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[ARCHIVES OF ROME]
THE BASILICA OF SAINT PETER
The legendary Peter's trip to Rome
Tradition says Peter has been martyred in Rome in 64 A.D... By Nero, the last Emperor of the Julius-Claudia dynasty, during the first persecution against the Christians, guilty, according to the Emperor, for burning the center of the city.
The Christian historians wrote, at the opposite, Nero was the one to set Rome on fire, wishing to extend his Villa, the famous Domus Aurea, on the Roman Forum and the Suburra area. We know the fire happened that year, but we don't have any real proof both Nero or the Christians were the guilty; as a matter of fact, this is the first time the Christians appear in the roman history.
Of course we don't know anything about the Peter's trip in Rome, so all we can report are the legends the Christians wrote in the first centuries of the Christianity, starting with the Gospels, where Peter and the other apostles, after the death of Jesus start traveling all along the world, to bring his lesson all over. It could be possible Peter went in Rome, in those times the political center of the world, getting in touch with the Jews community in Rome, at the beginning the only group the Christians wanted to convert to the real religion.
The Jews were in Rome since the second century B.C., for Israel entered in the roman economical sphere of influence after the Roman armies conquered Carthage in 146 B.C., becoming the owner of all the Mediterranean commercial routes. That's why in Rome, in the First century A.D.., there was a powerful Jews colony, together with an Egyptian one and colonies from all over the Mediterranean world.
Anyway, we can suppose Peter really went in Rome; he probably arrived with a ship, one of the many commercial ships going back and forth the Mediterranean harbors; so first he saw Ostia, in those time a city with about 40.000 inhabitants (in Ostia there is the oldest synagogue still existing in the Mediterranean world, being built in the I century A.D..), then he could choose how to get in Rome: with a little ship going upstream, with a chariot, or simply walking along the Via Ostiense.
The legend says he went in Rome, going to live in an house in the Gianicolo hill district, an hill close to the region called Trans Tiberim, the modern Trastevere, the only district on the right side of the river (as the name says: "Trans Tiberim" in Latin means "The other side of the Tiber"), in those times populated by immigrants from the Near Asia, and there he started his job, converting to the new faith the immigrant workers and the slaves. It was probably about 50 A.D...
Everything worked well until the 64 AD, when a fire destroyed half of the city, starting with the popular district named Suburra to finish in the monumental center, where the Roman Forum was. It was rumored that Nero was the fire starter, for he wanted to built a bigger Villa in the center of the city (was it true or not, after the fire Nero built the Domus Aurea, an "apartment" with about 550 rooms, yes, you read right, five hundred fifty rooms, not to mention gardens, theaters and so on...).
Looking for a guilty, Nero accused the Christians, in those times quite unknown, starting the first persecution of the legend. Amid the others, Peter as well was imprisoned in the Mamertinus prison, a prison still existing few steps apart the Roman Forum. There - I have to remember it, this legend started to go round in the Middle Age - he converted the two roman soldiers controlling him, baptizing them with the water he miraculously discovered below the prison jail, just touching the floor stones, and there he was enchained with the chains you can still see into the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, the one with the Michelangelo's Moses.
Nevertheless, he didn't die in the jail: one night, an angel came setting him free from prison, sending the soldiers to sleep and opening the prison gates: it's the wonderful fresco painted by Raphael in the Julius the Second Rooms (now called Raphael Rooms) into the Vatican Museum. This was, anyway, just another test Peter had to pass in showing his love fro his Lord: in fact, the legend goes on with another miracle: while Peter was running away from Rome thru the Via Appia, at a street corner he saw the pale image of Jesus coming to him: astonished, he asked him the famous question "Domine, quo vadis?" ("where are you going, my Lord?"); and Jesus answered: " I'm going back to Rome, to be crucified again".
Peter blushed with shame, for he understood Jesus was blaming him to be not as brave as he had been in Jerusalem ( it wasn't his first error: do you remember the three times the cock sang without Peter admitting to be one of the apostles?); so he came back into the city, handing himself over to the soldier, and few days later he was crucified upside-down for his express desire, to point out the difference with his Lord's crucifixion. It was 64 A.D..
You can still see into the little church called Domine Quo Vadis along the Appian Way a stone with the feet print of an adult man: the popular traditions says they are the Jesus feet print he left on the stone to remind that place...
The medieval basilica
" You are Peter, and above this rock I will build my church" The phrase Jesus spoke to Peter turned out to be something more than a simple metaphor: the colossal Basilica, the House of God, was built on the spot where the presumed tomb of Peter was.
I'd better remember now the roman law about cemeteries; they had to be built outside the city walls or the natural borders of a city, no matter if it was on a public or a private area: landowners could sell or rent a plot of land to a community or a family, if they were wealth enough to get the desire for a private family tomb; that's why cities were commonly surrounded by small cemeteries, and the main streets by imposing private tombs, as we could still see along the Appian Way in Rome, where amid the others the breath-taking tomb of Cecilia Metella is.
On the Vatican hill a cemetery was active in the 1st century, for the Vatican was outside Rome, being the border there the Tiber; there some Christians discovered at the end of the 2nd century a poor burial place, surrounded by pagan tombs; on this one an inscription was, Petrus enì, in Greek "Peter is here"; all around, graffiti and inscriptions with Christian secret symbols, as the fish: being their religion illegal, early Christians had to use a sort of secret code to recognize themselves; likely the oldest one is the fish: this word in Greek language is ixtùs: in an acronym ixtùs meant Iesus Xristòu Teoù Uiòs Sotér, "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Safer".
So those Christians realized Peter, the real first apostle, was buried there; the memory of his tomb, after the first generations of Roman Christians, was likely gone; now, at the end of the 2nd-beginning of the 3rd century AD, Christians started to be buried here once again, near the sacred body of the first saint Inscriptions of the 3rd century have been found all around, mostly in Greek, not surprisingly, being early Christians mostly immigrants from Israel, Asia Minor and Greece; the Christian religion, during the century, kept growing up as one of the most numerous religious communities in Rome, for conversions didn't interest only the Jewish community, but also the Roman Citizens.
Christian religion was legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, more for the impossibility to deny the reality than for a real conversion to the new religion… The same Emperor promoted few years later the building of the imposing Basilica on the spot of the burial place of the first martyr, Peter, the Rock. Works started in 329or 324 (we got discordant sources), to have an end in 350, even if at the death of Constantine probably Basilica was already active; it wasn't an easy work of course, considering that the size of the early Basilica was quite the same the size of the one of the 16th century.
Only the direct interest of Constantine, and his personal wealth, made it possible: first they had to move part of the cemetery along with some family tombs, some of them quite big; then they deviated a stretch of Via Cornelia, one of the oldest Roman roads, still existing in ours days with the name it had during the Middle Age, Via Trionfale, the Triumphal Street.
Then, because of the rough character of the land, architects built a vast platform ( about 740x280 feet), the colossal foundations of such a colossal building: a nave and four aisles, and an imposing abs facing the transept, the corridor crossing the nave. Even the entrance was colossal: a vast flight of steps showed into a courtyard surrounded by a portico; in the courtyard center, a colossal bronze sculpture of a pine-cone, from the ancient baths of the Emperor Caracalla.
The Constantine Basilica lasted fully for about 12th centuries, of course with enrichments and transformations which saved the original structure of the 4th century. Nevertheless in the 15th century the structure was showing all of its age: it was unsafe and leaning, a memory of a far earthquake.
Some architects as Leon Battista Alberti and Filarete tried to save what they could, restoring and reinforcing the walls, proponing improvements for the old venerable Church; yet it was evident these works were only temporary solutions, harder works needing the Basilica. So, no one really protested when Iulius the 2nd, member of the Della Rovere family, elected Pope in the last years of the century, decided to destroy the Church to build a brand new one, a monumental project, the hardest work for Christianity that was entering in its fully glorious period, what we call the Renaissance.
Bramante, likely the most important architect of Italy in those times, had shown his talent in 1502, when he built into the Vatican Apartments the gorgeous staircase now called "the Bramante staircase"; so it's not surprising he was the one the Pope choose few years later, in 1505, to destroy the Church and to project the new one; what it's amazing instead, he didn't care to preserve nothing from the millenary church, not even to write documents about what was going to be destroyed; not at all: in few months the twelve hundred years old Basilica disappeared; and the architect acquired the witty nickname of "Mastro Ruinante", "The destroying Master".
The Basilica of the 16th century
The imposing Basilica we see nowadays was built in about one hundred years: not that long, considering all the problems and the many transformations the building site had to stand; of course, being the church the greatest project of Christianity, the most famous architects worked here during the 16th century, names as Raphael, Peruzzi, Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno, Bernini...hence the absence of a real architectural style for this church: Saint Peter it's nor a Renaissance neither a Baroque church: the building site crossed styles and centuries, creating a real unique model.
Some of the most important European historic events took place during the building, and maybe because of the building, above all the Martin Luther Reformation.
You all know the story about the 92 thesis Luther hanged up in 1517 onto the doors of its church in Wittenberg, the event commonly considered the beginning of the Luther' struggle against the Roman Church; into those thesis, most of the articles were against the Roman eagerness: Rome was represented as the new Babylon, a monster thirsty for gold; and it's true the new Basilica had something to do with these ideas, for in those years Rome was increasing taxes all over the Christian countries, to collect money for the building site - if you think that building was cheap, well, you'd better change your mind...
So, even if the Basilica started to be built in the real golden period of the Roman Church, the magnificent period we call Renaissance, it's also true that most of the times, during its building, popes had something else to think about: the period from 1520 to 1555 has been probably the worst time in the European history.
For about 35 years all the European countries were devastated by wars, both religious and political: Princes from West Germany choose the new Lutheran Church to have a reason for fighting against their Emperor, Charles the 5th - their real purpose, by the way, was to gain a political independence; for a short period Pope Clemens the 7th signed an alliance with them against the Emperor, for this one, even if a loyal follower of the Roman Church, was in that period gaining a too outstanding supremacy onto the European political games. You can read something about this period here. 1527 AD. Then as now, religion is often used to hide the real reasons for wars...
When, finally, Michelangelo got the task on building the Basilica, in 1546, the church was far from being finished: the abs wasn't built yet; the front was still the front of the medieval church; and the dome, the very imposing center of the entire Basilica, wasn't even projected.
He changed the former project, transforming the Basilica in a Greek cross shape, focusing his studies in the imposing four pillars surrounding the main altar and, finally, sketching the dome outlet; it was a way to come back to the first Bramante's project, ignoring the studies of a couple of generations of architects..
Michelangelo died in 1564, and the church was still far from being finished; besides, there weren't excellent architects in that moment, so works had a slowing-down for about twenty years, until Sixtus the 5th was elected Pope in 1585; he charged Giacomo Della Porta to finish the dome, what the architect did with such an incredible speed, about 22 months.
Della Porta changed a little the Michelangelo’s plan, lengthening and lightening the structure; in the same time the colossal obelisk was moved in front of the church, where, according to the project, a new square had to be built. By the way, the building site wasn't finished yet, for the facade still missed.
Carlo Maderno was charged for this, but, the Greek cross shape the Basilica had after Michelangelo didn't fit anymore with the new ideas of the Counter-Reformation movement; so Maderno added on the central nave an extension of about 120 feet; in this way the dome was no more the center of the Basilica, and the effect Michelangelo created was definitely lost. Maderno realized also the colossal façade, famous all over the world.
At the beginning of 1614 the Basilica was finally finished. Considering how much lasted the building, now you may likely understand better a typical Roman proverb, lungo come la Fabbrica de San Pietro, "as long as the Saint Peter's building site"...
St. Peter curiosities
There are many curiosities about the breath-taking San Peter Basilica: of course, considering its building was so long...here you can find just a brief list of them...every time we'll find a new one, we'll add it here.
The "rota porphyretica", or "The coronation disk"
Likely none of the millions of tourists visiting every day the Basilica pay attention to the large disk in red porphyry just at the Basilica's entrance, in the first meters of the nave; but that disk is likely the most important archaeological remain of the former basilica, the Costantinian'one, destroyed in the XVI century to built the modern church.
The disk was to ceremonial place where the Emperors had to kneel down while the Pope put the crown on their heads, declaring so them "Defensor Ecclesia" and Emperors of the "Sacred Roman Empire".
Emperors as Charlemagne, Frederick the Second, Otto the First and the Second had their knees on that stone; so, you want to feel yourself an Emperor…fall on your knees!
The Filarete signature
Filarete, the author of the wonderful bronze door nowadays the main entrance of the Basilica, was a great sculptor: on the bronze he carved scenes from the Old and New Testament in a vivid, modern style; the curiosity is that he wanted to leave his signature on the left door's back: so he carved a little procession, with his self-portrait and all his collaborators' portraits, while all of them are getting out from a city gate, likely a Rome's one, all dancing and singing; there is also a mysterious character riding a donkey, maybe an allegory for the Glory or maybe a portrait of the pagan god Dionysius…you could bet Filarete is so happy because he just finished his job: chroniclers report he spent about twelve years working at those doors…
The pine-cone in the Vatican Museums
The amazing bronze pine-cone now in the so-called Pine-cone Courtyard in the Vatican Museums was likely a decoration of the Caracalla Baths, the biggest public thermal bath built since them ( few years later first Diocletian, then Constantinus will built the final biggest baths of Rome).
According to another version, the pine-cone was a fountain decorating a square nearby the Pantheon, in the Campus Martius district. We have no documents to know the true: what is sure is that the colossal sculpture was for centuries in the Costantinian San Peter's Basilica, at the center of the entering courtyard, a notable first sight for all the pilgrims entering in the church.
But the real question is: how could they move such an imposing monument???
On the outside walls of the Basilica there are 219 travertine columns: 8 on the facade (about 30 feet the circumference, 100 feet the height!), 56 in the several balconies, 4 in the Charlemagne Lodge, 4 in the Worships Lodge plus 8 on its vestibules, 64 on the Dome's buttresses, 48 on the minor domes, 27 outside the Sacristy. If you want to spend some minutes looking for all of them, well, a little suggestion…you could better start counting the 284 columns of the unbelievable Bernini's Colonnade…
|[...a roman diary]|
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