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Angels and Demons Tour AIR – St Peter Basilica

Angels and Demons Tour: AIR – St Peter Basilica 

Buon giorno and welcome to A Road Retraveled!

In the last episode (Angels and Demons Tour: AIR: St Peter Square), we toured St Peter’s Square, also the Altar of Science representing AIR in the novel and movie Angels and Demons. We found the West Ponente that represents AIR, some amazing pagan and Christian symbols, exorcism formulas, impressive Bernini masterpieces and illusions, as well as the secret Bernini Heart.  In this episode we’re going inside the Basilica of St Peter.  Most of us who visit the Basilica, have no idea about it’s incredible history….why was it built here and by who? To find out, we have to go back in time nearly 1700 years!

This video was created in 2009, some things have changed since then…such as a new Pope Francis, and Pope John Paul II’s tomb is no longer underground. It’s inside the Basilica.

If you  only have 1 day in Rome to explore the places featured in Angels and Demons, book a day tour with Stefano Rome Tours and follow the footsteps of Robert Langdon in comfort.

Click on the banner below to find out more about the tour:

Angels and Demons Tour with Stefano Rome Tours

Angels and Demons Tour with Stefano Rome Tours


The Early First Basilica

Like many other churches in Rome dedicated to martyred saints were built on the spot of their martyrdom, so was St Peter’s Basilica.  Emperor Constantine built the first Basilica.  That’s right, this is NOT the first St Peter’s Basilica. The first basilica was built almost 300 years after St Peter was crucified upside down in Caligula’ Circus for his Christian religious beliefs during the reign of Emperor Nero. The Basilica was NOT built on the flat foundation of the Circus where Peter was martyred, but 500 feet outside the circus on a steep slope of Vatican Hill on top of an existing cemetery where Peter was buried in a trench covered by stones.

The profanation of a Roman cemetery was such a criminal offense that not even the highest officials in power would be able to escape the worst penalty possible. Not even the Emperor.  To  build on top of the cemetery, Emperor Constantine covered the tombs and graves with earth to create a flat platform for the foundation. So families who had tombs for generations, no longer had access to them. But on the bright side, those buried there would be forever a part of the foundation of the great St Peter’s Basilica.

Just as many pagan traditions were adapted by the new faith, so was pagan architecture by the early Christians.  The plan Constantine chose for the church was that of a Basilica, a Roman justice hall.  The former judge’s throne became the bishop’s throne. The assistant judges’ benches became those of the ministers. The altar of Minerva was replaced by Christ.

There are no records or frescoes to tell us what the basilica looked like, but what we do know is it was lavishly decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones. It was constantly repaired until 1500 when Pope Julius II decided the basilica needed to be replaced.

The Current Basilica

And in a controversial move only matched by Constantine 1200 years earlier, the Pope demolished the old basilica. A competition was held for the best design for the new basilica, and Donato Bramante won the commission. In 1506, Pope Julius II ceremoniously laid the first stone of the foundation.  Both the Constantinian and the present basilica were constructed in such a way that the papal altar is positioned directly over the original tomb of Peter.

Built large enough to hold 60,000 people, is the largest interior of a Christian Church in the world, and regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites.

The dome that defines the basilica rises to a total of 448 feet from the floor up, making it the tallest dome in the world. In diameter, at 464 feet, it’s just slightly smaller than the Pantheon in Rome and the Duomo in Florence…both of which have been great inspiration for the design and studied carefully for construction methods that were applied to St Peter’s dome.  And who better to be in charge of this ultimate masterpiece of architecture? None other than Michelangelo….although he died before the dome began to take shape, his plans were followed to the T.

It took 120 years, several popes, more money than God, and an elite group of artists like Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini to complete the Basilica. It’s said that the basilica may have been partially funded by selling “indulgences”, or buying forgiveness from the church, a controversial practice was deemed by the likes of Martin Luther as corrupt. The sophisticated, impressive and uplifting Baroque façade was created by Moderno, the same architect to designed the first fountain in the piazza.

When you look at the façade, there’s a lot going on there.  It’s topped with 13 statues of Christ the Redeemer and his 12 apostles overlooking the piazza.  Right underneath is an inscription that reads: “Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, erected in honor f the Prince of Apostles.” I’m telling you, these popes took credit for their deeds seriously!


The Swiss Guards 

Before you even enter the Basilica you’ll notice guards wearing brightly colored uniforms and holding pikes. They may look like pretty boys, but they’re lethal. They’re the Swiss Guards, the Pope’s elite body guards from Switzerland.

The pope credited to organizing this group of guards was Pope Julius II, which he did so on the same year of the construction of this basilica. The pope wasn’t pleased that Rome’s nastiest Barons had better protection than the HE did. So he decided to build the Papal Army in agreement with the Swiss Confederacy that provided him with a personal army of 6,000. This army lasted 1825 when the number dwindled down to 100 men that included four officers, a chaplain, 23 non-comissioned officers, 2 drummers and 70 halberdiers…a 16th century term for a man holding a spear, or a halberd.

So, ok, If you’re also wondering what fashion designer would dress the Papal army in such colorful frou-frou uniforms, well, many versions are floating around. Some say it was Raphael, some say it was inspired by drawings by Michelangelo, but it’s generally credited to Jules Repond who created these more modern uniforms in 1914.  It’s apparent that none of these men were actual fashion designers.


The Loggia of the Blessings is where a new Pope is announced and gives the Urbi et Orbi blessing.

The clock on the left that gives the exact time in Rome is called the Italian clock.. The clock on the right with only 1 hand showing the European mean time is called Otramontano. The wrong time on the north clock is an alleged attempt to keep the Devil guessing about “the day and the hour.” I guess it was assumed the Devil didn’t have elsewhere in Rome to look for the time but here.

Between the façade and the interior of the Basilica is the portico that contains an 18th century statue of Charlemagne on one end, and an equestrian sculpture of Emperor Constantine by Bernini on the other end.

The northernmost bronze door is the Holy Door, and is by tradition only opened for great celebrations such as Jubilee years.

The door in the center was preserved from the old basilica. It was too small for its new space, so panels were added at the top and bottom. Known as the Filarete Door after the artist’s nickname, it has six panels that depict events relating to St Peter and Paul.

The door far to the left is the Door of Death because its traditional use was as the exit for funeral processions, and because its large relief panels depict the death.

Interior of the Basilica

When you enter, prepare yourself to be astonished! The distance from here to the far end is 2 football fields.  When Bernini created the piazza, he gave it the impression of being larger than it actually is. For the church, he gave it the impression that is quite smaller than it actually is, bringing the heavens and Earth together.  If you look ahead at the bronze canopy above the altar, the Baldacchino, that is 7 stories tall. The cupids on the holy water stoups are over 6 feet tall. All of the statues are not the same height, the further up they go, the bigger the statues get…by as much as 5 feet!  When you walk around and see paintings, they’re not made with paint, they’re made using tiny mosaics. This way, elements and flash lights don’t damage them.

While still standing by the entrance, look down. The round disc of red porphyry is where king Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, inside the former Constantinian basilica. He was the first of 21 emperors to kneel on this same disc.

Here are some interesting stats:

The basilica is 275,000 square feet or 6 acres

it has 44 altars, 11 domes

778 columns

395 statues

135 mosaics.

Nave is 613 feet long

transept is 460 feet wide.

No way this can’t be the largest church in the world.

For good measure, check out the markings on the floor indicating how it measures against the largest churches in the world, including St Paul’s in London, the Duomo in Florence, and even St Patrick’s in New York among others. And in case we’re not convinced by now who this church is dedicated to, wrapped around the entire church in 7 foot tall letters, is just about every quote from Jesus to Peter written in the bible.

When inside, you feel immediately drawn to the altar underneath the dome. Looking up at the dome, it’s impossible to imagine its height measures the length of an entire football field. The Statue of Liberty could easily stand underneath it, even a space shuttle!  Decorated in mosaic, it looks like it’s made of gold.

Bernini’s Masterpiece

When Gianlorenzo Bernini first visited St Peter’s as a young boy, he was so moved that he aspired to one day build a mighty throne for the apostle.  His wish came true when Pope Urban VIII hired him in 1626 as architect for the basilica where Bernini spent the next 50 years thinking of bigger and better designs to adorn the church.  So incredible his work was, that he’s always been regarded as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest Baroque architect and sculptor.

One of his first commissions was to design the “baldacchino” above the altar. At nearly 100 feet tall, and 90 tons, it’s probably the largest piece of bronze in the world. It has 4 huge twisted columns decorated with olive leaves and bees – the bees being the symbol of Pope Urbans Barberini family.

In the video I show you some secrets that you’d never guess by looking at the base of the Baldacchino!

Flags and tassels appear to blow in the wind, reminiscent of the portable canopies used in Eucharistic processions. It’s topped with small angels playfully supporting the Pope’s emblems: keys, a papal tiara, the Scriptures, and a sword. It’s crowned with a globe and a cross.

This baldacchino caused a lot of contoversy because it was suspected to be the recipient of bronze pillaged from classical buildings like the portico ceiling of the Pantheon. Of course, the Pope denied it. None the less, the Pope and the Barberini family did not escape people’s scorn with the infamous public sentiment that is still repeated today: “What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did”.

The Saints

Bernini had another brilliant idea….he used Bramante’s big pillars to create niches for 4 very important statues that represent 4 precious relics the church is in possession of.

Saint Veronica is the woman who according to tradition wiped the face of Jesus on his way to the Cross.  The veil she used is said to have been imprinted with the face of Jesus, and the relic piece of fabric brought from Jerusalem during the crusades is believed to be Veronica’s veil due to an impression of a face of a bearded man. The name Veronica derives from the words Vero and Icon, true image.. It’s also in this area where Pope Julius II laid the first stone of this basilica on April 18, 1506.

Saint Andrew was Peter’s brother who was martyred on the Andrew Cross in Grece, and it contains some of his bones.  His head was sent to Rome to be near his brother, but in 1966 it headed back, no pun intended, to the church of St Andrew in Patras by Pope Paul VI as a sign of friendship with the Green Orthodox Church.

Saint Helen is the mother of Emperor Constantine, and a devout Christian. She’s said to have sought the true cross and in the loggia above, are fragments of the True Cross of Jesus. In her other hand are 2 nails.

Saint Longitus, sculpted by Bernini, was the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus on the cross. Longitus converted afterwards, and the relic piece of his lance was given to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 by Sultan Bajazet.

This is the end of Part 1. Please continue the show to Part 2. 

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