and 10 years and completed in 80 AD. It was used continuously for nearly 5 centuries thereafter.


Built by Vespasian, first of the Flavian Emperors (and who came to power after the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Nero, committed suicide). The Colosseum was both a huge public work and a propaganda piece. It was financed by the spoils of the war that resulted in what we call the Diaspora, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Israel and the scattering of the Jewish peoples from the Holy Land.

Vespasian built it on land that under Nero had been the site of his private palace. The architectural design was carefully considered. It mirrors the architecture of a building nearby called the Theater of Marcellus, built by Augustus 80 years earlier. So, by demolishing the hated Nero’s lavish palace and grounds and giving the land back to the people by building this grand amphitheater and by designing it to look like a building by Augustus, Vespasian was making two political statements:

1) The old ways and the old dynasty are no more and

2) the new emperor wants to emulate the first and greatest of all the emperors, Augustus, and will return the Roman people to those times.


It is a favorite place of mine and I have photographed it many times. This photo of the Roman Colosseum at dusk was taken right after sunset in October, 2003.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum at twilight. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.

I used my then-brand new Canon PowerShot G3 and a small tripod set on the banister next to the sidewalk of Via Colosseo, which runs along the front edge of the Oppian Hill, directly across from the Colosseum itself.

This image of the Roman Colosseum at night is a three image panorama done at the same time and location as the one above.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum at night. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.

This interior shot of the Roman Colosseum is a multi-image panorama as well.

Rome, Italy’s Colosseum interior panorama. Built by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 AD, the Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome for 2 000 years. Gladiators fought animals and themselves, sometimes to the death, for over 300 years in this arena.