Old St. Peter's in the Vatican

Start with a soggy swampy hilltop. But how did a swamp stay on top of a hill -- didn't the water just run off? It wouldn't if the hill was mostly clay and if it was pocked with natural and manmade pits. Rainwater collected in the depressions and saturated the clay. But the clay was too dense to let the water run through and down to the river. So you started with that swampy hilltop.

The hilltop swamp was just as pestilential as the swamp on the lower eastern side of the river. There was malaria on both sides of the Tiber. Malaria just means "bad air", and "Roman fever" was caused by "mal aria". They also hated the mosquitoes but did not know them to be the disease vectors. The lower peat swamp on the other side of the river, the Campus Martius, could be drained and diked, and therefore it was usable much sooner than the Vatican Hill on the western bank,.

The Vatican stayed wild: it was way outside the walls, across the river and the haunt of wild animals. It had, at least, wolves and maybe bears -- even an occasional lion in early days. One of the pits on the back side of the hill was very deep and dark, and it was reputed to be a local entrance to Hades. Stregae (witches) hung out up there, and it was rumored that there they dealt with grigori (portal guardians) and lasae (elementals) at their tregua meetings on full moon nights and at hemi-seasonal treguendae. Here also was the temple of Cybele, the bloody Phrygian Earth Mother, ministered by self-made eunuch-priests (for a description, see Lucretius: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/lucretius-reruma.html.) There were rumors of missing travelers and of human sacrifices.

There was a road over the hill, but it was mostly used only during daylight hours to bring down the sticky brick-clay down to the river. Unlike most roads leading out of Rome, there initially were no tombs or monuments. Who'd want to bury their Uncle Sesquiculus up there with all the daemons and witches and dangerous cults already about?

Long before there were any Caesars, the Vatican Hill belonged to the Julians, the family of the first Caesars. It's nowhere clear how they acquired title to the place. What is clear is that they got rich making bricks that built Rome. You can imagine, all those construction contracts let by the early emperors -- Julians to a man -- specified brick, even if it was hidden under marble, as it most often was. When the next dynasty came along, bricks made from clay from the Palatine Hill were most often used. No surprise to discover that the Palatine Hill had been bought up by that second dynasty, the Flavians, and that brick contracts thereafter went their way.

Not much was built on the Vatican Hill until the Emperor Gaius laid out a horse racing track on the flat area between the Vatican Hill and the Janiculum Ridge. Gaius was otherwise known as Caligula for the "small boots" he wore as a child in his father's military camp in Spain. Caligula's proposed circus had an approximately east-west axis with the start-finish line at the eastern end. He didn't finish his circus, nor did his successor, Claudius, who was interested in other things: his books and his booze, but not always in that order. Nero, who came after them, finally finished the track, and the racecourse was named after him.

The whole of the Circus Neroni has not been excavated, but enough of its remains have been identified to show that it ran from approximately the eastern end of Bernini's elliptical colonnades at the far front of Piazza S. Pietro to beyond the back of the apse of the present day cathedral. It's northern edge would be just south of the centerline of today's church and slightly off axis -- that is, the western end of the circus was a little bit further south than the eastern end. The track the horses ran on would have been just about the same width of the cathedral nave. Down the center of the track ran a low wall called a spina, and at the mid-point of the spina was an obelisk that Caligula had looted from Heliopolis in Egypt.

This was a private track for the Emperor and his friends -- never open to the public -- and it was here that Nero had some of the scapegoat Christians executed after his fire of 64 AD. Among those martyred, according to local accounts, was Peter the Apostle. The last thing he saw, legend says, was Caligula's obelisk. Peter was buried just outside the northern edge of the circus and toward its western end, and the site of his burial quickly became venerated.

After Nero, there is no record of any further use of the circus, and by the second century, the area had been invaded by tombs as a few Christians buried their dead as close as they could to the sanctified site of Peter's tomb. Members of other oriental cults, denizens of Transtiberium, also buried their dead nearby in much richer tombs. But the poorer Christian plot was zealously maintained.

Some time in the twenty or so years before 180 AD the Christian site was walled off on one side. The wall arched over one of the graves, which was given its own niche or aedicula. A gabled roof was added and supported by side pillars. Two more pillars supported a slab that jutted forward to receive offerings. By 200 AD the site was known as the Tropaion or "Trophy" of St. Peter: Christian zealots advertised martyrdom as a great victory and worthy of a victor's trophy. The wall was painted red, and it is still known by archeologists and "Peter-ologists" as "the red wall." Such arrangements were not uncommon in cemeteries around the city, and the walls behind venerated tombs were often adorned with graffiti. One such inscription at this tomb site, written in the third century and rediscovered in the 20th, specifically appealed to St. Peter for intercession. So before the year 200, the site was already well identified. There is an unbroken tradition until today that it really is Peter's grave.

Pass another 125 years, and Constantine had kicked out his co-emperors and, with his mother, Helena, he was trying to establish Christianity as the religion of the empire. The small "house-churches", where Christians had previously privately celebrated their liturgy, and the poor cemetery shrines, and the cramped chambers for ceremonial dinners in the catacombs simply weren't enough to impress. Constantine's eastern churches (and a few in the west) might be circular or octagonal, but the main pattern in the west, and especially around Rome was an adaptation of the Roman civil basilica.

Basilicas were places for meetings, civic musters, documentation and notarization, and, above all, for civil court proceedings. Rome was a most litigious place and venues for judgements had to be numerous to handle the big caseload. A magistrate took his seat in a "curile" chair in the apse at the end of the long central hall of a civil basilica, and there he -- never a she -- rendered his judgement. Often the judge's seat would be placed directly in front of a huge image of the Emperor, a statue seated in a correspondingly larger judgement chair of its own. Think of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington -- he's seated on a curile chair with the emblems of his authority, the Roman fasces, mounted on the front of its arms. Of course, the Roman statues could be even bigger than the Lincoln. Constantine's statue in his civil basilica in the Roman Forum was almost twice as big -- the head and odd bits of limbs are now in a courtyard at the Capitoline Museum.

Constantine had inherited that incomplete civil basilica, in the center of town, from his defeated predecessor Maxentius and then finished it in grand style. He built his equally grand Christian "church basilicas" on the fringes of Rome, starting with the Church of St. John in the Lateran. Others quickly followed, but St. Peters was a later addition, started ten or eleven years after Constantine conquered Rome in 312 AD. The Lateran was inside the Aurelian walls, and it was on property that was both pretty much vacant and that already belonged to the imperial family. Others -- St. Paul's, San Lornenzo, and St. Peters were outside the walls. It was only much later that Christians set up churches in the pagan strongholds in the city center.

Like the civil basilicas, Constantine's Christian basilicas were "oblong structure with columns, having an ambulatory of lower height, receiving light from above, and possessing a projecting addition (the apse) designed to serve a particular purpose" (definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia). That particular purpose in the civil basilicas was often, as we have seen, to provide a location for a chair of civil judgement, and when court was not in session, the judgement chair stood empty before the image of the Emperor. In Christian basilicas, this imagery was maintained. The bishop's chair (the cathedra) was in front of or directly under an image -- in Christian churches usually a mosaic or fresco -- of Christ in a chair of judgement.

Some Christian basilicas -- usually called cemetery basilicas -- held tombs, graves and sometimes a "martyrion", a centrally located shrine to a martyred Saint to which the church was dedicated. Old St. Peter's was one of these.

Like other Christian basilicas, it also had a porticoed yard in front of the main entrance, called an atrium and thought to be modeled after the entrance courtyards of big Roman houses. The atrium was a place, outside the liturgical area of the basilica itself, where cadet converts could stay during Mass and a gathering place for the whole congregation before and after the religious rites. It soon also served as a graveyard for the clergy and high-ranking laity. (You can still see such atria at some basilicas in Rome -- St. Cecilia, St. Paul Outside the Walls, for example -- and at some new Catholic churches in the US.)

Constantine focused Old St. Peter's on the tropaion of the patron saint. The basilica floor was initially at the same level as the base of the trophy, which stood at the entrance of the apse. To accomplish this, Constantine's builders had to cut away adjacent tombs and about one million cubic feet of the hillside to make a level area for the long rectangle of the nave and the two aisles on each of its sides. This obviously was no small undertaking. Destruction of Christian and other tombs was daunting, and it has been suggested that this is one of the reasons why Constantine built the Lateran and some other basilicas first.

A small canopy was built above the trophy, an eastern tradition that is still in practice, and there was an opening through which articles could be lowered onto the tomb itself, presumably to absorb some of the Saint's holiness. That's still done with the robes of new bishops.

The church was completed after Constantine's death in 337 AD and stood with only decorative changes until 600 AD. (Some modern researchers, basing their analyses on impression stamps on bricks found in the foundations, say the church wasnít even started until around 350 AD during the reign of Constans, the son of Constantine, in the West.) By 600, Imperial authority was pretty much absent from Rome, and Pope Gregory I ("The Great") was in charge of everything civil and religious. He raised the floor to a level higher than Peter's tomb, pushed back the wall of the apse to establish a presbytery and built a new altar directly over the shrine. Gregory's work is sometimes referred to as the installation of an annular crypt, so called because of the ring shape of the structures around the tomb. The most important effect of raising the floor was to remove the trophy from direct view and access, but the invention of the "confessio" an opening in the floor in front of the tomb, which then was copied in other churches, allowed for indirect access. In St. Peters and some other churches, coins were thrown down into the confessio, a holdover from previous pagan superstitions. The discovery in the fill around the tomb, during 20th century excavations, of more than 1900 coins dating from as early as the 2nd and to the 14th century testifies to the early Christian adoption of the custom.

After Gregory, nothing much was done to amplify, embellish, and, in latter years, even to preserve the Basilica of St. Peter. Rome's population suffered drastic decline after plagues, foreign dominations, inept leaders, waves of barbarians, and absentee Popes. The city's denizens numbered well below 40,000 by the 12th or 13th century, down from more than a million at the time of Constantine's basilica-building binge. Small new parish churches became the prevalent sites of Christian worship in Rome. No big new churches were built and there were few resources to maintain the grandiose early Christian edifices. Unlike earlier eras when St. Peter's had a huge income, now there wasn't even enough money to buy oil for the lamps around the confessio.

It wouldn't have much mattered even if there were the money to maintain the old church: there were irreparable structural defects that were about to bring down the church. That swampy hilltop, was finally taking its toll. The north side of the basilica that rested on Constantinian walls was stable, but the south side was sagging. Its foundations were parts of Nero's circus that were never designed to bear such weight. The semi-plastic clay subsoils beneath were "slumping" -- that really is the technical term. In addition, the roof beams were old and rotting, but there was no way to replace them safely. Even though they were weak, they were all that was keeping the tops of the old walls in position. Removing them would likely also bring down the walls. A new basilica had to be built to replace Constantine's crumbling structure.

This was realized as early as the mid-15th century. Pope Nicholas V Parentucelli asked Florentine architect Bernardo Rosselini to build a new church, but Nicholas and the new basilica project died in 1455 when Rosselini had only accomplished minor works. Fifty years later, Pope Julius II della Rovere restarted, and Donato d'Angelo Bramante was given the design and architecture job. His plans and early works set the pattern that, after his death in 1514, many others tried to follow and sometimes tried to modify and especially simplify.

The work was accomplished in two sections, but first a wall was built cutting the basilica into western and eastern sections. Work began first in the western end, from the partition wall to the apse, on April 18, 1506. A protective building was built over the tomb of Peter. And everything above it was taken down, and, almost one hundred years later, work on that end was finally complete. The new western end now became the liturgical center, and work on the eastern end could commence. Demolition of the eastern end, which by that time had sagged more than a meter southward, began on February 21, 1606. Only nine years later, on Palm Sunday, April 12, 1615, the partition wall was removed, and the whole of the new church was available for use, even though various projects inside and out would continue for years. The speed of construction of the eastern end, which was the fabric of the long nave, was due in part to the relative simplicity of its architecture, but it was also due to the willingness of Pope Paul V Borghese to lavish church and family fortunes on the project. By his time, of course, the popes were back in Rome, the Roman renaissance was well under way, and money was available again. Paul V, in fact, probably had more available cash than any pope before or since, and he was willing to spend a fraction of his family's fortune to insure a place in history. It worked: it's his name on the façade. The appointment of the era's master architect, Carlo Maderno, who also built Villa Ludovisi, the old core of the American Embassy, obviously was another important factor.

But this is about the life and death of the old basilica, not the new one, so construction stories, political and religious intrigues, the "Latin cross versus the Greek cross" controversy, Maderno's façade completed and greatly embellished by Bernini, Bernini's forecourt and his baldachino and his setting for the "chair of St. Peter", etc., you will have to read about elsewhere. There are tons of books available.

More information: Only basic information on the old basilica is available on the Internet. If you really want to get into the story, you have to find a copy of Volume 5 of Richard Krautheimer's "Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae". It is available in English at some Rome libraries, or you can buy it for about $80 at the Vatican bookstore (usually not on the shelf, but they'll get it for you -- it was published by the Vatican Press). A more accessible source, also by Krautheimer, is his "Profile of a City", now available at bookstores and online booksellers in a fine paperback edition, which can be had for as little as $25. A third Krautheimer book, "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (about $30) is another good source on the old basilica. (Krautheimer is academia's baseline on the old basilica, not just mine.)

The basic Internet stuff on the old basilica is at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13369b.htm -- Catholic Encyclopedia

http://www.ku.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/.Texts/Lanciani/LANPAC/3*.html -- Chapter 3 of Rudolfo Lanciani's 1892 "Pagan and Christian Rome" (with illustrations)

http://webcampus3.stthomas.edu/jmjoncas/LiturgicalStudiesInternetLinks/ChristianWorship/Architecture/Centuries/CWArchitecture0300_0400CE/RomeOldSPeters_c315CE.HTML --Little text, but good drawings of early structures.

http://www.ucd.ie/~classics/96/Curran96.html -- Peter's Bones?

http://home.online.no/~cnyborg/pietrovaticano.html -- old and new Basilicas at Chris Nyborg's Churches of Rome site

You can also look up the protagonists, from Constantine through the Popes who tore down the old basilica and their architects, using the Google search engine (www.google.com).  Type a name along with "peter" in the search box and you will usually come up with something.

P.S. 1: The soggy swampy hilltop is also the reason why Carlo Maderno's big bell towers, planned for both ends of the façade of the new basilica were never built. Bernini actually started building them, but the façade and foundations under the one on the northern end -- right, if you are facing the cathedral façade -- started to sink into the underlying semi-plastic clay. Cracks started to appear in the façade, and the work already accomplished, at least four courses of stone, was hastily pulled down. Bernini, unaccustomed to failure, took to his bed, but he soon returned to finish other nearby projects. Meanwhile, the façade was left "too wide" for Vitruvian standards. Vitruvius is on the Internet in English at http://www.ku.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/home.html.

P.S.2: Off the subject, but interesting: The New St Peter's is considerably larger than the old, and on its floor there are bronze strips showing the size of the world's other great basilicas, all of which could fit inside St. Peter's in the Vatican. What you won't find there is a strip for the Church of our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, the official capital of the Ivory Coast. Our Lady, modeled after St. Peter's, eclipsed the original in size and became the biggest Christian church when it was completed and dedicated by the Pope in 1989. See http://www.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq/yq75.html for a few details and a picture.

P.S.3: Another little known fact: New St. Peter's is bent! The nave center line curves south from the center line of the apse and the crossing point of the nave and transept. This was not an accident. The 1586 siting of the obelisk centered it on the front of the atrium of the old basilica, which was not symmetrical. The slight bend in the nave was made to align the center of the main front door with the pre-sited obelisk -- nobody wanted to risk moving it again. You can confirm the bend by sighting down the pillars on either side of the nave, but it's much easier to see on the basilica floor when it is not covered with wandering pilgrims. Get there before 8:30 AM to find the church virtually empty.

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