Italy: Day Three, Part Two ~ St. Peter’s Basilica

We met our tour guide, Claudia, for the Pristine Sistine Tour of the Vatican through Walks of Italy at 7:15 a.m. We went all through the Vatican Museum, the pope’s apartments, and saw the Sistine Chapel. Several hours had passed at this point and the crowd of tourists became crushing. We were operating on just a few hours of sleep and were both nursing a bit of a hangover, so it was a huge relief to step outside to head over to St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Gregory

The first thing we saw upon exiting the Vatican Museum was the side of St. Peter’s Basilica with a large courtyard separating the two buildings. This area is called the Patio of St. Gregory the Illuminator. There was a large statue of St. Gregory towering over the courtyard, set into the side in an alcove. I left the people at the bottom of the frame to show scale. That statue must’ve been a full story tall!

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.5 | 1/320 | ISO 50

Curtis started lagging behind in a serious way to take photos of the statues (he loves statues). I had already fussed at him for getting too far behind the group several times that morning. As he was stopping to take this photo at the corner of the building, we were at the front of the church getting our tickets. I was in a panic because I couldn’t find him.

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/22 | 1/80 | ISO 4000

Still Outside the Church

We turned the corner from the side courtyard and this view greeted us. We are still outside St. Peter’s Basilica… the entrance is to our right and the square is to our left. Look at the architecture and detail in the ceiling! I was frantic looking for Curtis though… we had been separated for almost 10 minutes waiting our turn to go into the church. Once we entered, I found him wandering around the main entrance. Whew.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.5 | 1/320 | ISO 200

First Impression

St. Peter’s Basilica is a massive church. It is the largest church in the world and represents the best of the Renaissance architecture, taking over one hundred years to construct between 1506-1626. St. Peter’s tomb, one of Jesus’s Apostles and the first Pope, is located directly under the high altar. When first walking into the basilica, you literally stop and gasp. The space is so beautiful and reverent that it literally takes your breath away. I must’ve stood in awe for at least a minute. I got this shot of the main nave and you can see Curtis also getting his shot just in front of me.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

And here is Curtis’s first impression shot!

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/4 | 1/160 | ISO 4000

The Basilica is Beautiful

I almost didn’t know where to turn first. Looking just to the right (and vaguely following our tour guide), I admired the late-morning light shining down through the front windows. The columns are so tall and the gilding, statues, artwork, and marble so lavish that it almost doesn’t seem real.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Enormous Details

Continuing to the right, we see the monument to Leo XII. It’s hard to comprehend just how large these statues are. It’s an impressive engineering feat.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

In the right front corner of the basilica, is the Pietà by Michelangelo. I love this shot Curtis got with his cell phone of another tourist shooting with their cell phone.

Samsung Galaxy 6 | 4.2mm | f/1.7 | 1/17 | ISO 200

The crowd was too thick for me to manage, but Curtis patiently waded his way through to get this image of the Pietà. This famous Michelangelo sculpture is protected by bullet proof glass.

Nikon D700 | 120mm | f/4 | 1/160 | ISO 4000

Cell Phones Everywhere

We begin our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica by starting down the right side. The tourists were thick and everyone was shooting with cell phones.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

In Prayer

The first chapel down the right side of the church is the Chapel of St. Sebastian. Under the altar are the remains of Pope St John Paul II and people are welcome to pray.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Curtis got this shot of the St. Helena statue. She was the mother of Constantine and found part of the True Cross.

Nikon D700 | 120mm | f/4 | 1/160 | ISO 4000

Confessio

We have now approached the central altar. The Confessio marks the entrance to St. Peter’s Tomb which lies beneath the altar.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

The Altar

The main Papal Altar and Baldacchino is an impressive structure. Carved from a single piece of marble, the altar is surrounded by bronze columns called baldacchino. Commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, Bernini took nine years to complete the piece. The entire altar measures over 93 feet tall and marks the location of St. Peter’s Tomb beneath.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

The Altar from Behind

One of my favorite images from St. Peter’s Basilica is this one of the Papal Altar and Baldacchino from behind. With the late-morning light streaming through the front windows, the cross and candles are bathed in illumination.

Italy travel street photographer

Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Unbeknownst to me (because we were silently and slowly following our guide and lost in awe), Curtis got the same shot!

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/5 | 1/250 | ISO 4000

The Dome

Looking up and over the Papal Altar and Baldacchino, we see the Dome. From the St. Peter’s Basilica website:

The drum is 65.6 feet high and contains 16 windows with alternating frontispieces between Corinthian pilasters supporting the beams and cornice. At this point one is 240 feet from the ground, and here begins the cupola erected by Sixtus V, who is commemorated by the lions’ heads taken from his armorial bearings. From the floor to the arms of the cross, the basilica is 450 feet high.

Visitors are allowed to go up to the dome and walk around the base of it. I now wish I had rested for a while to recover, then tackled the climb. If you look very closely, you can actually see people around the base of it!

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Puis VII

There are many, many statues and monuments throughout the basilica. Having finished with the altar at the rear center of the church, we made our way up the left side of the basilica. Adorning the Clementine Chapel, Puis VII was a pope imprisoned by Napoleon.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Curtis got this shot of the Monument to Pope Pius VIII.

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/4 | 1/125 | ISO 4000

And he got this image of St. Peter of Alcantara, located on the inside front left column.

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/4 | 1/125 | ISO 4000

Curtis also got this shot of the ceiling and smaller dome located on the left side. The entire building is art.

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/4 | 1/125 | ISO 4000

In Awe

Standing in the center of the church and looking around is awe-inspiring. Many of my fellow tourists felt the same way.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Back to the Entrance

We went back toward the center of the church and looked down the nave toward the entrance. Isn’t the light heavenly?

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

Cute Tourist

Curtis listening to Claudia, our tour guide, as she finishes up the tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. We didn’t stay as connected in the basilica as we did in Notre Dame in Paris partially because we were shooting different things and listening to our tour through the headphones. Curtis is much more comfortable dealing with the crowds… I think because he is tall and can see over most people… and his confidence inspires me to take more risks. I love how happy he looks in this picture. 🙂

Italy travel street photographer

Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/2.2 | 1/320 | ISO 2000

St. Peter’s Square

Our tour formally concluded and we were free to wander around anywhere we wanted. I wish I had had more energy so we could’ve gone down to the grotto to see St. Peter’s Tomb and/or up to the dome. But I was beat. We walked outside and waited a few moments for others to take pictures, then we got our centered shots of St. Peter’s Square. It’s hard to put into context how large an area this encompasses.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/9 | 1/250 | ISO 50

Curtis’s version of the square.

Nikon D700 | 24mm | f/22 | 1/6400 | ISO 4000

Us at St. Peter’s

I asked a fellow tourist to take a picture of me and Curtis in front of St. Peter’s Square.

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iPhone 6S+ | 4.2mm | f/2.2 | 1/1900 | ISO 25

The Swiss guards stand at the Arch of the Bells Entrance. They will let you pass if you have business in the Vatican. I couldn’t get a good shot of them, but Curtis did!

Nikon D700 | 95mm | f/22 | 1/1000 | ISO 4000

Along the right side of the square (standing at the front of the church as reference), there is a book store and post office. This view that Curtis captured is of St. Peter’s Basilica from the book store looking back.

Nikon D700 | 95mm | f/22 | 1/2500 | ISO 4000

Posing in Front of the Church

We started making our way to the beginning of the circular colonnades. I had Curtis pose for me in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. There were so many people around!

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/9 | 1/250 | ISO 50

Church Front Facade

The facade of St. Peter’s Basilica doesn’t look like a typical church. The lavish beauty inside remains hidden until you walk through the doors. From their website:

Above the basic structure is an attic, with eight square windows decorated with small pilasters, surmounted by a balustrade and 13 statues in travertine. The statues on the balustrade represent Christ the Redeemer (19 feet high), St. John the Baptist and 11 Apostles. St. Mathias is included because he is associated with the other “Eleven” in bearing witness to Christ’s Resurrection.

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/8 | 1/250 | ISO 50

Colonnades

Two sets of four-deep colonnades surround an elliptical area in which the masses congregate. 140 statues adorn the colonnades!

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Nikon D750 | 20mm | f/8 | 1/250 | ISO 50

Curtis got more of the crowd in his version.

Nikon D700 | 62mm | f/22 | 1/2500 | ISO 4000

Experience the Square

I had to take some video of St. Peter’s Square to give you all a sense of how massive a space this actually is.

Experience the Square

iPhone 6S+

I hope you enjoyed our tour of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica! I would highly recommend booking a formal tour and going early. There is so much to see and so many people, it would be hard to navigate on your own.

Can you believe this was only the first part of our Day Three adventures? We took a taxi back to the hotel and ordered room service for lunch on the way. After we ate lunch, we rested for an hour or so, then went to our second group tour, the Crypts and Catacombs tour by Dark Rome. We were NOT allowed to photograph anything so we left our big cameras at the hotel. It was nice to be fully present and we enjoyed the tour very much. We met our tour guide, John (an ex-pat… it was nice hearing an American accent!), and started our tour group of 20 people on a nice air-conditioned bus. Here are the details of what we experienced on that tour:

Roman Catacombs and Crypts

Our tour starts at one of the Roman Catacombs, the Eternal City’s underground burial chambers where long winding passages unfold millennia of history among tombs and inventive handmade memorials, taking you to a time when Christianity was considered a simple cult whose members were executed as pagans and buried as martyrs.

Basilica San Clemente

Then it’s on to Basilica San Clemente where the sound of running water drove one clergyman to dig his way through the floor tiles. What he discovered were ‘wedding cake’ layers of history piled on top of each other so that visitors today climb down to a 4th century church, the 2nd century remains of a Mithraic temple and finally ruins that date back to the Great Fire under the reign of Nero in 64 AD. You’ll even see the working aqueduct that led to the excavations in the first place. With ruins reaching nearly 60 feet deep, it makes you wonder what lies beneath the rest of Rome.

Capuchin Crypt and Museum

Your journey through the centuries ends with a bang at perhaps the most memorable (and certainly the most original!) site we visit on any of our tours in any city – the Capuchin Crypt and Museum. Here the remains of 4,000 Capuchin monks literally rest in pieces. Their remains have been used to decorate the underground crypt with vertebrae chandeliers, real-life skulls and cross-bones and robe-clad skeletons leering from the walls. Morbid fascination or respectful art? You’ll be the judge of that.

Recent changes in the Capuchin Crypt mean that our visits here just got better. With the establishment of a Capuchin Museum we now have access to Caravaggio’s beautiful ‘St Francis in Meditation’, as well as a whole host of artefacts that offer an insight into the life of a Capuchin monk.

The Capuchin Crypt was by far our favorite stop. I so wish I was allowed to take photos in there, it’s surreal to see so many human bones made into art and scenes. The Capuchin philosophy is to live a life of extreme austerity, simplicity and poverty. The plaque inside one of the crypts reads: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.” A good reminder to truly live your life, because one day we will all be bones.

Once this tour concluded, we grabbed dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe Rome, then headed back to the hotel to collapse for the night. What an incredible day of reverence. Next week, we will be sharing photos of Day Four when we visited the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno and the following week will be the end of Day Four with a night-time tour of the Colosseum! Thanks for reading and for looking!!!

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