St Peter’s Square

(continuer en français) – Published: February 27, 2022

St. Peter’s Square, Vatican

The Lateran Accords signed in 1929 between the Holy See and the Italian state led by Mussolini guaranteed the boundaries of the Vatican State. At 44 hectares, it is the smallest state in the world, far smaller than the former Papal States lost in 1870 when Italy was unified.

Upon arriving in St. Peter’s Square, if the border appears on the ground by a different coloured pavement, there is even a row of barriers, the crossing is not controlled, the public can freely access the vast square and the basilica. From the beginning, St. Peter’s Square was intended to accommodate crowds of pilgrims, up to 300,000 people could stand there. Over time, its decoration was gradually enriched.

The Colonnade

After the completion of the basilica, it became necessary to better structure the huge square that served as its parvis. In 1656, Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to propose a design for St Peter’s Square. His colonnade project was accepted but he did not have time to complete it before the pope’s death. A large arch was to close the perimeter, where the Via della Conciliazione arrives today.

At the top of the colonnade, a balustrade supports 140 statues of saints and figures from the Church. These statues, measuring more than three metres in height, were gradually carved by Bernini’s pupils. They form an elegant crenellation, extended to the façade of the basilica, which is also topped by a row of statues of slightly greater size.

The obelisk and the fountains

In 1586, the obelisk was installed in the centre of the square, which did not yet have the colonnade. The obelisk had previously been placed in the Roman circus of Nero, which was on the site of the basilica. It is in this circus and at the foot of the obelisk that the martyrdom of Saint Peter is said to have taken place. Initially the obelisk was designed for an Egyptian temple in Heliopolis. Emperor Caligula ordered it to be moved to Rome in 37.

The square had to be left clear for the movement of the crowds. Few additional monuments or sculptures were added to the space. In addition to the obelisk, only two fountains were installed to the north and south, in 1615 and 1675 respectively.

Angels Unaware

In 2019, a monumental sculpture by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz was inaugurated in St. Peter’s Square. Angels Unaware draws attention to migrants and refugees, particularly those who arrive illegally in countries that do not wish to take them in.

The sculpture depicts 140 life-size figures standing in a boat. Their morphology or clothing is explicit enough to embody the different origins and times when migration has provoked xenophobic reactions.

The Swiss Guards

Their colourful costume gives them a folkloric appearance, but they are real soldiers of the Swiss army. Carefully recruited to serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guard, they inherit a long tradition where regiments of experienced Swiss mercenaries served the European courts. They were, for example, the last defenders of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.

In the Vatican, they ensured the security of the Pope and the State, in collaboration with a corps of gendarmes. They also take part in ceremonies, combining their martial appearance with ecclesiastical robes. Their number varies according to security needs, and there are currently 135 of them.

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11 comments

    • It is true that it is easy to associate the sculpture with a tragedy, ancient or recent. With the modern media we live these moments live, which makes them even more dramatic. Thanks for your interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Impressive architecture and artwork around Vatican. I still remember the crowdedness when we visited years ago, but who can blame them, we were there too!
    I was thinking the Swiss guards will get a costume-matching mask, but that’s not the case🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, the crowd seems to be part of the scenery. I agree, what a missed opportunity with these masks, whether it was art or advertising, there was a large scale sponsorable space.Thank you for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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