Can you turn a site of tragedy into a place of peace and reflection? Ask the citizens of New York. But first, you might want to talk to the Roman people, currently riding the crest of a wave created by the humility of Papa Francesco or Pope Francis, inspiring more and more pilgrims to visit the Vatican.
Rome’s greatest irony is its imperial dichotomy: its pagan empire, which spanned great parts of geographical Europe, Asia and Africa was ultimately replaced by a spiritual one, which continues to dominate almost one fifth of the world today. The Vatican’s influence crosses borders and subverts states; it is a metaphysical kingdom, although one with a very real, physical seat. That seat, the Holy See or Vatican City, is so synonymous with Christianity today that it is easy to forget its roots in pagan Rome’s darkest hours. But they are there, buttressing the spiritual state that stands today, counterpointing and reinforcing it.
For the Vatican – itself a pagan term, referring to the Etruscan goddess who guarded the necropolis on Vatican hill and later gave rise to the Latin word for prophecy – was built on a site where Christians were slaughtered and tortured. Including, of course, one of the greatest Christians in all hagiography: Saint Peter himself.
The notorious Caligula built an enormous amphitheater here for public games and races, placing in its center an obelisk from Heliopolis, Egypt in 37 BC. But Nero, arguably the greatest scourge of Christians in the Roman Empire, was said to have been responsible for the execution of St Peter. After the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians and persecuted them with greater zeal.
Legend has it that the apostle asked to be crucified upside down as he deemed himself unworthy of being killed in the same manner as Christ. Peter’s body was flung into a pauper’s grave, but later recovered and, according to legend, still lies in the heart of the Vatican necropolis.
St Peter’s Basilica and Square with a view of the Obelisk
After Nero’s death, many of his sporting arenas, including the one on Vatican hill, were abandoned or converted. Slowly, this site became a place of pilgrimage and ultimately the seat of the first ever Basilica of Saint Peter, commissioned by Constantine. According to legend, the obelisk that remains from the days of Caligula also marks the spot where Peter was killed. It became a kind of beacon for Christians; many others conquered from the ancient world were dug up, restored and placed across the city by Pope Sisto V (1585-1590), who wanted to help pilgrims to Rome map out their route. If you could follow the line of obelisks set up across the city, you knew you were on the right track. When the Basilica was rebuilt during the Renaissance, the obelisk retained its crucial place in the heart of the square.
The new Basilica’s dome was famously designed by Michelangelo in old age; supposed to represent the head of Christ, the great artist’s assistants feared that Michelangelo’s design was too steep, and softened the shape of the dome. The Basilica is said to stand for the body of Christ, while Bernini’s wonderful curved colonnades are the arms of God, welcoming pilgrims and embracing them. The pilgrim, first seeing this glorious site, could be cowed into fearful submission, if he failed to look up at the saints and apostles on top of the colonnades. Triumphant and encouraging, these saints remind the visitor that they too were once full of sin but have been changed by their faith. Even today, the casual tourist on a trip to the Vatican senses the architect’s purpose and is transported back to the time when this great story began.