Saint Peter's Square was designed between 1656 and 1667 by GianLorenzo Bernini, who was also the final architect of St. Peter's Basilica.
The aim of the square was to provide a welcome to Roman Catholics as they came to the church and to impress non-Catholics enough so that they would consider converting.
Bernini designed the two colonnades on either side as arms embracing or hugging people as they arrived. They provide a psychological break to the city of Rome which is right outside.
Since the Lateran Treaty signed with Mussolini's government in the 1930s, St. Peter's Square is actually not part of Vatican City but is part of the City of Rome.
The square is used most weeks during the summer on Wednesday mornings for Papal Audiences when chairs are laid out. During the winter or on bad weather days these audiences happen in the Audience Hall of Paul IV which is to the left of St. Peter's Basilica. The Pope also addresses the faithful on Sundays at Noon from his office, a less formal event, which can be seen by simply standing in the square.
Originally the square was bare and was flanked by buildings on both sides.
The first thing in the square was the central obelisk, which is over 3000 years old, and was one of the obelisks taken from Egypt by the Emperor Gaius or Caligula.
He placed it in the middle of his chariot racing track which he built on Vatican Hill in the 40s A.D. This was to the left of the current basilica. This stadium was repaired by Nero, who had Saint Peter executed in it around 67 A.D. Nero blamed the Christians for starting the Great Fire of Rome, three years previously, which had burned almost half the city. Peter was buried in a nearby cemetery which the basilica was built over. When Christianity became the State Religion of Rome in the late fourth century, the obelisk was ordered preserved as it was one of the last things seen by Saint Peter before he died.
It was not until 1586 that the Obelisk was moved directly in front of the church by Domenico Fontana, himself an architect of Saint Peters at the time. This in itself was a huge architectural triumph as the monolith weighs over 300 tonnes. The undeveloped square now had a centrepiece.
Fontana's Successor, Carlo Maderno, added the fountain on the right side of the square nearest the Papal Apartments.
Fountains were a symbol a baptism and if needed this water is potable although I would not recommend drinking it. Maderno's Successor, Bernini, moved this fountain in line with the obelisk and added a replica fountain on the other side. The three vertical elements in line were reminiscent of the spina, spine or halfway marker in the chariot racing track where Peter was killed.
Bernini had two ideas when he planned the square. The first was the chariot racing track where peter was crucified and the second was the Keys to Kingdom of Heaven he was metaphorically given by Jesus [Matthew 16: 17-19]. If you look at an aerial photograph of Saint Peter's Square you can see a round circle (the chariot racing track) and a trapezoid connecting the square to the church; a circle on top on a square. If you look at the bottom of an old key you will see the same effect; a circle on top of a square. So the square looks like the bottom of a key and a chariot racing track at the same time.
There are 248 Doric columns in the two colonnades which extend out from the church like arms embracing or hugging visitors. The columns are arranged around in to rows of four. Bernini was such a genius a symmetry he put two circular markers on the square, exactly half way between the fountains and the obelisk, and if you stand on these foci spots and look at the columns they precisely line up. You can only see the first column in each row. Much of the travertine used in construction of the columns was recycled from Roman monuments including the Colosseum. The large space between the colonnade and the colonnade itself forms the only real open border the Vatican has with the city of Rome; the rest of the complex is walled.
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