You are standing in a courtyard, surrounded by hundreds of other people equally awed by the majesty of the sights you are all-seeing. Before you, over 400 feet tall and almost 400 years old, rises the magnificent Saint Peter's Cathedral. As you turn to glance about the elliptical colonnade in wonder, you are greeted with the sight of hundreds of pillars holding up the ancient Baroque architecture. When your eyes reach the center of the square, you are greeted by the sight of an ancient Egyptian obelisk dating back to the 13th century BC. To either side of the obelisk are fountains and beyond it the road leading into the square. You are standing in Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City within Rome.
The architecture of Saint Peter's Square was designed to be awe-inspiring, leading, as it does, up to the great Saint Peter's Cathedral (or the Basilica of Saint Peter). The design was by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and the Square was built over time from 1656 to 1667 by Pope Alexander VII's order. The Pope wanted as many people as possible to see him give his blessing from the Cathedral or a window in the Vatican Palace. Bernini, who had worked on the Cathedral's interior for decades, now designed the approach to be as awe-inspiring as possible.
The site presented a challenge for Bernini, with the Vatican Palace crowding in on the Cathedral and the obelisk and one fountain already placed in the existing Piazza before the Cathedral. Bernini had to mask the Vatican Palace without obscuring the papal apartments and was forced to work the existing elements into his design. The solution he came up with was brilliant, using the obelisk as the centerpiece of the Square and the existing fountain as the foci of the oval created by his massive colonnades. He created a second fountain in the interest of symmetry, which was completed in 1675, just five years before his death.
The Doric colonnades are four columns deep and frame the entrance to the Cathedral of Saint Peter. Bernini was supposed to have described his colonnades as 'the maternal arms of Mother Church', gathering the flock toward the Cathedral itself. At the center of the oval still stands the Egyptian obelisk, moved to Rome in AD 37 by Emperor Caligula.
The Vatican Obelisk was moved from a nearby square to the Saint Peter's Square in 1586 by the great engineer, Domenico Fontana under orders from Pope Sixtus V. Re-erecting the obelisk in the square required considerable effort due to the vast weight of it, and the erection was memorialized in a collection of engravings. The Vatican Obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled since Roman rule. During the movement and re-erection process, Fontana removed the ancient metal ball that had been atop the obelisk and was rumored to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar but found only dust within. The ball is on display in a Rome museum.
The spina that once occupied the Grand Avenue leading up to the Square was demolished by Mussolini over the course of a year, being completed in October of 1937. Saint Peter's Cathedral is now visible all the way from the Castel Sant Angelo. The approach may have lost the sense of surprise with this demolition, but neither the Square nor the Cathedral of Saint Peter have lost their majesty and awe-inspiring qualities. Standing in the Square is like paying homage to the great architects and engineers of our past.