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Vatican City: Saint Peter’s Basilica


The Vatican City is one of the famous cities in the world today, recognized as a religious hub for the Catholic faithful. The city, together with its surrounding areas is renowned as an ancestral land of the Catholicism as it hosts the largest Catholic Church in the world. The St. Peter’s basilica, which is one of the two largest churches in the world, serves as a monumental symbol of the Vatican City. This research explores the cultural and historical background of the city. The research investigates how the city came to be as well as the construction the St. Peter’s Catholic Basilica. In addition, the author fancies some of the changes that would be realized if the church was built today.

 The Front View Photo of the St. Peter’s Basilica


The Vatican City is the world’s smallest and, arguably, the most famous sovereign states. Also referred to as the Vatican City State, the city is a walled territory in Rome, Italy. As Fox (3) describes, Vatican sits on a 44-hectare area and has a population of less than 900 people. The city is one of the Holy cities as per the Catholic Church, alongside Rome. It is led by the head of the entire Catholic Church, the pope, and almost all its higher functionaries are Catholics leaders. The City is the central point of Christianity, especially the Catholic believers. Accordingly, it hosts the biggest Catholic Church in the universe, the St. Peter’s Basilica. This church, together with the magnificent ground square that surrounds it, is the major cultural site that gives Vatican City the honor that it has today. For this reason, this research concentrates on the historical background of the St. Peter’s Basilica while exploring the construction of the City of Vatican.

Early Civilization and Culture

The present day Vatican State was part of the Roman Empire along with other parts of Italy. Even under the Roman Empire, entire Rome was largely influenced by the catholic faith. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Popes became the defector leaders of the Vatican. During the formation of the Kingdom of Italy, there emerged dispute between the Popes and the Italian government over the control of Vatican City. This saw the pope abandon Vatican for close to 7 decades when they sought refuge in Avignon. Even after the popes returned to the Vatican and continued with its development, the wrangles with the Italian Kingdom remained evident. This dispute continued until 1929 when the two conflicting parties signed the Lateran Treaty, which created Vatican City State as an independent entity (Fox 6).  The Popes continued to head the independent Vatican state, establishing a form of governance that is led by the church. Today, religious activities are the mainstreams of the Vatican’s economy. Vatican relies heavily on the religious tourisms as well as the contributions made by the global Catholic Church.

The area that Vatican City occupies today began as a simple tomb where Christians believe that Peter, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus was buried. The tomb was established outside the ancient Rome City became famous after the burial of the Christian martyr, the Saint Peter. The city grew from the effort to preserve the memory of Peter, whom the Catholic holds as the first Pope.  The earliest tomb preservation structures were constructed by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. This structure was constructed just above Peter’s tomb and was named the St. Peter Basilica. Later, the Emperor Constantine’s design would be renovated to the modern largest Catholic Church.

After the initial attempts to construct the St, Peter’s basilica by Emperor Constantine, Rome was engaged in frequent medieval wars. The popes had a hard time protecting the basilica from the invaders. This prompted Pope Leo IV to launch the construction of a surrounding wall to surround and protect the basilica in around 800s. This wall would demarcate the future Vatican City as it is today. However, this construction was halted by the transfer of  the papacy to Avignon in 1300s. The transfer left the would-be Vatican City was abandoned for the next seventy years until the return of the papacy. During this period, however, lots of destruction took place as the basilica was not protected. The memorial tomb of the Saint Peter became the grazing ground for cattle’s, reversing the earlier achieved developments.

When the Popes returned to Vatican City in around 1380, their first mission was to rehabilitate the basilica and build a dwelling ground for the popes. While this was underway, popes resided in the Lateran Palace in the neighboring Rome.  The construction of the first Pope’s home had started earlier; however, the vacation of popes to Avignon terminated the process.  This initial pope’s house plan began to revamp Nicholas III’s building. He added a round tower that hosts the Vatican bank to date.  He also connected the pope’s house to the passageway that exits to the magnificent Castel Sant’Angelo, which is now a Hadrian Mausoleum. Popes would use the passageway to escape foreign invaders who would attack the basilica from time to time.

The construction and renovation of the Vatican structures continued gradually after the return of the popes. By 1481, the Vatican prospect had taken its present shape. Among the earliest structures to be commissioned was the Sistine Chapel, which is to the North of the St. Peter’s Basilica (Fox, 6). The Sistine Chapel was built with the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple of Jerusalem under the leadership of Pope Sixtus IV (Fox 26).  Sixtus term as a pope also saw the building of a library for the collection of the Popes’ manuscripts. Later, Pope Innocent VIII built another house on the hilltop of the city and named it the Belvedere.  After Pope Innocent VIII, Pope Julius II steered the construction of a three-story tower that connected the apostolic palace and Belvedere.  Also, Pope Julius II constructed a new Apostolic Palace next to St. Peter’s square from where the weekly mass is held to date. Engineer Domenico Fontana planned this great Apostolic Palace in 1500s. Subsequently, other towers and courtyards were progressively constructed, establishing the City of Vatican.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

The Saint Peter’s Basilica, as Quinlan-McGrath (716) elaborates, is the symbol of Vatican City today.  Aside from the refurbishment of St. Peter’s church that was laid by Emperor Constantine, church renovation had not taken momentum until the error of Pope Julius II.   Serious re-establishment of the Basilica began under the leadership of Pope Julius II in 1500s. As Quinlan-McGrath explains, the Pope Julius II ordered the tear down of the Constantine’s initial basilica to permit the design of a new and relatively modern structure (718). He hired the lead architect Donato Bramante, who planned the great St. Peter’s Basilica structure. Bramante’s initial design represented a Greek cross whose four arms had the same length.  The cornerstone of Bramante’s design was laid in 1506, laying the ground for a construction that would take more than a century complete.

Church Design

The building of the Saint Peter’s Basilica was supervised by a series of popes and architects in turns as the initiators died before its completion. For instance, Pope Julius II, who spearheaded its commencement, died after the seven years of construction. Later, the lead architect Bramante died a year after Pope Julius II.  With the death of Bramante, series of designers took turns, each introducing particular modification to the initial plan. The architects included Florentine Antonio, who change the plan from Greek to Latin cross and also varied the lengths of the four arms. However, architect Antonio also died before the construction was over, giving way to another designer, Michelangelo.  In 1546, Michelangelo rescheduled Antonio’s Latin cross plan, returning to the original design. For the next 18 year, Michelangelo steered most of the exterior construction work as per Bramante’s initial plan. However, changes to the basilica’s design were not over yet as other architects would come after Michelangelo’s death.

By 1564, architect Giacomo Porta took over as the head designer of the basilica construction. He too had his ideas, different from Bramante and Michelangelo’s.  For example, he elongated the cross arms from the earlier estimated lengths. Unfortunately, Porta too died before the accomplishment of the project, and this meant more changes were on the way. By 1602, Carlo Maderno took over as the last designer who piloted the works to completion.  By the end of the construction, the final structure of the basilica incorporated both the Latin and the Greek features.  The church was completed and commissioned in 1626 under the reign of Pope Urban VIII Quinlan-McGrath (720). However, a new designer Gian Lorenzo Bernini would later take over in 1633 to modulate the interior decors of the church.


Each of the above-listed designers made an enormous contribution to specific sections and stages of the building. For example, Bramante did much of the pier designs; however, his initially designed piers were found to be insufficient.  The construction of the basilica kicked off with close to 2500 workmen; however, this number would be adjusted as per the needs of the construction site. The start of works included the digging of the foundation under the directorship of Bramante. The foundation trench was excavated broad enough to sustain the planned structure. For example, the piers trench was approximately 25 feet deep. The trench excavators developed a series of pulley that would lower buckets 25 feet’s under to collect the dirt and thus, clear the trench. Bramante’s ties were constructed using sand, cement, and other iron rings to support the rubble.

After the digging of the foundation, the second architect Antonio fixed most floor work. As Scotti (7) explains, Antonio spent much of his time and resources on the elevation of the church floor to approximately a height of 12.5 feet. He raised the floor by building parallel walls that he joined using barrel vaults. He also strengthened Bramante’s piers in readiness for the elevation of the dome. On the other hand, most of the outer walls were done by Michelangelo using the 16th-century concrete mixtures that were used in Romanian construction.  He also made a sufficient contribution in the erection of the Dome. Although Bramante and Antonio had set the stage for the construction of the Dome, architect Porta.  The dome was constructed by aligning the bricks together in an inverse V shape to form a typical pattern of the time known as the herringbone pattern. This pattern was fastened by heavy masonry to form a shell of the dome. The shell erection started at about   28 feet above the ground and was supported by three strong iron hoops.

Materials Used

For over the years, there have been scant details of the exact materials and the ratios of each that were applied in the construction of the entire church.  Scholars have largely relied on oral narration and some unverified accounts of the techniques that were used in the construction.  The transition of the construction process from one architect to another further complicated the documentation of the procedures followed for some would make unrecognized changes though their predecessor’s plan. However, Vatican engineers have examined the building using the Geo-radar technology to ascertain its strength (Quinlan-McGrath 730). According to the Geo-radar examination, the basilica was constructed using durable and strong iron pillars and, hence, it measures up to the modern standards.

Despite the uncertainty on the exact materials that were used in the entire construction, historians and engineers have combined effort to list some of the materials that must have been used. This compilation included assessing the materials that were available by then and also comparing with other structures that were constructed around that time. As Quinlan-McGrath highlights, one of the principal materials used throughout the project was the lime-based stones called travertine (720).  The constructors obtained travertine from the nearby Tivoli query.  According to Scotti, travertine was rather expensive to purchase and even to transport from the quarry to the site (16).  Therefore, the engineers often substituted its use with bricks and breccia where necessary. Travertine was thus reserved for the capitals, bases, and cornicles, while mere walls were done out of bricks and breccia.

Another visible material in the basilica structure is the whitish marbles in the interior Michelangelo designed sculpture of Virgin Mary and the son Jesus. Also, the engineers made extensive use of the recycled rubbles from the old basilica building.  As Quinlan-McGrath (718), explain, the demolition of the old basilica structure served as a reprieve to the builders as they would retrieve inexpensive resources.

What if St. Peter’s Basilica was built today?

If the magnificent basilica were built today, several processes would take an entirely different direction from how it was done in the 16th century. There are a couple of reasons as to why this would be so. For instance, the growth in technology from the 16th century to now, the 21st century has been immense. Technology alters almost every aspect of human life, making it better. In addition, there are many innovations and discoveries that have taken place since then, some of which affects the construction industry directly. For instance, the laws of equilibrium and statistical probabilities were not known then, yet they affect directly the structuring of a building. Several machines that make work easy while increasing efficiency have also been invented, creating the difference between today and yesteryears construction process. Also, the modern generation has subsequently learned from the errors of the older generation to an extent that the modern day designers and engineers are close to perfection.

One of the almost certain changes that would be realized if the basilica were built today is the reduction in time taken for construction.  In the modern day construction industry, no structure, however complex, can take a century and above. There are various reasons as to why this is so, but firstly, it is illogical for a modern structure to take that long under construction in the rapidly changing economic and cultural times. In the modern days, structural designed stipulates every detail of the construction, including costing and expected completion date (Harris 3). No engineer can draft a plan and estimate a completion date of over one century since several parameters ought to have a change by then. Also, the modern developments in technological construction aids would speed up the process.

Another probable change if the basilica was built today would be in materials, tools and the process of development. Modern materials and machineries are among the factors that would speed up the building by increasing efficiency at every stage of development.  Today, there are different categories of construction materials that are used together in such a complex project (Harris 4). For instance, the concrete category includes, sand, water, and cement while the metal categories included different metallic materials such as steel and iron. There are also wooden materials and glasses that are used in specific parts of the building. Additionally, various automatic machines have taken over some of the processes that were carried out by men. Tasks such as ground excavation, concrete mixing and so on, are now done using machineries.

The construction of the St. Peter’s Basilica was directed by various designers who would take over in turns. While this may also happen in the modern days as well, it is very unlikely. If the church was being constructed today, the Catholic Church would contract the principal contractor who is solely responsible for the project from the foundation to the end. The death of an individual in today’s business environment hardly affects business continuation. Thus, the contractor is this scenario would work on the project from the beginning to the end, unless if the contract is terminated for one reason or another. If the prime contractor is unable to meet all the requirements of the project, then they sub-contract a minor contractor but remains in charge of the project. This would eliminate the challenges that occurred during the transfer of the work supervision from one architect to another in the 16th century. More so, there would be little chances of changing the initial design in the middle of construction.

If St. Peter’s Basilica were built today, the politics of the day would, most likely influence the process. The church serves as a monumental representation of the Catholic faith which makes it a significant part of the Catholic community. Judging from the operations of the churches and the relationship between the church and the world’s politics, it is  possible that plenty of funds will be available for construction. Most likely, the global church and the political governments are will jointly fund the project. However, it is also likely that different nations would want to host the church. From the plan of the church, it would be clear that the church will emerge as a tourist destination and thus, no country would not want be associated with it. Therefore, the international organizations such as the United Nations would have a debate topic in identifying the church’s location.

Finally, if the builders of the 16th century managed to construct such a magnificent tourist attraction, what would today’s technical engineers get out of a similar project? In the researcher’s imagination, the structure would be superbly splendid. Firstly, the modern builder has a higher tendency of designing multi-story structures. For this reason, the researchers imagine that a similar trend would also prevail in the church construction. The church would have several elevated compartments serving different purposes. For instance, the Popes’ house and various church offices could still be contained in a same structure.

The Vatican City is the smallest city-state in the world, yet hosts one of the largest churches globally. The city is like a Catholic church owing to the nature of its governance by Catholic leaders. The primary activities at the Vatican are mainly fueled by the tourism sector, with the St. Peter’s Basilica serving as a significant tourism site. Although the basilica is over four centuries old, it is still reliable and considerably competing with the modern structures. Even though there lacked many technological advances in the 16th century, architects used the basic construction materials that were available to build such a historic structure. However, if the church was built today, it would probably be more splendid. The availability of modern technological tools and increased knowledge among the population significantly improves the outcomes of the project.

Work Cited

Fox, Martha Capwell. Vatican City. Detroit: Lucent, 2006. Print.

Harris, Frank, and Ronald McCaffer. Modern construction management. John Wiley & Sons, 2013. Web. 6 March 2015

Scotti, R. A. Basilica: The Splendour and the Scandal: Building St Peter’s. London: Souvenir, 2007. Print.

Quinlan-McGrath, Mary. “The foundation horoscope (s) for St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, 1506: Choosing a time, changing the Storia.” Isis (2001): 716-741. Web. 6 March 2015