St. Peter's And The Vatican - Greatest of Churches and Greatest of Palaces
( Originally Published 1907 )
At first sight one cannot take in all the glory of this superb structure any more than by a single steady glance, even of the keenest appreciation, one can take in the ever-changing glory of Niagara. It has the characteristic of Nature, simplicity; and a proportion so perfect that only after long gazing is one able to perceive its infinite majesty. Take your time then in receiving the first impressions. A study of the details will help to deepen these impress ions. From where we stand on the roof of this house we look down on a small square near us called the Piazza Rusticucci. You have noticed that the piazza (square) in front of. the church is almost surrounded by two colonnades, one on the north side, the other on the south. The north colonnade alone is entirely visible. Observe its beginning on the extreme right, at the corner of the Piazza Rusticucci. That four-story house on the Piazza is smaller than the beginning of the colonnade. The central opening does not seem so very wide at this distance, yet two carriages can drive abreast through that opening, and the pillars are over sixty feet high. The Piazza itself, surrounded by the two colonnades, does not at first seem so very large, yet two hundred thousand soldiers, horse and foot, with all their equipments, could stand within the space. It cost one hundred thousand dollars to lay its pavement. Midway in the center rises an obelisk with fountains to right and left. That monolith was brought from Egypt in the first century of our era by the Emperor Caligula, and stood for a long time at the foot of the Vatican Hill; past it went troops of martyrs whose blood was shed for the Christian faith in Nero's Circus; the stone which in that day looked coldly on their bloody and cruel exit from life, stands now surmounted by the Cross on the spot where they died, a memorial and a symbol of their struggle and their victory. Pope Sixtus V had it placed in its present position. The two fountains to the right and left of it are each forty-five feet high, and when their streams are playing it looks as if a small rain-storm were passing over the Piazza.
All this magnificence comes before you have reached the steps leading up to the entrance of the basilica. What then must be the splendor of the temple itself!
There had been a church here for over twelve hundred years before the erection of the present building. The Roman emperor Constantine in the year 313 issued a decree granting Christians the privilege of public worship, and tradition credits him with the erection of the first church which occupied this ground and enshrined the relics of the martyred Apostle. In 1450 Pope Nicholas V began the reconstruction of the old building which had by that time become the worse for age, but the task was interrupted by his death. Pope Julius II, four hundred years ago, began the work anew, and on entirely new plans. As a matter of fact even the new plans were several times modified in the course of the long hundred years occupied by the labor of construction, so the ideas of several different architects are embodied here. Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone in 15o6; Michelangelo designed the dome; Paul V lengthened the nave and completed the facade as we see it now in 1612; Urban VIII consecrated the church in 1626. The ground plan of the church is in the shape of a Latin cross, the long nave extending directly towards us. Pope Paul's facade rises before us now and above it shines Michelangelo's aerial dome, resting as lightly on the upper height as a bird in the nest. Facade and dome at first seem just beautiful, as if they belonged to a mimic St. Peter's in our own country; but wherever you might go, in and around Rome, you would soon discover that the dominant central feature of the whole Eternal City is this great dome, the handiwork of the master. engineer, architect, sculptor and poet; and after the city itself is left behind, memory would place in every scene which she recalled this marvel of beauty and immensity. It is really a church in the air, for its dimensions are: height, seventy feet to the top of the cross ; and diameter, one-hundred and thirty-eight feet. It is constantly musical owing to the vibration caused by air currents, and when hurricanes sweep up from the Mediterranean the musical murmur swells into a thundering roar. Some years ago it was discovered that the dome was cracking at its base, and a band of steel was placed about it to preserve it from destruction. Colonnade, square, obelisk, fountains, facade and dome, all gigantic, priceless, wonderful details of the great temple and its surroundings, help to some understanding of the monument upon which you are gazing, which Hawthorne de-scribed as "an embodiment of whatever the imagination could conceive, as a magnificent, comprehensive, majestic symbol of religious faith."
The present basilica holds easily fifty thousand people and could hold thirty thousand more. Up to the beginning of the eighteenth century it had cost fifty million dollars. These are minor details which only help to the proper impression of the temple. The beauty and majesty of the splendid pile, the associations connected with it, stir and illumine the imagination. Before this temple the great of the world have gathered, towards it loving pilgrims of the faith have joyfully turned their feet. Standing here you feel now the inspiration which seized the poet who wrote :
"See what an invitation it extends
To the world's pilgrims, be they foes or friends. Its colonnades, with wide embracing arms, Spread forth as if to bless and shield from harms,
And draw them to its heart, the inner shrine, From the grand outer precincts, where alway The living fountains wave their clouds of spray
And temper with cool sound the hot sun-shine."
Look once more across the Piazza to where two tall statues stand, one at each side of the foot of the broad flight of steps leading up to the church doors. Our next stand is to be near the statue on the south (left) side of the steps. From that point we shall get a closer view and make a more intimate observation of the grand facade.
Turn again to the first map, and find the figure 2 just left of the curved outline of the Piazza. That is the spot from which we are to view the facade of St. Peter's. The two red lines radiating from that point indicate what can be seen.