The Quick 10: 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).

ospb1. 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, which includes 91 popes, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and Swedish Queen Christina who abdicated the throne to convert to Catholicism.

pieta3. 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.

baldacchino6. 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.

peter9. 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!

April 7, 2009 - 11:28am
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