Michelangelo's Magnificent Dome of the Vatican Basilica

My first time in Rome I recall striking up a conversation with a young couple on the Ponte Sant'Angelo.  When they said they were from Minneapolis, it piqued my interest.  I was from there, too.  I asked what brought them to Rome.  They looked at each other, then at St. Peter's and responded both with a wry smile: "The dome!"  I understood immediately.  The dome had inspired me, too. It remains to this day the tallest dome in the world at 448.1 ft.  

A photo of me guiding pilgrims to the see the dome

Later as a history docent and tour guide in the Vatican one of my great privileges was to guide pilgrims through St. Peter's Basilica.  In peak season this was sometimes twice a day.  On occasion we also brought people to the top of the dome or we toured the Vatican Gardens to show them the dome from a different approach.  For me, each experience was like the first experience.  It never got old, not even once.  

Bringing my daughter to see the mighty dome of Michelangelo

One of my greatest joys came later when I returned to Rome to take my young daughter on the same tour as soon as she was old enough.  Even as a child she was mystified at the majesty of the dome, contemplating its gigantic size and grandeur.  From her first sight she cherished the experience as much as I and millions of others.

The dome marks the tomb of St. Peter. It was built over the papal main altar and the final resting place of the Blessed Apostle, who was also the first pope.  It marks one of the holiest sites in Christendom.  Michelangelo designed the dome to be the largest in the world. It was inspired by the dome of the Pantheon in Rome and that of the Duomo of Florence that was designed by Brunelleschi a century earlier.

Above can be seen the dome plan that prevailed, by Michelangelo. On either side are other proposed domes that might have been. On the right is that of Bramante and that on the left of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. The drawing is by Luigi Canina, 19th century.  Below are images of the author underneath the dome in 2020 and 2023. 

The background story is fascinating, partly because no one had ever dared make a dome so large. This gave rise to the question of how to support such incredible weight - the foundation for the dome was key to support the weight of the new edifice. The story goes back to the year 1546 during an important time in the life of Michelangelo when he began work on the Palazzo Farnese.  He was also busy with the re-planning of the square on the Capitoline Hill.  Never a quiet moment, the great Michelangelo built that year a clay model of his vision for the dome of St. Peter's.  

Michelangelo portrait

Then, on January 1, 1547 Michelangelo was entrusted by Pope Paul III with the superintendence of the building of St. Peter's Basilica.  This made him in charge of the dome project as the successor of other great ones, including Bramante, Raphael, and the Sangallo brothers, Antonio and Giuliano.  Michelangelo's redesigned plan for the dome took into consideration all that had gone before. A few drawings still exist. 

On the whole he decided to return to the plan of Bramante for the construction of St. Peter's, removing as much as possible of the Sangallo constructions.  However, he only completed the drum of the dome before his death at age 88 in 1564.  After his passing, Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, and Domenico Fontanta finally completed the dome in 1590.  The hemispherical plan of Michelangelo, therefore was altered and elevated by Giacomo della Porta.    

St. Peter's as it looked shortly after the death of Michelangelo

The final version of the dome was modeled in large part after a large wooden model that Giovanni Franzese had made from designs of Michelangelo and under his tutelage.  This interesting model measures one-fifteenth of the actual completed dome (namely, 17 ft. 8 in. high and 12 ft. 8 in. wide).  Vasari writes on the topic: "The completion of the model caused great satisfaction not only to Michelangelo's friends but to all Rome."  

Wooden model for the dome of St. Peter's, 1558-1561 

Wooden model of interior of the dome, finished by Michelangelo in 1561 (it was altered by Giacomo della Porta in circa 1576-1578)

Meanwhile, many years later the baroque facade which Carlo Moderno had built between 1607-1614, and the colonnades designed by Bernini greatly deviated from Michelangelo's intentions and wildest dreams.  That being said, when looking at the dome from the rear of the Basilica in the Vatican Gardens, there one can feel and perceive what Michelangelo had in mind for his vision of the large dome against a clear sky, almost close enough to touch.  

Michelangelo's designs for St. Peters, engravings by Etienne du Perac, 1569

I sincerely hope all readers can someday visit here and marvel at the dome of Michelangelo.  I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life to have entered this church not once or twice, but many hundreds of times to pray under this same dome.  Once I even walked to the top of the with my grandfather in his eighties (born in 1919).  The experience of the magnificent dome inspires the imagination and enkindles piety and the ancient faith during these difficult times.  In the words of Virgil, "Heu, pietas!  Heu prisca fides!" (Alas for piety!  Alas for the ancient faith!).  Meanwhile, piety and ancient faith remain.  Be inspired!  

View of St. Peter's dome from the rear

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