The Pope's piazza for the peopleMost of us may have seen Piazza San Pietro on television if we have ever watched the Pope give a speech, and been impressed by the thousands of people packed into the huge elliptical space, which serves as a kind of forecourt for the grandest Christian church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica. If you visit St. Peter’s Square on a normal day, the grandeur of its design becomes evident with not quite so many people – though while there may not be thousands, it is still common to see queues of hundreds waiting to enter the Vatican.
The stunning design of the Piazza is thanks to the genius of the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI Chigi, who wanted an open space so that he could speak and give blessings to as many members of the faith as possible. Bernini took up the challenge, and created a brilliant space framed by enormous Doric colonnades four columns deep which hold the piazza and its occupants in the embrace of the church. This simple design did not detract from the majesty of the Basilica, while its scale managed to retain the sense of awe intended to inspire visitors.
Bernini included in his plans the Vatican Obelisk, which had been moved in front of the Basilica in 1586 from the Roman chariot-racing circus 300 yards away by order of Pope Sixtus V. This task took a staggering 900 men, 140 horses and five months, and was to be carried out in complete silence. By papal command anyone who spoke would be hanged. However, during the move a sailor noticed that the ropes were about to snap unless they were wetted immediately, thus breaking the obelisk and ruining the whole enterprise. He shouted out 'the ropes!' and catastrophe was averted. For this Sixtus allowed him to keep this life.
Another addition was the fountain on the left of the piazza: the one on the right had already been created by Carlo Moderno, so Bernini made an identical one which he positioned on the left giving symmetry to the square. Even if you have no intention of going to the Vatican, a walk up to Saint Peter’s Square is a spectacular sight you won’t want to miss.