Buon giorno and welcome to A Road Retraveled!
The Angels and Demons tour in Rome continues to the Vatican to St Peter’s Square which is “altar of Science: AIR“. Here we discover Bernini’s architectural wonders, more pagan and Christian symbols, and last but not last, one of the St Peter’s Square well kept secrets: the Bernini Heart.
Do 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.
The West Ponente is part of the Wind Rose that surrounds the obelisk in the center of the piazza. The Wind Rose is an ancient diagram, but added to the square in mid 1800’s. Marked on elliptical white marble markers, it uses the name of each of the 16 compass points along with the name of the wind that comes from each of those directions. The West Ponente is not always easy to find since it’s often in the area that’s closed off for the Papal Audience seating.
When you first walk into St Peter’s Square, you feel embraced into the immense arms of Bernini’s colonnades, with the Basilica at the head. A master of illusion, Bernini not only gave the piazza an impression of a space larger than it actually is, but he also increased the diameter of the columns, making those at the center slimmer than the ones towards the ends.
And check out another one of Bernini’s cool artistic trick. If you stand on one of these two disks, one on each side of the piazza, the columns appear as though they’re one row, not four.
The Greek classical style inspired Bernini to create these 284 columns that are 55 feet tall, in the simple Doric order. On top of the colonnades are 140 statues of 10 foot tall saints. You’ll also see 6 papal coat of arms of Alexander VII located around the square. That’s because it was due to Pope Alexander VII that the square looks like it does today. And it’s not because it was HIS idea, he criticized Bernini’s vision of an elliptical square instead of a square that was originally supposed to be, well, square.
Bernini’s brilliance was also evident when had to deal with a large granite fountain designed by Maderno in 1613 and set to the left side of the obelisk. Bernini used the fountain as a center point to the arched colonnade, and created an identical one on the other side for balance. Pure genius!!
And in the center stands the witness….the monument that has been a quiet observer of this place for more than 2 thousand years.
The Vaticano obelisk standing at a staggering 84 feet, was originally raised in the Forum Iulium in Alexandria in around 30 B C. It was then brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD for the spina, or the center spine of the Vatican Circus, which got its name from the Vatican Hill on which it was located. Vatican Hill is across the Tiber River from the 7 hills Rome is said to have been built on.
The original place where the Obelisk previously stood was inside the Vatican City. Right next to the Scavi Tour office you can see the marker where the obelisk used to be until 1586 when it was moved. The process took 5 months and required about 900 men, 140 horses, 45 cranes, and 1 soldier who saved it from imminent distruction. The obelisk almost crashed when the ropes used to hoist it began to burn from the intense friction. If it weren’t for a sailor in the crowd to holler to the workers to pour water on the rope, we may not be talking about this obelisk right now. This is also the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled over at all since Roman times.
During the Middle Ages, a gilt ball that was on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. But when the ball was removed, guess what they found? Nothing! The ball is now in a museum in Rome.
The inscriptions on the north and south sides of the base have inscriptions as a memorial to the successful relocation of the obelisk.
The east and west sides have exorcist formulas….so, now you know where to go if you ever need one. The obelisk still bears Caligula’s inscription dedicating the obelisk to the memory of Emperor Augustus. Ironically, it was discovered in 1962 that these inscriptions had also served to wipe out the memory of a previous Roman official who dedicated the obelisk to Caesar around 30 BC, but who later fell out of grace.
It’s interesting to see how one religion builds on another:
For the Egyptians, the pagan obelisk stood as a solar symbol representing a vital flow of communication between heaven and Earth.
For the ancient Romans it was dedicated to the Divine Augustus and Tiberius.
For the Christians, it’s dedicated to the Holy Cross….and a bronze cross containing a fragment of the true cross tops the obelisk.
The obelisk has another unique function as well: it’s also a sundial. In 1817 zodiac plaques were set to mark the tip of the obelisk’s shadow at noon as the sun entered each of the zodiac signs. I haven’t seen this yet, so I can’t show you how it works.
To the right on the north side of the piazza is the Apostolic Palace that’s a complex of buildings including the Papal residence, offices of the Catholic Church, the Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, all in all over 1,000 rooms including Raphael’s Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
The Papal residence is situated on the top floor of the Palace. It has about 10 large rooms providing all the comforts of home: the pope’s private study, bedroom, medical suite, living room, dining room, kitchen, an office, and staff quarters for the nuns who run the Papal Household. The Papal Apartment is renovated with each new pope according to his taste of décor (although the newly elected Pope Francis wants little to do with the Papal apartment and prefers the simple life). From the window of the study, the pope greets and blesses the crowd in St Peter’s square on Sundays.
On Wednesdays from October to June of each year the pope resides here, but from June to September he goes his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, another Vatican property outside of Rome.
When the Pope is at the Vatican, you can attend the weekly Papal Audience held on Wednesdays. In the winter it’s usually held in the Paul VI Hall, but otherwise it’s held in the Square.
Remember the red stone that marked the spot were Pope John Paul II was shot in 1981? Well, it’s not there anymore…it’s been replaced with a marble plaque displaying the Pope’s Marian coat of arms, the M is for Mary, mother of Jesus.
Peter and Paul Statues
Moving closer to the Basilica, there are 2 massive statues at each end of the façade. To the left is Peter holding the keys, and to the right is Paul holding a long sword in his right hand, and a book in his left. The inscription in the book is written in Hebrew letters: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”. Both statues were commissioned in mid 1800’s to replace the previous older ones.
Setting geometry and aesthetics aside, if you look at the piazza from above, or from the dome, doesn’t it look like a key hole, and not just a trapezoid with an ellipse on top? If you consider St Peter holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven…it does make you wonder, if this is not another Bernini symbol….
And last and not least…the secret “Bernini Heart“. Well, for this you have to watch the video where I show you
In the next episode, we’re going inside the largest church in Christendom, St Peter’s Basilica, and see what treasures and mysteries IT holds. Thank you for watching. Until next time, ciao for now!