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10 Facts About St. Peter's Basilica

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Whether you're Catholic or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is an amazing feat of architecture and art. The cornerstone for this sanctified structure was laid on April 18, 1506, so its birthday is just around the corner. In case you're counting, that's 503 candles on the cake. To celebrate, here are a few facts about the House that Peter Built (according to Catholic tradition, anyway).

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1. The current Basilica is actually St. Peter's Basilica #2.

Old Saint Peter's Basilica (OSPB, for future reference) was built on the orders of Constantine I sometime around 324. It was at OSPB that Charlemagne was crowned the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in on Christmas Day in 800. Not much of the original Basilica remains, but a piece of a mosaic from the eighth century can still be found at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and eight of the original columns from the old altar were moved to the new (current) St. Peter's. Somewhat unrelated trivia: Santa Maria in Cosmedin is also where the Mouth of Truth is.

2. There are 100+ tombs at St. Peter's,

including 91 popes, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and Swedish Queen Christina who abdicated the throne to convert to Catholicism.

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3. Michelangelo's Pietà  is located at St. Peter's and has been the source of much abuse over the years.

First of all, four of her fingers broke off sometime in the 1700s as the statue was moved throughout the Basilica. They were repaired in 1736. But the worst incident was in 1972 when a geologist named Laszlo Toth ran into the Basilica and attacked the nearly 500-year-old statue with a geologist's hammer. Yelling "I am Jesus Christ," he took Mary's arm completely off from the elbow down, chipped a chunk out of her nose and damaged one of her eyelids. Since its restoration from the attack, the Pietà  has been housed in a case of bulletproof acrylic glass. You can still see where she was damaged if you look closely. The Pietà  is also the only work Michelangelo ever signed. The story is that he heard someone talking about this great statue that Cristoforo Solari had created. It was Michelangelo's statue, of course, and in a fit of pride, he went and added his signature to Mary's sash. He later regretted it and said he would never sign anything ever again.

4. There's a door that is only opened for holy years. It's called, appropriately, the Holy Door.

They're only opened in certain years 'Jubilee years' and people who pass through them receive a plenary indulgence. A better Catholic than I can explain what a plenary indulgence is.

5. The top of the colonnade in the square outside contains 140 statues of various saints.

That's a lot of carving, folks. But they were completed by many artists over a period of 41 years, from 1662 to 1703. Not all of the artists' names were recorded, but the ones that were (and which statue they created) can be found here.

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6. Bernini finished the 96-foot-tall baldacchino (the canopy-like thing over the altar) in 1633 and it's the epitome of opulence, which it was heavily criticized for at the time.

It's said that the bronze that makes up the baldacchino was taken from the roof of the Pantheon, which is another thing Italians weren't too thrilled about.

7. Climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome will add 491 stairs to your exercise log.

And it's a scary climb: in some spots, the "staircase" is so narrow there's no room for railings, so there's a rope that runs down the middle for you to hold on to. And sometimes, it's both narrow and incredibly slanted. Not good for claustrophobics. You don't have to climb the whole thing, though. Taking an elevator will save you about 171 stairs.

8. The Scavi is the Vatican Necropolis.

Not the grotto — the grotto is the place where a lot of Popes are now buried, including JPII. The Scavi is only available by appointment, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why the Vatican grants some requests and denies others. Only about 200 people a day are admitted into the Scavi, which is where the tomb of St. Peter supposedly resides. I mean, they think it's St. Peter. Exactly 134 bone fragments were found in a niche with the phrase "Petros eni," which means "Peter is here" in Greek. Carbon dating has found that they are the remains of a 60 to 70-year-old man from the second century. The tour guide also says that no pieces of bone found were determined to be feet bones. Some stories say that after Peter was crucified upside down, he was removed from his cross very quickly — just chopped off at the ankles instead of properly removed. So maybe? Anyway, that's the Vatican's story, and they're sticking to it.

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9.

There's a bronze statue of St. Peter thought to have been made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century, although that's something that's often disputed by art historians and scholars who think it was cast as early as the fifth century. Either way, this St. Peter has seen a lot of love: it's tradition for people to kiss or rub his foot when they pass by. You can tell just how many people have done it by the fact that his right toes have worn into a completely smooth surface, whereas his left toes are still individual digits.

10.

I seem to remember this enduring rumor that there were portraits of every Pope in gilded frames somewhere at St. Peter's, including empty frames for the upcoming Popes. How the Vatican knew how many empty frames to include was always a mystery, and so the speculation began that they knew the apocalypse was going to happen during a certain Pope's reign and therefore only provided the exact number of empty portrait frames that would be needed through that time frame. Silly, I know. But I can't find mention of this urban legend anywhere, not even Snopes! Did I completely make it up? Has someone else heard of it? Tell me I'm not losing it. Update: see the comments for an explanation. I know our _flossers would come through!!

On that note, I'm out for a few days. I posted a couple months ago about this road trip we're taking and it's time to finally make good on that post. If you're interested, I will probably document the trip in real time on Twitter just out of sheer boredom. I imagine 24 hours in a car (48 round trip) is going to lead to desperate measures to entertain myself. Otherwise, I'll definitely be doing an Armchair Field Trip or two about it when I get back.

I leave you in the capable hands of Jason English and Adrienne Crezo. See you Tuesday!

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25 Royals in the Line of Succession to the British Throne
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Between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcoming their third child on April 23, 2018 and Prince Harry's upcoming marriage to Suits star Meghan Markle in May, the line of succession to the British throne has become a topic of interest all over the world. And the truth is, it’s complicated. Though Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 92 years old on April 21, shows no signs of slowing down, here are the royals who could one day take her place on the throne—in one very specific order.

1. PRINCE CHARLES

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As a direct result of his mother being the world's longest-reigning monarch, Prince Charles—the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip—is the longest serving heir to the throne; he became heir apparent in 1952, when his mother ascended to the throne.

2. PRINCE WILLIAM

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At 35 years old, odds are good that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge—the eldest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana—will ascend to the throne at some point in his lifetime.

3. PRINCE GEORGE 

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On July 22, 2013, Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their first child, Prince George of Cambridge, who jumped the line to step ahead of his uncle, Prince Harry, to become third in the line of succession.

4. PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 

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On May 2, 2015, William and Catherine added another member to their growing brood: a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. Though her parents just welcomed a bouncing baby boy, she will maintain the fourth-in-line position because of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which went into effect just a few weeks before her arrival, and removed a long-held rule which stated that any male sibling (regardless of birth order) would automatically move ahead of her.

5. PRINCE OF CAMBRIDGE

 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge depart the Lindo Wing with their newborn son at St Mary's Hospital on April 23, 2018 in London, England
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

On April 23, 2018, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their third child—a son, whose name has yet to be announced, but who has already pushed his uncle, Prince Harry, out of the fifth position in line to the throne.

6. PRINCE HARRY

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As the second-born son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Harry's place in the line is a regularly changing one. It changed earlier this week, when his brother William's third child arrived, and could change again if and when their family expands.

7. PRINCE ANDREW, DUKE OF YORK

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Prince Andrew is a perfect example of life before the Succession to the Crown Act 2013: Though he’s the second-born son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he’s actually their third child (Princess Anne came between him and Prince Charles). But because the rules gave preference to males, Prince Andrew would inherit the throne before his older sister.

8. PRINCESS BEATRICE OF YORK

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Because Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, had two daughters and no sons, none of that male-preference primogeniture stuff mattered in terms of their placement. But with each child her cousin Prince William has, Princess Beatrice moves farther away from the throne. If Beatrice looks familiar, it might be because of the headlines she made with the Dr. Seuss-like hat she wore to William and Catherine’s wedding. (The infamous topper later sold on eBay for more than $130,000, all of which went to charity.)

9. PRINCESS EUGENIE OF YORK

Princess Eugenie of York arrives in the parade ring during Royal Ascot 2017 at Ascot Racecourse on June 20, 2017 in Ascot, England
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Though she’s regularly seen at royal events, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s youngest daughter spends the bulk of her time indulging her interest in fine art. She has held several jobs in the art world, and is currently a director at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery.

10. PRINCE EDWARD, EARL OF WESSEX

 Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex leaves after a visit to Prince Philip
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Like his older brother Andrew, Prince Edward—the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—jumps the line ahead of his older sister, Princess Anne, because of the older rule that put males ahead of females.

11. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

 James, Viscount Severn, rides on the fun fair carousel on day 4 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 11, 2013 in Windsor, England
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James, Viscount Severn—the younger of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s two children, and their only son—turned 10 years old on December 17, 2017, and celebrated it as the 10th royal in line of succession. (The birth of the youngest Prince of Cambridge pushed him back a spot.)

12. LADY LOUISE MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor during the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 15, 2013 in London, England.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Because the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 wasn’t enacted until 2015, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor—the older of Prince Edward’s two children—will always be just behind her brother in the line of succession.

13. PRINCESS ANNE, THE PRINCESS ROYAL

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, visits the Hambleton Equine Clinic on October 10, 2017 in Stokesley, England
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Princess Anne, the Queen and Prince Philip’s second-born child and only daughter, may never rule over the throne in her lifetime, but at least she gets to be called “The Princess Royal.”

14. PETER PHILLIPS

Peter Phillips poses for a photo on The Mall
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The eldest child and only son of Princess Anne and her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, stands just behind his mother in line. Interesting fact: Had Phillips’s wife, Autumn Kelly, not converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England before their marriage in 2008, Phillips would have lost his place in line.

15. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Savannah Phillips attends a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

On December 29, 2010, Peter and Autumn Phillips celebrated the birth of their first child, Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, who is also the Queen’s first great-grandchild. She’s currently 15th in line.

16. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Less than two years after Savannah, Peter and Autumn Phillips had a second daughter, Isla, who stands just behind her sister in line. It wasn’t until 2017 that Savannah and Isla made their Buckingham Palace balcony debut (in honor of their great-grandmother’s 91st birthday).

17. ZARA TINDALL

 Zara Tindall arrives for a reception at the Guildhall
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Not one to hide in the background, Zara Tindall—Princess Anne’s second child and only daughter—has lived much of her life in the spotlight. A celebrated equestrian, she won the Eventing World Championship in Aachen in 2006 and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year the same year (her mom earned the same title in 1971). She’s also Prince George’s godmother.

18. MIA TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Zara Tindall’s daughter Mia may just be 4 years old, but she’s already regularly making headlines for her outgoing personality. And though she’s only 18th in line to the throne, her connection to the tippity top of the royal family is much closer: Prince William is her godfather.

19. DAVID ARMSTRONG-JONES, 2ND EARL OF SNOWDON

David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowdon
HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/Getty Images

David Armstrong-Jones, the eldest child of Princess Margaret, isn’t waiting around to see if the British crown ever lands on his head. The 56-year-old, who goes by David Linley in his professional life, has made a name for himself as a talented furniture-maker. His bespoke pieces, sold under the brand name Linley, can be purchased through his own boutiques as well as at Harrods.

20. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

Margarita Armstrong-Jones and Charles Patrick Inigo Armstrong-Jones
Chris Jackson-WPA Pool/Getty Images

David Armstrong-Jones’s only son, Charles, may be 20th in line to the throne, but the 18-year-old is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

21. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) talks with Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (C) as her father David Armstrong-Jones (L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, known as David Linley
HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/Getty Images

Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones, the youngest child of David Armstrong-Jones and his only daughter, is also the only granddaughter of Princess Margaret. Now 15 years old (she'll turn 16 in June), Lady Margarita made headlines around the world in 2011 when she served as a flower girl at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

22. LADY SARAH CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto, the daughter of Princess Margaret arrives for her mother's memorial service
STEPHEN HIRD/AFP/Getty Images

Lady Sarah Chatto, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s only daughter, is the youngest grandchild of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In addition to serving as a bridesmaid to Princess Diana, she is Prince Harry’s godmother.

23. SAMUEL CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto (L) and her son Samuel Chatto (R) leave a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Lord Snowdon at Westminster Abbey on April 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom
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The first-born son of Lady Sarah Chatto and her husband, Daniel, has a long way to go to reach the throne: He’s currently 23rd in line.

24. ARTHUR CHATTO

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For better or worse, Sarah and Daniel Chatto’s youngest son Arthur has become a bit of a social media sensation. He's made headlines recently as he regularly posts selfies to Instagram—some of them on the eyebrow-raising side, at least as far as royals go.

25. PRINCE RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER

Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester makes a speech during the unveiling ceremony of London's first public memorial to the Korean War on December 3, 2014 in London, England
Carl Court/Getty Images

At 73 years old, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester is the youngest grandchild of King George V and Queen Mary. Formerly, he made a living as an architect, until the 1972 death of his brother, Prince William of Gloucester, put him next in line to inherit his father’s dukedom. On June 10, 1974, he officially succeeded his father as Duke of Gloucester, Earl of Ulster, and Baron Culloden.

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20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

Gentoo Penguin
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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

penguins swimming in the ocean
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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

chinstrap penguins
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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

maegellic penguin nesting
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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguins nest
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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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