Saint Peter's Square - Filip Šubrt Photo

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Vatican City Galleries

Saint Peter's Square

As soon as Alexander VII was elected as the new pope in April 1655, he commissioned sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a new square in front of the St. Peter's Basilica. Following Alexander's detailed instructions, Bernini came up with an elliptical shaped square, 240 meters wide and 196 meters long. Construction of the square started in 1656 and was completed twelve years later.


St. Peter's Square is bordered on either side by semi-circular colonnades which, according to Bernini, symbolize the stretched arms of the church embracing the world. The colonnades were built in 1660 and consist of four rows of columns with in total 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters. The columns are 20 meters high and 1.6 meters wide. 140 statues were installed on top of the colonnades, all created by Bernini and his students. They depict popes, martyrs, evangelists and other religious figures.

To the left and right of the central obelisk on the square are circular marble plates which indicate the foci of the elliptical square. When you stand on either of these plates and look at the nearest colonnade, it will look as if there is only one row of columns instead of four. Bernini wasn't just a great sculptor and architect, he also knew his geometry! On special occasions such as the election of a new pope or on Easter, almost 400,000 people fill the expansive square.

At the center of the square stands an Egyptian obelisk, 25.5 meters tall - 41 meters including the pedestal. The obelisk was originally located at Heliopolis in Egypt and was built for Cronelius Gallus, the city's prefect. In 37 AD Caligula decided to transport the obelisk to Rome with a specially constructed ship. It was installed at the spina of the Circus of Caligula (later known as Circus of Nero), which was located in an area now occupied by Vatican City. In 1585 pope Sixtus V decided to have the obelisk moved to its present location in front of the then under construction St. Peter's Basilica, a distance of about 300 meters. The relocation was a daunting task however and even Michelangelo considered it impossible. Sixtus however persevered and commissioned Domenico Fontana with the transportation. It took 900 men and a reported 75-140 horses and even though the ropes were on the verge of breaking, Fontana succeeded on September 10, 1586 after an operation that lasted five months.

In 1613 a fountain designed by Carlo Moderno was installed on the square, to the right of the centrally located obelisk. To maintain symmetry, Bernini decided to install an identical copy of the fountain on the left side. The fountain was created in 1677 by Carlo Fontana.

In 1937 by Mussolini, to commemorate the conclusion of the Lateran Pact or Concordat, a treaty of conciliation between Church and State. The resulting wide boulevard, the Via della Conciliazione, now provides a majestic approach to the Piazza and the Basilica of St. Peter, along which the visitor begins the realization of his hopes and expectations.

St. Peter's Square creates a magnificent entry point to the Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter's Basilica), which was built between 1506 and 1626 and borders the square to the west.