The Basilica of St. Peter, Rome, II - Monuments of Rome - by Activitaly Rome

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The Basilica of St. Peter, Rome - II   
part 1   I  part 2  I  part 3

Naumachia Vaticana
Naumachia Vaticana

The private circus of Caligula
The private circus of Caligula

Mausoleum of Hadrian
Mausoleum of Hadrian

Vatican Obelisk
Vatican Obelisk

Originally the Vatican area was an unhealthy and uninhabited place. Itscondition improved at the beginning of the 1st century, when the area closest to the Tiber River was reclaimed. Following works saw the creation ofgardens, large parks, villas and outstanding buildings, such as Naumachia Vaticana, probably used for water games and the Mausoleum of Hadrian, today known as Castel Sant'Angelo, and the private circus of Caligula. Along via Cornelia there were tombs, altars and sepulchres, in total respect of the Roman law that prescribed for all burial places to be located outside of residential areas.

Built by Emperor Caligula between 37 and 40 AD, the building was located onthe left side of the current basilica, in the valley leading down to the river. The circus was the stage for the first persecution of the Christians by Nero. The position of the circus has been known since at least the 1600's, also due to the fact that the obelisk rising in the centre of the circus stood in its original place until 1586, when it was moved to the centre of St. Peter's square upon orders of Sixtus V.
The event is reported by Domenico Fontana in his book, Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano et delle Fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V, Roma 1590 (“about the transportation of the Vatican Obelisk and the works undertaken by His Holiness Sixtus V"). The operation costed 40,000 scudi, 800 workers, 140 horses and 40 hoists; Sixtus V emanated an order with the death penalty for anyone who obstructed works, or even made noise: the lifting operations took place in absolute silence and had to be accompanied only by the sound of a trumpet. It is said that Fontana had his horse ready for the escape in case the obelisk had fallen during the operation. Fontana succeeded in his work also thanks to one of the workers, the sailor called Bresca, who seeing that the supporting ropes were about to break, broke the silence by shouting out "acqua alle funi!" (water to the ropes!).

The circus was already out of use one hundred and fifty years after its construction, at the time of the Emperor Caracalla, when a large circular mausoleum was built above the circus not too far from the obelisk and later dedicated to St. Andrew.

ConstantineThe radical transformation of the entire Vatican area took place in the 4thcentury, when Christianity rapidly took over pagan worship. After the abdication of Diocletian, responsible for the last great persecutions, the wars ofsuccession to conquer the power ended with the nomination in 307 AD of Emperor Constantine. Son of one of Diocletian’s generals, Constantine was recognised as Emperor in 312, after the defeat at Saxa Rubra, near Rome, of his rival Maxentius, on October 28th, who drowned in the Tiber river. The following year, the Emperor established the liberalisation of the religion with the edict of Milan, ensuring that Christianity was no longer obstructed and could be worshipped freely.

From then on, political and religious powers were no longer unified in the person of the Emperor, to the point where in 330 AD the capital was transferred to the East, leading to the founding of a city named after himself on the Bosphorus: Constantinople. He made of Rome the religious centre of the Empire and for this purpose started an intense building program that had to give to the rising Church its worthyplaces of worship. The first building erected was the Basilica, in order to assure an adequate celebration of the prince of the apostles. The church of San Giovanni in Laterano followed, then the Papal residence and the Imperial palace; followed by Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Pietro and Marcellino, San Sebastiano, San Lorenzo outside the walls and finally the church of Sant'Agnese.

St. Peter's Basilica grew also thanks to works and donations made by princes and popes; in 800 Charles the Great was crowned by the Pope Leo III, after him was Lotario, Ludovico II° and Federico III°.

> The Basilica of St. Peter - part III


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