A Guide to St. Peter’s Square

Saint Peter’s Square or Piazza di San Pietro is the grand entrance to Saint Peter’s Basilica inside Vatican City. The Square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1656 to 1667 under Pope Alexander VII. Today you can visit both St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica for free. And there is never a wait to enter the square because it is so large and open. The square is (320 meters long and 240 meters wide) and unbelievably can hold up to 300,000 people.

The piazza is surrounded by two semicircular colonnades (284 columns in total) that are topped with 96 statues of Saints and Martyrs. Bernini said the colonnades were to represent “the motherly arms of the church.” The most famous occasion to see a full Saint Peter’s Square is during Conclave when white smoke is sent out through the Sistine Chapel to tell the world that we have a new Pope. The new Pope will then appear on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to present himself to a jam-packed Saint Peter’s Square.

Bernini: The Architect of Saint Peter’s square

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Napels on the 7th of December, 1598 to Angelica Galante and the well known sculptor, Pietro Bernini. At the age of eight he and his family moved to Rome where Bernini would remain for the rest of his life. Bernini made his name under the Cardinal Scipone Borghese producing what is still today considered some of his greatest works in a six year period between 1619 to 1625.

Although Bernini’s busiest period was under Pope Urban VIII in which Bernini completed the Fountain Of The Four Rivers on Piazza Navona it was under Pope Alexander VII where Bernini was asked to design Saint Peter’s Square.

Bernini’s idea for Saint Peter’s Sqaure was to shock pilgrims coming to the Vatican as they walked through the tangle of medieval streets to find this huge square appear out of no where. Today these medieval streets do not exist after Musolini demolished the buildings to build a large road, Via della Conciliazione leading up to Saint Peter’s.

Bernini completed Saint Peter’s Square in just over ten years between 1656 to 1667.

Things to see on Saint Peter’s Square

The first thing that will catch your eye as you walk onto Saint Peter’s Square is the huge monument or pillar right in the middle of the square. This is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk. These obelisks where brought over from Egypt by the Ancient Romans in and around 2,000 years ago. This particular obelisk was brought over in 37 A.D by the Emperor Augustus and was later moved to the Circus of Nero. In 1586 Sixtus V had it placed where it currently is today even before Saint Peter’s Square was constructed taking 900 men in total to move this enourmus 25.5 metre high pillar. 

Either side of the obelisk are two impressive fountains. The one on the right was designed by Carlo Maderno between 1612 to 1614 and for nearly a half a century the left side of the obelisk remained empty. In 1667 Pope Clement X commissioned Bernini to design a fountain very similar in style to Maderno’s fountain on the right. It was completed in 1677.

At the top of Saint Peter’s Square at the front of Saint Peter’s Basilica on either side are two very large statues. On the right as you are entering into the Basilica is a statue of Saint Paul and on the left where you exit Saint Peter’s Basilica is the first Pope, Saint Peter.

The statue of Saint Paul was created by Adamo Tadolini in 1838 when Pope Pius IX wanted to replace an older statue in the same place. The statue is 18.2 feet or 5.55 metres tall. Paul is holding the sword of which he was martyred and a script to symbolise the many writings that he did. 

The statue of Saint Peter was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris in 1840 and is the same height as Saint Paul. Saint Peter was the first Pope and is holding a large key which symbolises the key given to him by Christ, the key to the kingdom of heaven.

Pope John Paul II attempted assassination

On the 13th of May, 1981, on the left of Saint Peter’s Square, a Turkish man named Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II during a Papal Audience. Pope John Paul II survived the assassination attempt and later visited the man in prison.

How to Get There

Saint Peter’s Square is close to Rome’s Metro Line A. You will get off at the Ottaviano metro stop on the red line and follow the crowds. It is a 10 to 12-minute walk from the metro stop.