Saturday, February 25, 2012

Climbing St. Peter's

Along with the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) is one of Rome’s most familiar landmarks.  It is visible from all over the city, and it’s beautiful form is irresistible to photographers.  But equally fascinating is the view from the dome, as we found out on a breezy, clear afternoon last week when we climbed the dome of San Pietro.

St. Peter's Basilica dome rises beyond the Ponte Sisto and the Tiber River.

The building history of St. Peter’s is long and complicated (read a good account here), but the ultimate design of the dome is Michelangelo’s, though he died more than 25 years before building was complete.  The drawings below show architectural sections through the building and show that the dome is really two domes with a narrow space between them.  That space is where some of the stairs to the top are wedged.  

Above, a cross section through the Piazza and Basilica of St. Peter, looking south.
Below, a cut-away drawing of the dome, cupola in Italian.

Visitors are allowed as high as the base of the colonnaded lantern that rises above the dome, which is plenty high enough to provide sweeping views in every direction (365’ or 111 mt. above the pavement).  To get there requires climbing 537 steps and costs €5, though you can shave off 217 steps if you’re willing to pay an extra €2 to ride the ascensore (elevator) to the first roof level. 

Above, visitors crowd the railing just above the dome.
Below, the first few steps after elevator delivery to the roof.

Inside, in the tiled space between the inner and outer domes, there is a ramp  which leads to the interior balcony overlooking the central crossing of the basilica.  Above, the ribbed dome rises to the bright sky-lit lantern.  Below, far below, the marble floor patterns stand out around the baldacchino and the pope’s altar, with people looking so small that at first I didn’t even see them.  The mosaics circling the drum at this level below the springing of the dome seem huge and reinforce the giant scale of the whole building.

Views through the balcony security screen.  Above, the chancel holding St. Peter's Chair.
Below, the Baldacchino is just visible at the right.

Delicately detailed mosaics dwarf normal humans.

The 320 stairs to the top circle around, do some switchbacks and finish by winding up a spiral so narrow that there’s only room for one foot on each step and the central column is a stout rope handhold.  Along the way are some narrow slit windows revealing tantalizing glimpses.  There was a goodly crowd, so progress up the stairways was slow and easy—which doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of people huffing and puffing over the effort.


A peak through a slit window
These people are standing vertical,
 but the domes are sloping in.
Looking up between the inner and outer domes.
Finally we popped out at the base of the lantern, finding unrestricted views once we wormed our way through the crowds lining the railing.  I picked out the rampart over on the Gianicolo from which I often view the Vatican, and it was fun to pick out the other spots around the city that we’ve come to know.  There was also an all-encompassing view of the Vatican grounds, gardens and buildings otherwise hidden from public view by massive walls and closed gates.  When we toured the Vatican gardens many years ago, when John Paul II was pope, the coat-of-arms of Santa Maria were laid out in topiary plantings in front of the government building.  Now it’s the arms of Pope Benedict XVI.  It was a great day to take the postcard picture looking straight out over Bernini’s colonnaded piazza with its fountains and obelisk.  Off to the left we could see the elevated passage running toward Castel Sant’Angelo from the Vatican, famously featured in Dan Brown’s  Angels and Demons.

Looking south toward the Gianicolo.
Garibaldi's statue is among the gray, leafless plane trees at the left.

The governance building and piazza of Vatican City.
Below, the herbaceous coat-of-arms of Benedict XVI.

Above, Radio Vatican.
Below, the expansive Vatican Museums. 

The shadow of the cupola falls across the Sistine Chapel.

Looking east across the piazza and down Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber.

Old Rome, with the Pantheon just left of center, the white Vittorio Emanuele II monument at right.

After an unhurried descent to the rooftop level, we inspected the unusual views available from there—of architectural details, roofs and skylights and the statues ranged across the main façade of the basilica.  On this level is also a large gift shop where, among other things, one can mail postcards using Vatican City stamps.  And, this being almost Italy, there is also a typical bar/cafe.

Above, looking back at the dome from the roof over one of the nave side aisles.
Below,  a lion honors Pope Sixtus V, who finally got the dome done.

Above, lanterns act as skylights into the basilica.
Below, statues of Jesus, John the Baptist and 11 of the apostles look out from the top of the façade.
Peter's statue is elsewhere.

Afternoon seems like the right time to make this climb.  For one thing, the lines of visitors tend to get shorter later in the day.  For another, the sun is from the west, lighting up Rome and not blinding eyes and cameras.  And with luck a colorful sunset will grace a retreating view of San Pietro.


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