Hi friends, welcome back to my Italy series! If you’re interested in visiting the Vatican, I’d highly recommend joining a tour to see the supposed tomb of Saint Peter and the Necropolis under the Vatican Basilica. My mom did this when she was in Rome and I’m very glad I remembered to book it. Only about 250 people are allowed to visit each day in order to preserve the site. To book your tickets you email the excavation office and give them available dates. You can read more about it here. It can be a little tricky to find where the meeting point is, but I had read a blog that mentioned something about talking to officers in a jester like outfit, and that stuck in my head. The jester guys, mercenary guards from Switzerland, are to the left of St. Peters Basilica at the end of all the columns. They have a separate security there so you don’t need to wait in the long line to get into the Basilica.
After checking in, we headed down to the Necropolis and the humidity was 98%!! They have to keep it so humid or the soil will crumble and this layer will collapse and wreak havoc above. My hair didn’t stand a chance, and it was hard to breathe at first, but you get used to it after a while. Our tour guide works for the Vatican and did a great job explaining the history of the church and what life was like during the level of Rome we could see underground. She described Rome as a lasagna with all the layers of the city built atop each other. Unfortunately, the tour prohibits pictures, so these three are from the Vatican’s website.
In the first century AD, the site of the Vatican used to be Nero’s Circus, a Roman chariot racecourse. During the races, they would crucify Christians or force them to fight wild animals similar to events at the Colosseum. In 65 AD Peter, one of Jesus’s apostles, was crucified on this site for sharing the gospel. He was buried in a cemetery nearby and secretly visited by other Christians. About 250 years later, Constantine became emperor and legalized Christianity. Peter became recognized as the first pope and Constantine ordered “Old St. Peters” to be built on the site Peter was martyred. This church lasted from 326-1500 AD.
Old St. Peters began falling apart, so in 1506, Donato Bramante began building a new and much larger St. Peters. It took 120 years to build and multiple architects including Michelangelo. Carlo Maderno is credited with expanding upon Michelangelo’s designs to make the church even longer. Once the church was built, it took another 200 years to decorate the largest church in the world. To help fund the church, the popes would sell forgiveness of sins to the wealthy.
At the end of the tour, we got to peek at a box that they think is St. Peter’s tomb. In 1940 they opened the tomb and found male remains dating to the first century. The bones were wrapped in expensive cloth and there is a mark on a nearby wall that says “Peter is here”. They can’t 100% prove that it’s him, but there is definitely a chance it could be him. After the tour we got to go straight into St. Peters and didn’t have to wait in the 1+ hour line outside, it was great perk! Our excavation ticket also gave us a little discount on the dome climb tickets, so if you do this tour, keep your ticket.
I thought I’d been in large churches before, but St. Peters is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The church sits on six acres and can fit over 60,000 standing people. There’s an overwhelming amount to see and take in, so we spent time wandering through this impressive sight before listening to a Rick Steves tour. I tried my best, but no pictures can do this church justice.
The door farthest to the right, the Holy Door, is opened every 25 years unless the Pope declares a “jubilee”. It was last opened in 2016 as an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The doors are from the Old St. Peters and will be opened again in 2025.
This purple circle is where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD.
As you walk down the nave, there are plaques on the floor of where other famous churches around the world end compared to St. Peters. We enjoyed coming across famous churches we’ve visited and seeing how they compare.
The Canopy, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is seven stories tall and the bronze to make this was taken from the Pantheon. It’s under here that the tomb of St. Peter lies. We were about 23 feet below this spot on our tour. The bees on the columns represent the Barberini family who commissioned the building of the new St. Peters (and stole the bronze from the Pantheon). Someone in the family was pregnant at the time of construction so Bernini included stages of pregnancy on the columns too. The alter here can only be used by the pope when he says Mass.
The Apse holds mass daily and we saw a little of it while we were here. Bernini created the dove window and below is the Throne of St. Peter.
Michelangelo designed the dome when he was 71, but he died when only the base was complete 17 years later. Subsequent architects finished it according to his designs. The writing under the dome is 7 feet tall and runs all around the church quoting lines from the bible that Jesus said to Peter.
The Statue of St. Peter from Old St. Peters church was roped off when we were there, but you used to be able to kiss his right toe. The keys in his hand represent the authority given to him by Christ, and the other hand is outstretched to bless us.
The tomb of Pope John XXIII “the good pope” is on the main floor and not down in the crypt. He was very popular with modernizing the Church and creating a council to instill change to make it more accessible to the average person.
Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) tomb is also on the main floor of the Vatican.
The most popular sculpture in the Vatican is Michelangelo’s Pieta. He sculpted this when he was 24 and it was his first major commission. His other two Pietas are at the Duomo Museum and in Milan, but this is the only piece of art he signed. Michelangelo studied cadavers to make his bodies appear anatomically correct, but in this sculpture, Mary is intentionally larger than Jesus. The sculpture is behind glass because in 1972 a man with a hammer tried to destroy it.
The “paintings” on the walls are mosaic replicas because the incense would ruin the paintings. The mosaic on the left marks the spot where they believe Peter was crucified in Nero’s circus.
We also went into the Treasury Museum inside the church and had a quick look around.
St. Peters is absolutely stunning and one of those places that’s even more incredible in person. There’s so much to see in here, but I’ve only scratched the surface in this post. If you’re going to Rome and interested in the Necropolis tour, make sure you book months in advance! Later on I’ll be sharing the exterior, dome climb, and Vatican Museum.
Posts in this series:
- Where to Stay & Eat
- Piazza Michelangelo & Ponte Vecchio
- Uffizi Gallery
- Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Accademia
- Climbing the Duomo
- Duomo Museum, Bell Tower, & Baptistry
- Palazzo Vecchio & Tuscon Wine Tour