Saturday, November 18, 2006

San Pietro in Vaticano

Today, 18 November, is the feast day of the dedication of two of Rome's great basilicas, San Pietro in Vaticano and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The current St Peter's is, of course, the second great church on that site. The original Constantinian basilica was dedicated by Pope Sylvester I on 18 November 326. This building survived until the papacy of Julius II who laid the foundation stone of a new basilica in 1506. Julius (he of the Sistine Chapel ceiling) envisaged a great church at the centre of which would stand his tomb. In the event the parts of his tomb that were completed (including Michelangelo's Moses) were located in the chuch of San Pietro in Vincoli (Julius' titular when he was plain old Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere) although Julius himself is buried, somewhat ironically, in an almost unmarked grave in St Peter's (the location of the tomb is currently marked by a simple plaque in the floor of St Peter's in front of the monument to Pope Clement X).

The building of the great basilica took well over a century, being dedicated - again on 18 November - in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII. It was under Urban's patronage that Gian Lorenzo Bernini completed some of his greatest masterpieces including the baldacchino which towers over the papal altar in St Peter's. Much of the bronze that makes up this creation is rumoured to have come from the Pantheon. This resulted in the emergence of the famous quote "Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini" ("What the barbarians didn't do, the barberini (Urban's family name)did").

The current St Paul's Basilica is of relatively recent origin despite its ancient basilical appearance. The original church was burnt down in 1823. With worldwide donations it was rebuilt on the same foundations and dedicated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

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