All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in July 2010.
(Metà della) Piazza di S. Pietro in Vaticano (Book 2) (Map D2) (Day 8) (View D2) (Rione Borgo)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Fontane di Papa Paolo V e Papa Clemente X
Colonnato del Bernini
The Plate (No. 27)
When Giuseppe Vasi published his second book of etchings which covered the squares of Rome (1752) he was already preparing the third one on the greatest churches of the city; this may explain why his view of Piazza S. Pietro is so unusual, without the vision of the basilica; he already planned to show the traditional view of the square in Book 3 which was published in the following year. An interesting aspect of this particular view is that it shows the obelisk leaning slightly towards the basilica.
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Obelisk of eastern granite; 2) fountains; 3) amphitheatre by this meaning the colonnade; 4) Giardino Barberini; 5) section of the square towards S. Pietro. 4) is covered in another page.
Vasi chose to show the southern half of Piazza S. Pietro, less known than the northern one with Palazzo Apostolico in the background and much more difficult to photograph.
The architectonic value of Piazza S. Pietro has never been challenged, not even when all the works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini were regarded as decadent and an expression of bad taste, so apart the XIXth century lights and the paving of the square nothing else has changed.
Another possible way to look at Piazza S. Pietro without being distracted by the basilica is from the top of its dome; the morning light reflection isolates the square from its surroundings and emphasizes its architectonic components (in order of time):
a) the obelisk which was placed in front of the unfinished basilica in 1586;
b) the fašade and the fountain to the north of the obelisk which were designed by Carlo Maderno and were completed by 1612-14;
c) the two colonnades which were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and were completed by 1667;
d) the second fountain which was added in 1670;
e) Via della Conciliazione, the grand access to Piazza S. Pietro which was completed for the Jubilee Year 1950.
Read Charles Dickens's account of 1845 Easter Sunday in this square.
The obelisk was erected in Heliopolis most likely by Pharaoh Amenhemat II (it does not have any inscription in hieroglyphics); it was relocated to Alexandria by the Romans at the time of Emperor Augustus. It was brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula who placed it in the private circus he had built at the Vatican (the circus was later on named after Emperor Nero). The obelisk was the only one which did not fall down and this fact in the Middle Ages was attributed to the reputation of Nero as a sorcerer. It was topped by a (lost) bronze globe which was thought to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar (to see all the obelisks of Rome click here).
In 1586 Pope Sixtus V ordered Domenico Fontana to relocate the obelisk from the southern side of the old basilica, near Sacrestia di S. Pietro to the square in front of it. At the time the dome was not yet completed and the obelisk was not perfectly aligned with it. The top of the obelisk was decorated with a bronze cross above a star and three mountains (other heraldic symbols of the pope); in three inscriptions Pope Sixtus V celebrated the relocation of the obelisk and its change from a symbol of the pagan world (ab impura superstitione) to the holder of the Holy Cross; the text of the front inscription (which means Behold the Cross of the Lord. Flee ye adversaries! The Lion of the Tribe of Juda has won) is known as St. Anthony's Brief and was used in exorcisms.
In 1817, in imitation of Augustus' sundial in Campo Marzio, the shadow of the obelisk was measured and since then it serves as a gnomon and its shade at noon indicates the day of the year. The starting days of the zodiacal months are indicated by circular slabs of marble; similar slabs were also used to indicate the cardinal points and the focuses of the two colonnades. It is likely that the leaning of the obelisk was corrected at this time.
Dan Brown made reference to the wind mark shown above in his novel Angels and Demons; read some comments on the accuracy of his statements.
Fontane di Papa Paolo V e di Papa Clemente X
A fountain was built by Pope Innocent VIII in 1490 for the pilgrims on their way to the old basilica; during the pontificate of Pope Paul V it was entirely redesigned by Carlo Maderno and it was linked to Acqua Paola, the aqueduct built by the pope to supply water to Trastevere and Borgo; the spout of the fountain was very high and Vasi did not exaggerated it in the plate; the fountain was decorated with the pope's heraldic symbols.
When Gian Lorenzo Bernini redesigned Piazza S. Pietro he decided to relocate the fountain in front of the obelisk (a similar arrangement existed for the obelisks of Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano and Piazza del Popolo), but he eventually decided to have two identical fountains at the sides of the obelisk, but slightly nearer to the colonnades. In 1670 the second fountain was placed near the southern colonnade.
Colonnato del Bernini
Pope Alexander VII could rightly request to be included among the greatest baroque architects; he worked closely with Bernini to find a solution which could minimize some disharmonies between the fašade (too large) and the dome (too far from the fašade) of S. Pietro; according to Bernini, the design of the square had a metaphoric meaning: the colonnades were the arms of the Roman Church which embraced the believers, attracted the heretics and convinced the infidels; from a practical point of view this meant a very large elliptical area placed at a great distance from the fašade to allow the view of the dome; at the same time the part of the square between the ellipse and the basilica was given a trapezium shape to create an optical effect which reduced the size of the fašade.
The ellipse is not geometrically speaking an ellipse, but the result of two circles having their focuses between the obelisk and the fountains.
Bernini proposed a last minute change to the project which was endorsed by the pope without consulting the commission in charge of assisting him; Bernini replaced the Corinthian order of the original project with the Doric order, thus giving the colonnades a classic appearance which balances the theatrical effect of the statues and of the coats of arms placed on their top.
The statues (90) on the colonnades are by assistants of Bernini, mainly by Lazzaro Morelli and Giovanni Maria de' Rossi. In 1702 Pope Clement XI decided to put statues (50) also on the walls linking the colonnades to the basilica (see Close to Heaven, a page on these and other statues on top of churches and porticoes).
Pope Alexander VII celebrated the completion of Piazza S. Pietro with six gigantic coats of arms and inscriptions; the coat of arms shown in the picture above was included by Filippo Juvarra in his selection of the finest coats of arms of the Popes.
More information about Piazza S. Pietro is available in It wasn't done in a day (a clue to the decoration of the basilica and the square).
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 2: Campo di Fiore
Next step in Day 8 itinerary: Basilica Vaticana