Envisioning Old St. Peter's at the End of the Middle Ages: The Atrium and Facade

An illumination from the 1480 Nuremburg Chronicle showing Old St. Peter's

Old St. Peter's is a topic of endless fascination for many, inspired both by an interest in the antiquity of the basilica and also in part by a bitter-sweetness that is imparted jointly by both an appreciation for the beauty of the present basilica alongside also a sense of regret at the loss of the ancient Constantinian monument. 

If you want to try to imagine "Old St. Peter's" a good place to start is by thinking of present day St. Paul Outside the Walls. That basilica preserves, perhaps best of all the basilicas in Rome, the basilica model and, what's more, it shares some common features beyond that with Old St. Peter's, including the exterior decoration of the facade itself.  With that in mind, here are two representations of Old St. Peter's:

The facade of Old St. Peter's

One will note in the first illustration that the obelisk, which today sits in the centre of the piazza of St. Peter's, was formerly to the side of the basilica, near two domed structures that were originally post-Constantinian imperial mausoleums dated to the fifth century. This is because St. Peter's is built overtop the old Circus of Nero which found the obelisk at its centre. This diagram below shows the original circus, Old St. Peter's and New St. Peter's in relation to each other. In the middle of it all is the old Roman road, the Via Cornelia. To the one side sat Nero's circus and to the other were the hills in which were found the Roman cemetery in which St. Peter himself was buried following his martyrdom by crucifixion and which still exists in part beneath the present basilica and can be seen as part of the Vatican's "scavi" tour.  

To bring this better to life in your mind, as a point of comparison let's consider the form of present day San Paolo fuori le Mura. As you think about this, you can start to get a bit more of a sense of the look and feel of the exterior of Old St. Peter's. If we were to go further still and create a digital mockup of the facade and forecourt of Old St. Peter's by using some of the later drawings of the basilica as it would have been found toward the end of the middle ages, we might end up with something that looks a little bit like this as we stood in the centre of the sixth century atrium:

Digital mock-up of the facade of Old St. Peter's as it may have appeared at the end of the middle ages.

The Constantinian era basilica likely looked a bit more like this as far as the facade is concerned -- namely, without iconographic decoration. Prior to the sixth century, there also would have been no atrium / forecourt either it should be noted, so in that regard, this particular mockup probably best represents a post-sixth century view of the basilica.

Digital mock-up of the facade of Old St. Peter's as it may have appeared closer to Constantine's time. 

From this perspective, immediately behind us would be the canopied fountain in the exact centre of the atrium and just visible to the left is the obelisk, standing at the centre of Nero's old circus. Due to the scale of the basilica, the remainder of the structures in behind would not likely be visible from this particular vantage point. 

As for the facade decoration itself, this detail taken from one of Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican shows the facade of Old St. Peter's in behind and will give readers some sense of things as they would have stood at the time Raphael painted it -- for example, here we see more gothic formed windows, whereas in earlier drawings suggest something more akin to what we might find in Santa Sabina -- which is certainly likely the case in the earliest incarnations of Old St. Peter's.

If we were to turn around, behind us we would find the fountain which is actually the famous 'fontana della pigna' now found elsewhere in the Vatican. This Roman era fountain originally stood near the Pantheon, while the peacocks adorned the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian. These would eventually be both moved to the centre of the atrium of Old St. Peter's thus making it one of the original 'spoila' found within the old basilica:

An unattributed drawing of the fountain of the atrium of St. Peter's from 1525

Set behind this would be more of the atrium and then the belltower and buildings that enclosed it, forming the gate and gatehouse that would allow entrance to this portion of the basilica:

One thing you will take note of here is the large mosaic, commissioned at the end of the thirteenth century, located above the main entrance of the arcade which depicts the barque of St. Peter. This mosaic was executed by none other than Giotto and is called the "Navicella." It must have been an impressive backdrop for pilgrims for reason of both its scale as well as its subject. Fortunately, we have a full sized copy of the mosaic, done as an oil painting, which was commissioned in 1628. It at least gives us some sense of it. 

The following are the only two fragments to have survived from the original mosaic itself, thought to have encompassed part of a border that went around the main mosaic:

Where we to then proceed inside the basilica, we'd be greeted with a view something like this (but more on that in another future article):

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