The basilica dedicated to St Peter rises on the slopes of the Vatican Hill, on the location where the body of St Peter was buried. The original building was erected by Emperor Constantine. The Basilica took on greater political and strategic importance when, at the end of the fourteenth century, the papal residence moved from the Lateran to the Vatican. Very much with jubilees in mind, successive popes turned their attention to improving the area. In the early 1500s, Julian II came up with a far-reaching plan to remodel the Basilica. Soon after, the Fabbrica di San Pietro – later the Sacra Congregazione della Fabbrica di San Pietro – was founded. This went on to become modern Rome’s most significant and long-lasting building project, continuing to function to this day under the name “Amministrazione Palatina”. Many of the most prominent artists and architects of the day worked on the Basilica: Bramante drew up the initial blueprint based on a Greek cross (which was subsequently abandoned); Michelangelo was responsible for the great dome; Maderno crafted the façade in the early 1600s; and last of all, Bernini was responsible for a number of sculptural works, the bronze baldachin, and the piazza with its magnificent colonnade around the obelisk from Nero’s Circus, which Sixtus V had moved to outside the Basilica. More recent works include excavation of the Vatican Grotto under Pius XII in the 1940s to locate the tomb of Peter. In the holy year of 1950, the pontiff announced its discovery on the radio.
The Exhibition The patriarchal Basilicas
Austere and solemn, and off the beaten track of Rome’s largest churches, the Basilica of St Paul is on the Via Ostiense, at the apostle’s burial place. Constantine built a basilica here in the early fourth century. Before the century was out, Emperors Valentinian and Theodosius expanded it significantly to accommodate the large number of believers who came to visit. The Basilica’s unfortunate position – in an outlying and hard-to-reach area untouched by the major urban redevelopment of modern Rome – on several occasions prompted the popes to replace it as a Jubilee destination with the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. In July 1823, the Basilica of St Paul’s burned down in a fire that destroyed practically the entire original construction, which had survived more or less intact until then. The only things to be saved from the fire were Arnolfo di Cambio’s ciborium and part of the great bronze door built in Constantinople in the eleventh century. A Congregazione speciale per la riedificazione della Basilica di San Paolo was established to rebuild the church, and Leo XII published an encyclical to raise funds for the work. Archeologists and architects came up with a broad array of projects. In the end, it was decided to conserve the church’s original appearance. The new Basilica was consecrated in 1854. The imposing four-door entrance along the main façade was not completed until the 1920s.
The Basilica of St John Lateran was the first to be built by Emperor Constantine after he recognized Christianity in the Western Roman Empire. As the Cathedral of Rome, it has been the main seat of the papal magisterium for seventeen centuries. Its political and symbolic function remained undiminished even when, returning from Avignon in the late 1300s, the popes decided to move to the Vatican. After coming to the throne, each new Pope must formally take possession of the basilica in a ceremony that, in olden times, involved a magnificent ritual procession on horseback that crossed Rome from St Peters to St John through streets lined with cheering crowds. The Lateran district fell into neglect in the late Middle Ages, to the point that Francesco Petrarch made a heartfelt appeal to remedy the situation. The area underwent papal renovation in the late 1500s, first by Gregory XIII, who built a road linking it with Santa Maria Maggiore (what today is Via Merulana) and then Sixtus V, who completely rebuilt the apostolic Palace, among other things demolishing the former Loggia of the Blessings and altering the layout of the entire area. A number of different restoration projects were conducted over the next two centuries on the interior and façade of the Basilica, which dates back originally to Constantine’s time. The relics of St John Lateran are the richest of sacred treasures: highlights are the holy stairs that, according to tradition, were brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother Helena on her return from Jerusalem; the acheropite image (not painted by human hand) of Christ; and the heads of apostles Peter and Paul.
In 432, a year after the Council of Ephesus confirmed the dogma of Mary’s divine motherhood, Sixtus III commissioned this Basilica and dedicated it to Mary. It was the first Christian Basilica to bear her name. Popular tradition has it that Pope Liberius (352-366) actually established the Basilica years earlier, after a heavy snowfall atop Esquiline Hill. This legend became so closely intertwined with the identity of St Mary Major that it has become known as the Liberian Basilica, or as St Mary ad nives. Later work on the Basilica did not significantly impinge upon the Basilica’s original structure. Indeed, it has more or less maintained the outline of its paleo-Christian origins. In 1373, Gregory XI added the Basilica to the Jubilee circuit. He was also responsible for commissioning the tall bell tower. In modern times, the former patriarchate was demolished and chapels built to house relics associated with Mary and the Birth of Christ: the Salus Populi Romani, icon of the Virgin, and relics from the Grotto of the Nativity. Benedict XIV commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build a new façade between 1741 and 1743. Rather than removing the original façade, the architect placed the new one in front. Sixtus V made the Basilica the centrepiece of his network of straight roads: roadways to St John and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and to Trinità dei Monti and Santa Maria del Popolo, connect it with the centre of town on two sides.