Saint Peter's Dome

10 interesting facts about Saint Peter’s Basilica

1. The current Saint Peter’s is not the first basilic, which was built under the emperor Constantine around 319 AD. There are still a few things that come from the original basilica though and were reused in this second, built as of 1506.

2. The twisted columns in Bernini’s bronze canopy were modeled after the twisted marble columns from the first Saint Peter’s basilica. They are still visible under Michelangelo’s dome, flanking the 4 niches that house sacred relics (in the piers that support the dome). These columns are some of the most ancient artifacts in the basilica (II century AD) and were on the high altar in the basilica built by Constantine.

3. The central bronze door in the atrium is also from the ancient basilica of Saint Peter and dates from 1445. If you look closely at the door from inside the basilica, you’ll see that on the bottom there is a scene representing 7 men. This is the artist who cast the door (FIlarete) along with his assistants, who are dancing to celebrate the end of the work.

4. Allegedly, the bronze for the canopy (or Baldachin) came from the Pantheon, prompting the famous joke “what was not done by barbarians was done by the Barberini pope”, but it’s fake news from the 1600s as we know that over 98% of that bronze was used for cannons and not much was given to Bernini for the canopy.

5. While Michelangelo was working on the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, he managed to arrange 6 lunches at a height of 50 meters with his assistants. These banquets included pork meat, sausages from Bologna, pecorino cheese, and some dozens of kilos of lasagna.

6. In one of the piers holding the dome are the relics of the Holy Spear of Saint Longinus, the lance that allegedly pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross. The lance came as a political gift by the Ottoman sultan Bayazid II to the pope at the end of the 1400s. The lance was given to encourage the pope to continue to keep his brother and rival Djem in Rome an illustrious hostage.

7. The first chapel in the left aisle of Saint Peter’s Basilica is the baptistery. The baptismal font is made out of the prized Egyptian marble called porphyry. It is believed to be the lid of the sarcophagus of Emperor Hadrian (II AD).

8. Under the high altar lie the bones of Saint Peter but the announcement to the world that the bones had been finally found was made only in 1968. Quite interestingly, no fragments from the feet were found. One possible explanation could be that St Peter was crucified head down and the feet were left on the cross. 

9. On the marble floor of the nave are brass letters and numbers: these are the measurements of the world’s largest Christian churches with their sizes, which help visitors appreciate the size of St Peter’s (186 mt, without counting the portico)

10. Under the basilica, about 5 to 12 meters below the current floor, there’s an ancient Roman necropolis (from Greek, city of the dead) or cemetery,. It started to be excavated in 1939 and was used by pagans and Christians between the I and the IV century AD. It’s an incredible place for its exceptional state of preservation and religious meaning (the tomb of Peter is here). The necropolis can be visited through the Vatican Scavi Office by sending an email.

For a private guided tour of Saint Peter’s Basilica, look at my tour of the Vatican Museums with the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica: