The Unique Architecture of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
Standing tall as a mark of Rome and the entire Christendom, St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican is a Renaissance masterpiece. Built over the Tomb of St. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, the colossal structure is one among the four major basilicas in the world.
The structure was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1506 and took nearly 120 years to complete. The construction saw contributions from the master artists and architects of the Renaissance era, including Michelangelo and Raphael. Learn about everything that makes this Church an architectural marvel on this page.
Architecture & Design of St. Peter's Basilica | Quick Overview
Official Name: St. Peter's Basilica, Basilica di San Pietro
Location: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City
Area: 220 metres (length), 150 metres (width), 136.6 metres (height)
Architectural Style: Renaissance and Baroque
Main Architects: Donato Bramante, Maderno, Raphael, Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Who Designed St. Peter's Basilica?
The initial plan was created by Renaissance artist Donato Bramante at the request of Pope. Bramante modeled the Basilica after the Roman Pantheon. Bramante died in 1514.
Giuliano da Sangallo
After Bramante’s death, the work went to Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo.
After the deaths of Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo in 1515, Raphael took over and added his own modifications to the design.
Michelangelo, who first desisted, designed the Dome and helped the structure as we see it today.
Maderno was primarily known for his work on the nave and facade of the Basilica, after being appointed by the Pope in 1602.
Bernini finally took over and created many iconic elements inside the Basilica including St. Peter’s Chair and the Baldacchino.
St. Peter's Basilica Architecture & Design
St. Peter's Basilica was built in Baroque style architecture. It follows the style of the Roman Pantheon, but Michelangelo modified the final design to include the supporting piers to hold the massive dome. The core plan of Bramante was to match the Basilica to a Latin cross.
The interior was opulent with marbles, Renaissance-era sculptures as well as artefacts. After Bernini built the Baldacchino and St. Peter's chair to complete the structure, St. Peter's Chair, the Church has become a textbook symbol of the renaissance.
Early Stages of Construction
The base piers of St. Peter's Basilica were 45-meters high. To plant the piers, trenches as deep as 25 feet were dug. Designer Bramante raised the 90 piers to lock them under the coffered barrel vaults at 150 feet. For the Dome, he placed four piers to the Corinthian Capitals. Bramante was a fan of creating large spaces while fixing the piers with pilasters. It's also noted that no one in history has ever attempted a massive formation.
The floor of St. Peter's Basilica changed in design when Sangallo took over from Bramante. He has raised the entire floor proposed by Bramante by 12.5 feet. It's believed that Sangallo calculated the possibility of the Cathedral sinking in the marshy region it was built. To support the structure, he had built parallel walls in three feet thickness. He has also strengthened the piers Bramante created to accommodate the changes.
The material Bramante used in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was a lime-based sedimentary rock named travertine. It was very durable and had great strength. The construction team used the travertine quarried from Tivoli, a mineral-rich town near the Vatican. When Pope Julius II asked the designer to cut costs, Bramante limited the use of travertine and explored alternative options like bricks. Marble was another important ingredient. Architects have also used materials sourced from other buildings.
An architectural marvel, St. Peter's Basilica is 452 feet high; Its dome is the tallest in the world. The Basilica is 730 feet in length, and its interior is almost 693 feet. The entire area of the building and its surroundings is 5.7 acres. The interior is 15,160 square meters in area. The internal diameter of the dome, designed by Michelangelo, is 41.47 meters, breaking the record of Old Roman buildings from that age including the Pantheon.
The Exterior & Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica Exterior
The most important attraction of St. Peter's Basilica is its long forecourt, St. Peter's Square, inspired by Greek style. The exterior of the Basilica is decorated with sculptures. On the facade, ornate Corinthian Columns bearing the statues of Jesus' apostles are visible. There are two giant statues of St. Peter and St. Paul placed on the entrance as well.
St. Peter's Basilica Interior
As St. Peter's Basilica is one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture, it sure has a list of invaluable treasures inside, in terms of design elements as well as artefacts. The list of works includes Michelangelo's Pieta, Bernini's bronze Baldacchino, and St. Peter's chair. A neoclassical sculpture of Pope Pius VI is also considered a masterpiece, among other Papal monuments.
Main Highlights of St. Peter's Basilica Architecture
The facade of St. Peter's Basilica is 118.6 meters wide and 48 meters high. It's standing on its own, without the support of the building because it was built independently by architect Carlo Maderno. The construction of the facade had begun in 1607, but the first stone was laid only in 1608. In 1612 the entire structure was completed.
The Atrium of St. Peter's Basilica was created by the great Italian architect Carlo Maderno. The structure stretches 71 meters in length, 12.89 meters in width, and stands tall at 19 meters. Bearing the traces of the Old St. Peter's Basilica, the construction of the Atrium began in 1608 and finished in 1612. The portico is adorned with ancient medallions. And one of the five monumental doors of the Basilica, the Holy Door, only opens once every 25 years.
St. Peter’s Basilica has eleven chapels in its nave. These include chapels surrounding the Dome as well. All the chapels are decorated with stuccos and precious artworks by master artists. The most famous chapel among all perhaps is the Chapel of the Pieta. Sculpted by Michelangelo at age 24, the sculpture of Pieta shows Virgin Mary grieving while holding her arms to the dead body of Jesus Christ.
The design of the naves of St. Peter's Basilica is a testament to its architectural superiority. The walls of the central nave have inscriptions praising St. Peter and the Christian faith in general. The central nave also has two large holy water Stoups designed by a group of Italian Renaissance architects. Another stunning attraction is the 39 statues of religious figures designed within the pilasters.
St. Peter’s Basilica | An Architectural Wonder
A marvelous architectural triumph, St. Peter's Basilica is a unique structure in its own right. There are very few buildings that carry the baroque style architecture from the renaissance era. With a history dating back centuries, and the signature of artists like Michelangelo still on the Basilica is a treasure-trove for both believers and enthusiasts. St. Peter's Basilica brings in millions of visitors every year from across the globe!
Frequently Asked Questions About St. Peter's Basilica Architecture
A. Throughout its construction, St. Peter's Basilica adopted the best of Baroque-style architecture and flourished during the Renaissance. World-famous artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael have contributed to the structure.