More Digital Reconstructions of the Old Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter's

Digital recreations, or reconstructions, of the original St. Peter's Basilica, built by the Emperor Constantine on the Vatican hill over top St. Peter's burial place, always generate a great deal of interest.  It was a subject that we have covered here in two articles titled "Envisioning Old St. Peter's that tackled the exterior of the old basilica as well as the interior.  Similarly, our article on the subject of What Sits Underneath St. Peter's Basilica, touched upon the historical Roman necropolis located beneath the basilica.

Evidently there is an appetite for understanding both the look and feel of the original basilica, as well as the basilica's historical relation to the St. Peter hismelf and the ancient city of Rome. In view of that, I wished to share some additional reconstructions that have come to light of late which continue to explore the exterior and interior of Constantine's basilica and which also give a better sense of how the old and new basilica was built over the tomb of the apostle, and how that in turn related to the Roman necropolis and the old Roman circus that was found there.

This first set of digital imagery is attributed to professor Pablo Aparicio, and shows us a splendid recreations of both the interior and exterior of the basilica. Beginning with the exterior, one will immediately note the similarity in appearance with the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls -- which of course is simply the classical basilica model so this is by no means an accident. 

Of course, to understand St. Peter's history is to also understand where it was situated. Today is is difficult to imagine that St. Peter's was at one time surrounded by a great deal of open country and situated at the edges of ancient Rome -- effectively the equivalent of where we might expect to find sports stadiums and cemeteries in the modern cities of the new world. The only sense we have left of that history are the private gardens found behind the Vatican. 

As noted and is well known, St. Peter's was built over St. Peter's tomb; this everyone knows. However, it was also built over a larger Roman cemetery (still visitable in part today if you care to book a ticket and take the Vatican's Scavi tour -- which, speaking from personal experience, is well worth your time). What's more, the basilica was also built over the site of the ancient Circus of Nero, a place where Roman's would go to watch athletic events (as well as other more macabre displays at times). 

Some of the remains of this old Roman circus remained right up until the time of construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica -- an unfortunate loss.  It was in this circus that, looking for a scapegoat to blame for the Great Fire of Rome that took place in 64 A.D.,, the Emperor Nero tortured and executed many of the early Roman Christians -- including none other than Ss. Peter himself.

A better sense of the situation of the basilicas (both old and new) in relation to this circus can be seen in these digital reconstructions taken from a presentation by Manuel Bravo:

LAJ has created this comparison by using screenshots from the presentation by Manuel Bravo

This second graphic, created by Altair 4 Multimedia, gives an even stronger sense of the whole area and how it has transitioned and develop from Roman times to modern, including the consistent placement of the Egyptian obelisk in its original, Roman location up until the construction of the present basilica. 

A view of the reconstructed Circus of Nero in its heyday, the obelisk centrally placed within it:


Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

Of course, the exterior of St. Peter's developed from Constantinian times, when it would have been relatively 'simpler' compared to its medieval incarnation where further embellishments grew up around the basilica as it gained further prominence and popularity amongst pilgrims.  Here, for example, is a sense of some the medieval buildings and bell tower that came to characterize the forecourt of the basilica by the time of the middle ages:

Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

The forecourt as viewed from the inside the courtyard toward the exterior, medieval buildings (it is worth noting that what is missing in this reconstructed view is the great mosaic that would have been seen from this perspective. For more information on that, see our aforementioned articles on this topic):

Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

Screen capture from video by Manuel Bravo

To get a sense of the overlap of the basilicas, here is an image which shows you the original Constantinian basilica with a foreshadowing of the new basilica coming into view:

Of course, while we're on this topic, who can resist showing the additional reconstructions of the general interior layout, created by professor Pablo Aparicio. 

(A lateral view from the transept toward the nave)

The altar and tomb of St. Peter

The twisted, Solomonic columns shown here still exist in the current iteration of St. Peter's Basilica, located high up above the baldacchino of Bernini at the balcony level -- which itself contained an echo of the same. 

While many of us love the new basilica, we concurrently lament the loss of the original Constantinian basilica. Perhaps our solace can be found in the fact that if one goes to St. Paul Outside the Walls, we at very least, in that basilica, get a very strong sense of what Old St. Peter's itself looked and felt like. 

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