10 fun facts about St. Peter’s basilica

Posted on Jul 7, 2020 in Arts and History

[revised March 2024] When  the pandemic started, I understood how serious it was when St. Peter’s basilica shut down (March 2020). It never happened in the history of this church, never!

Many visitors go to St. Peter’s from the Vatican Museums in order to skip lines, which is surely smart. But after the visit of the museum you are generally tired and you do not really enjoy this monument so much. My suggestion is to dedicate a visit just to the Basilica of St. Peter’s early in the morning (8.30 a.m.) and properly appreciate one of the greatest masterpieces created by mankind on the planet. Of course you can go on your own, you do not need a reservation nor ticket to enter the Basilica. This tour can include the climb to the “cupola”, another breathtaking venue of our city! 

When I revised my notes for an in-depth-tour of the basilica, I noticed I have more pages for this building  alone than for entire neighbourhoods and museums! So much to learn and enjoy in there, basically the whole art history of our country from the end of the  XV century to recent years is condensed in this monument. Here some “fun fact” to entice your curiosity: 

  1. The size of this basilica is already mythical. Just a quick point of reference: the piazza, elliptical  as the Colosseum is, could contain the Colosseum itself, it is in fact 50 meters wider (164 feet!). And did you already know that the Statue of Liberty could easily stand under our dome? 117 mt is the internal height of the dome (383 feet), while the top of the torch reaches 93 mt “only” i.e. 305 feet!
  2. We have four beautiful lamp-posts in the piazza , have you ever noted them? They were added by pope Pius IX as a symbol of modernity in 1854 ad they were the very first gas lamps in Rome! 
  3. On top of the facade of the church there are 13 statues: Jesus of course, surrounded by 12 “friends”… one would think, the 12 apostles, right? No, just 10 apostles. Judas was replaced by St. Matthias, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. And then you have St. John the Baptist up there. Why is that? Because St. Peter came down on the piazza to join his “colleague” St. Paul, they are always always always together here in Rome!
  4. Twenty three emperors were crowned in the basilica by the popes (well, in one occasion  – it was the year 1355 – the pope was far away, in Avignon, France, for a while – you know, about 70 years! So he delegated a cardinal to perform the ceremony on his behalf). The tradition started in the year 800 with Charlemagne and ended in 1452 with Frederick III, and this prestigious ritual gave them the title of “Holy Roman Emperor”. We still have the  red stone where they used to kneel down in the basilica. Amazing. 
  5. Let’s talk mosaics: do you know the interior of the basilica is totally decorated in stones (very few exceptions) and whatever looks like a painting is in fact a mosaic ? The surface  covered in mosaic is approx 2,5 acres! And the Vatican has the most important “mosaic workshop” in the world, operating since the year 1727.
  6. There are many important tombs in the basilica and in the so called “grottoes”: do you know even three important ladies are buried in the basilica? The queen of Poland Mary Clementine Sobiesky, the queen of Sweden, Christine,  who renounced to her throne to embrace the Catholic faith and spent the rest of her life in Rome and the powerful medieval woman Matilda of Canossa, a key character of the Investiture  Controversy. None of them is a saint! 
  7. There are important relics preserved in the basilica of course, including remains of three apostles. Not just St Peter’s, also Simon the Zealot and Jude Thaddeus. 
  8. Ever heard of the “pallii”? it is a very interesting tradition of the special “stoles” for archbishops and this story connects St. Peter’s tomb to the nuns of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, the church of St Agnes, whose name means “lamb”, the wool of two lambs blessed on the day of St. Agnes, the abbey of the Three Fountains… you already get that it’s a complicated ritual! I find it so fascinating that these “protocols” are still followed in the exact same way  after a millennium, you can learn the whole story during a tour with us!
  9. Clocks: there are two in the façade (substituting the never accomplished bell towers… and BTW they are two mosaics of 4 mt of diameter!) and  two in the interior, one with the regular quadrant of 12 hours, but also one showing six hours only: it is the Italian , or Roman, system, another interesting story to learn.
  10. In Africa, and precisely in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Ivory Coast a huge church was consecrated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace.The design of the dome and encircled plaza is clearly inspired by the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican City, although it is not an outright replica. Guinness World Records lists it as the largest church in the world, having surpassed the previous record holder, St. Peter’s Basilica, upon completion. It has an area of 30,000 square metres (320,000 sq ft)and is 158 metres (518 ft) high. However, it also includes a rectory and a villa (counted in the overall area), which are not strictly part of the church. It can accommodate 18,000 worshippers, compared to 60,000 for St. Peter’s.