Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City

Profile of Piazza San Pietro

Piazza San Pietro
••• Piazza San Pietro. Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images

Saint Peter's Square or Piazza San Pietro, which is located in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, is one of the best-known squares in all of Italy and is an important gathering place for tourists visiting the sights of Vatican City. From St. Peter’s Square, visitors can also see the Papal Apartments, which is not only where the Pope lives but also the perch from which the pontiff often addresses crowds of pilgrims.

In 1656, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a square worthy of the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica. Bernini designed an elliptical piazza, which is embraced on two sides with four rows of imposing Doric columns arranged in a stunning colonnade. In fact, the double colonnades are meant to symbolize the embracing arms of St. Peter’s Basilica, Christianity’s Mother Church. Topping the colonnades are 140 statues depicting saints, martyrs, popes, and founders of religious orders within the Catholic Church.

The most important aspect of Bernini’s piazza is his attention to symmetry. When Bernini began devising his plans for the square, he was required to build around an Egyptian obelisk, which had been placed in its location in 1586. Bernini constructed his piazza around the central axis of the obelisk. There are also two small fountains within the elliptical piazza, each of which is equidistant between the obelisk and the colonnades.

One fountain was built by Carlo Maderno, who had renovated the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in the early 17th century; Bernini erected a matching fountain on the north side of the obelisk, thereby balancing the piazza’s design. The paving stones of the piazza, which are a combination of cobblestones and travertine blocks arranged to radiate from the central “spoke” of the obelisk, also provide elements of symmetry.

In order to get the best views of the symmetry of this architectural masterpiece, one must stand on roundel foci pavements located near the piazza’s fountains. From the foci, the four rows of the colonnades line up perfectly behind one another, creating an amazing visual effect. 

To get to Piazza San Pietro, take the Metropolitana Linea A to the Ottaviano “San Pietro” stop.

Editor's note: Although technically Saint Peter's Square is in Vatican City, from a tourist viewpoint it is considered part of Rome.