Sunday, February 6, 2011

St. Peter's Basilica: Climbing The Cupola

San Pietro in Vaticano, the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica, is one of the world's most significant religious and cultural sites in the world. Its history is intertwined with that of the Catholic Church and the Western World. One bit of near-trivia that we'd never noticed: St. Peter's, although until very recently the largest church anywhere in the world - is not a cathedral as it is not the seat of a bishop. Rather, it is a papal basilica.

We walk "around the corner" from the entrance and exit of the Vatican Museums - actually a quarter of a mile around the fortress-like walls of the Vatican - and finally reach the immense open space of St. Peter's Square. It's easy to envision this space jammed with many thousands of the faithful during a papal audience, but we feel fortunate enough to enjoy its relative serenity on a beautiful Rome day.

On our previous visit in 2001 we did little more than stick our heads inside the door but today is our day to climb the cupola. We do bow to modern technology and pay a few Euros each to take an elevator part of the way. There are still 320 steps to climb at the end, in at times very narrow quarters. We climb up lighthouse-style spiral stairs, switchback stairs, and the odd ramp before finally emerging at the top. What a place to catch your breath!

After taking in the 360-degree views, we trudge back down to look inside the church.

Our eyes of course are drawn upward, as the architects anticipated. In our case though, we're also gazing at the spot from where we looked down upon the church from inside, and then to the cupola itself, which we circled on the outside.

We wander around the church for awhile, and stop to look at Michelangelo's famous sculpture,
The Pietà, which has been behind glass since a mentally disturbed person damaged it with a hammer in 1972, not the only time the sculpture has been harmed.

We take one last look at the absolutely immense interior.

Now it's time to leave. On our way we spot two members of the Swiss Guard at their guard station who have comprised the pope's "army," or at least the Vatican's security force since 1506.

We stroll across the square and walk across the street back into modern Rome, where we catch a taxi that delivers us back up the hill to the Cavalieri, which can be spied below in the distance adjacent to the large tower.

In several hours we still only scratched the surface. It was a fascinating experience.

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