31 March 2011

Saint Peter's Square

We spent more time in Saint Peter's square than in any other part of Vatican City. Why? Because it's easily accessible, it is the front lawn of the country and it is a pleasant space to sit and look at the wonders of the basilica and the papal apartments. We went to two papal audiences there (one and two), and seem to always cut across it on our way from place to place. It's a grand courtyard, but a welcoming one, and we thought it merited having its own post.
The square is really not a square at all, but an ellipse with two trapezoids attached. There is a colonnade around most of the ellipse, designed by Bernini to hide the buildings that encroached on the open space. Around the top of the structure, 140 statues of saints are positioned, framed against the sky. It's very cool - even during the heat of midday - amongst the columns. Hidden there are several banks of security metal detectors, used during audiences and other events.
A large space near to the basilica is typically reserved for rows and rows of empty chairs - they are removed and taken inside when not needed, but there are so many events here that they seem to be a constant presence.
Saint Peter's is the only part of the Vatican that - on most days - one doesn't need to pass a checkpoint to enter. People wander through unaccosted by security and groups of people hang around. The square is actually under the jurisdiction of the Italian police, rather than the Vatican guards, although it is considered to be part of the holy state. Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, found this out the hard way: when the pope tried to pardon his attacker, he was rebuffed by the Italian authorities who insisted on persecuting Ağca. Because the attack occurred in the realm of Italian responsibility (though on Vatican soil), Ağca was sentenced to life in prison, instead of going free immediately, as was the pope's wish.
There are three major landmarks in the square: the obelisk, in the center, and two giant fountains on either side. The fountains are original to the space - though they were built about fifty years apart. The first was designed by Carlos Maderno, and built in 1612. The second was built by Giancarlo Bernini as part of his grand design for the square, and was finished in 1677. Both fountains were originally powered solely by water pressure from a dedicated pipeline from the Aqua Paola aqueduct, which had enough pressure to propel the water 20 feet into the air. The modern fountains are a little more sedate, with a lot less oomph behind the water jets.
The obelisk is a much older thing, and is one of the only remaining artifacts from the original Vatican basilica. In fact, it was erected in 37 BC at the center of the chariot fields upon which the first church was built. But it was carved some 2,000 years before that, even, in Heliopolis, Egypt. The huge granite rod was brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula, and then moved by Pope Sixtus (in 1582, almost 1,550 years after the first move and 3,500 years after it was built) to the center of the new public space from its old station nearby. Today, it sports a Christian cross and 17th century brass adornments. The white markings in the cobblestone around it act as a sundial, though the shadow's passage is difficult to follow from ground level.
The square is empty in the mornings and becomes quite full as the day goes on. Men wander around selling rosary beads and others try to coax tourists into paying for phony tours. A line snakes along one side as people wait to gain entry to the basilica. There's a Vatican post office van, security forces and many, many groups of pilgrims. For a few days, the state fire department was conducting some kind of test with the manholes, and we saw their vehicles stationed here and there. If you click on the picture, notice the "SCV" license plate - one of the rarest in the world, this is the official vehicle tag of Vatican City.
A few nights ago, we cut across the square at dusk, just as the sky began to light up behind the basilica. It is a magnificent space - not just because it frames the grand buildings so well, but also because of what it is itself. There are few public places in the world that are as open and as harshly cobbled as Saint Peter's, yet that remain as welcoming and pleasant as this place.

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