I was very fortunate last week to be invited on a guided tour to see the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. A friend of mine had a special invitation from her bank to join a private tour and she invited me to accompany her.
I had always wanted to visit the necropolis underground as I knew that it was vast and not only contained the remains of St. Peter but had once been a burial ground and cemetery for both Christians and pagans. At one time, it was forbidden to bury bodies within the walls of the city and the Vatican is just outside the walls so it was a convenient location.
We started our tour inside the basilica. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the structure. Just under the dome is the Baldacchino built by Bernini. Sadly, the four bronze columns were made from the bronze stripped from inside the Pantheon. It is monumental with a height akin to a seven storey building and occupies a very special spot as it stands directly above the tomb of St. Peter. We were told a lot about the monuments and decoration within the basilica. Even though I have been inside the basilica several times, I found out things that I had no idea about.
Our guide explained that during Roman times, the area around St. Peter’s was a hill called Monte Vaticano. It was countryside and the Emperor Caligula and his mother Agrippina had villas there. Nero had his race track (Circo) there as well. The Egyptian obelisk which now stands in the Piazza in front of the basilica, was once in the Circo Nero. Subsequently, after the decline of the Roman Empire, it became a burial ground first for early Christians and Peter was crucified and buried on the site. In the 3rd century AD, the Emperor Constantine legalized christianity and decided to build a church above the remains of St. Peter.
Our next stop was a small museum at the side of the basilica where we were shown a model of the original church which had a large cloister in front just behind the tower and a small church at the back where the altar was placed above the reputed remains of St. Peter. Since it was a hill and in order to create a flat surface for the church, earth was moved from the back to the front thus covering the cemetery and burial grounds.
There were various artifacts from the original church, carved stone slabs, columns and beautiful mosaics including the one showing the Emperor Constantine with the church in his hands.
Next we returned to the Baldacchino and went down the steps leading to the space below. Underneath the floor of the basilica are two levels as you can see in the drawing below. The one immediately under contains the tombs of the various Popes but below that again is where the original cemetery and burial ground was situated.
This area is lined with sarcophagi and rooms with burial niches. Only the rich could afford to have a room with niches for the whole extended family. Each room has a small staircase where the family would come and sit, on the day of the dead, and have a meal with their departed family.
According to belief, the remains of St. Peter were just wrapped in a shroud and buried. The Emperor Constantine had a marble tomb constructed and the remains were moved into it. This tomb is what lies below the present Baldacchino and the one in the original church. A small sumptious chapel has been built next to the tomb which is now behind a golden screen as you can see in the photo at the top. The altar below has a panel of the most beautiful bright green marble I have ever seen. Apparently, an analysis was carried out on the remains within the tomb and they are consistent with a sturdy man in his 60s which is around the age St. Peter would have been when he was crucified. Incidentally, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified as Christ was.
The tour took over two hours as we had a very knowledgeable guide who gave us loads of information. By the time we were done, we were hungry and needed refreshment. This event had been organized by a private bank and in appropriate style, they took us to a residence next to St. Peter’s where there was a beautiful terrace and dining room overlooking the Bernini statues surrounding the Piazza with the dome of St. Peter’s in the background. We started out with drinks and appetizers on the terrace, it was a lovely sunny day. Then there was a three course lunch with wine. It was an amazing experience and I can’t believe I had the good fortune to be invited on this tour. Thank you Nicoletta.