Construction of the Piazza San Pietro Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Piazza San Pietro, built during the era of the Counter-Reformation, was designed by architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini as a symbol of the supremacy of the Catholic Church over Christendom.

Summary of Event

The Piazza San Pietro was built to contain the crowds that stood in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for pontifical blessings and addresses during high holy days. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bernini, Gian Lorenzo the piazza became a symbol of the reach of the Catholic Church, befitting the era of the Counter-Reformation when Catholics were calling Protestants to return to the faith. [kw]Construction of the Piazza San Pietro (1656-1667) [kw]San Pietro, Construction of the Piazza (1656-1667) [kw]Piazza San Pietro, Construction of the (1656-1667) Architecture;1656-1667: Construction of the Piazza San Pietro[1880] Religion and theology;1656-1667: Construction of the Piazza San Pietro[1880] Italy;1656-1667: Construction of the Piazza San Pietro[1880] Piazza San Pietro Architecture;Italy

The construction of the Piazza San Pietro was part of a larger program to complete the new basilica of St. Peter’, which was initiated by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) in the early years of the sixteenth century. The early Christian basilica that stood on the site since the fourth century became dilapidated, and Julius decided to replace it with a new, more imposing structure. Many have argued that Julius’s decision is partly to blame for the emergence of Protestantism, as the large expenditures on this and other papal projects, along with the sale of indulgences under his reign and that of Pope Leo X (1512-1521), are what provoked Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Between 1606 and 1612, after a long and complex construction history that spanned most of the sixteenth century and included the participation of some of the most notable architects of the Renaissance—such as Donato Bramante and Michelangelo—Carlo Maderno Maderno, Carlo provided a nave and façade for the new basilica. As the official architect of St. Peter’, the task fell on him to convert the mother church of the Catholic faith from a central to a longitudinal plan church that would place all focus on the altar and the rituals performed there during Mass. This decision was made to comply with dictates enacted by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), convoked to devise strategies to fight the spread of Protestantism.

Since the tomb of Saint Peter is directly below the altar, the longitudinal plan also would place focus on the saint who was charged by Christ to establish the Catholic Church and become its first pope. As the Protestants discredited papal authority, focus on Saint Peter’s tomb would symbolically denote the Papacy’s God-given right to rule over Christendom. Maderno extended the basilica by adding a three-bay nave and then the façade. His intention was to also include a tower at either end, but underground springs prevented their completion. Only the bases for the towers were built, granting the façade a disproportionate relation between its length and height.

In 1655, Alexander VII Alexander VII gave Bernini the commission to build the piazza in front of St. Peter’. By the time of his appointment, Bernini had already enjoyed a long relationship with the Papacy. Through his father, the sculptor Pietro Bernini, Gian Lorenzo as a child was brought to the attention of Pope Paul V Paul V and his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese Borghese, Scipione . The Borghese immediately recognized that Bernini was a prodigy, and by age seventeen the boy was receiving important sculpture commissions from these two men. Through them, Bernini also cultivated a friendship with Cardinal Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini. Six years after Barberini ascended the papal throne as Urban VIII Urban VIII , he appointed the sculptor the official architect of St. Peter’s (1629).

In 1637, Bernini proposed the completion of Maderno’s towers, which the pope enthusiastically approved. The first tower was almost complete when it cracked and, as a result, the project was abandoned, which caused Bernini public humiliation. In 1655, Alexander VII ascended the throne and charged Bernini with the design of the piazza, which gave the artist the opportunity to redeem himself.

In building the piazza, Bernini had to fulfill certain requisites. He was to include in his design the obelisk raised in 1586 in front of St. Peter’s by the architect Domenico Fontana. He also was asked to devise a plan that would allow the pope to be seen by all who came to the piazza during his public appearances from either the benediction loggia on the basilica’s facade or his private apartments on the top floor of the papal palace to the right of the basilica. Bernini complied with both requirements. He was skilled in the art of manipulating visual perception as he had designed a number of elaborate sets for theatrical productions. He took the opportunity to correct the problems of proportion in Maderno’s facade by applying his skills in perception to his design.

Bernini’s design consisted of a trapezoid followed by an oval enclosed by a classic colonnade at either side. By tapering the colonnades inward where the trapezoid meets the oval, Bernini was able to visually narrow Maderno’s design. His inspiration came from Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill, which also uses a trapezoid and oval, juxtaposed one over the other. In invoking the Capitoline Hill where the Roman senate once stood, Bernini’s piazza connected the glory of the ancient Rome of the emperors to that of the new Rome of the popes and indicated the Church’s triumph over paganism.

Bernini’s colonnades seem like arms that jut out from the basilica to embrace those who stand within their confines. Bernini himself referred to these colonnades as the all-embracing arms of the Church. They were meant to symbolically extend an invitation to those who had abandoned Catholicism in favor of Protestantism to return to the Catholic faith. The arms also implied the Church’s willingness to forgive those who had strayed. Also, Bernini’s colonnades are capped by a balustrade and above it stand sculpted saints who either interact with the viewer or with each other. When crowds congregate in the piazza to hear and see the pope and receive his blessing, the sculpted saints seem to be commenting on the event, granting it a celebratory tone.

The Piazza San Pietro is now accessed from the Via della Conciliazione, a wide boulevard designed in 1936 under Benito Mussolini’s regime and completed in 1950. In the seventeenth century, however, St. Peter’s was approached through narrow, winding streets. Bernini’s plan included a never-built third arm to be positioned between the two existing colonnades. His intention was to provide an element of surprise. As the faithful made their way to the piazza navigating the tight network of streets and houses and passed through one of the narrow entrances at either side of the third arm, they would suddenly be awed by the vast, open space in front of them. As the structure stands today, the contrast between the forest of columns within the arms and the open areas of the piazza offer a similar dramatic effect. Bernini sought to stimulate not only the visitors’ visual but also their auditory perception. The sound of gushing water from fountains at either side of the obelisk adds a festive air to the piazza.

The Piazza San Pietro is part of the whole experience of visiting St. Peter’. Pilgrims are greeted by the colonnades and invited into the basilica. Once inside, visitors are provided with a clear, unobstructed view of the altar and the tomb of Saint Peter, the first pope, marked by Bernini’s baldachin, a bronze canopy of gigantic proportions that, together with the dome, represents the Holy Trinity. Through the canopy, one sees the Cathedra Petri (chair of Peter), a monumental reliquary, also executed by Bernini, containing the throne of Saint Peter. Latin and Greek doctors of the Church support the throne, which is inscribed with the words Pasce oves meas (look after my flock). The message is clear: The pope is the heir to Saint Peter, who was charged by Christ/God to establish the one and only Church that provides humanity with salvation.


Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro is one of the greatest examples of architecture from the era of the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] . It is emblematic of the political and religious anxieties the Catholic Church was then experiencing as a result of the Protestant threat. The Church utilized all possible means to regain its political hegemony over the Christian world, including art and architecture. By utilizing symbolic, visual, and sensory elements and adding a festive mood, Bernini created an environment that celebrated the triumph of the Church over its enemies and proclaimed the supreme authority of the Papacy over Christendom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. A survey of Bernini’s activities as sculptor and architect, with a section on the Piazza San Pietro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitao, Timothy. Circle and Oval in the Square of Saint Peter’: Bernini’s Art of Planning. New York: New York University Press, 1974. A comprehensive study of Bernini’s design for the Piazza San Pietro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marder, Tod A. Bernini and the Art of Architecture. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998. This work includes a chapter on the Piazza San Pietro and the Rome of Alexander VII.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrissey, Jake. The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome. New York: Morrow, 2005. Outlines the relationship and conflict between Bernini and Francesco Borromini, the two most significant Italian Baroque architects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Varriano, John. Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This book provides a chapter on Bernini’s architectural projects, including a detailed account of the construction of the Piazza San Pietro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zanella, Andrea, ed. Bernini: All His Works From All the World. Rome: Palombi, 1993. A catalogue raisonné of Bernini’s oeuvre.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Alexander VII; Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Francesco Borromini; Guarino Guarini; Louis Le Vau; Paul V; Urban VIII; Sir Christopher Wren. Piazza San Pietro Architecture;Italy

Categories: History