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Overlooked by St Peter's Basilica, the Vaticans central square was laid out between 1656
and 1667 to a design by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Seen from above, it resembles a giant
keyhole with two semicircular colonnades, each consisting of four rows of Doric
columns, encircling a giant ellipse that straightens out to funnel believers into the
basilica. The effect was deliberate Bernini described the colonnades as representing
the motherly arms of the church.
The scale of the piazza is dazzling: at its largest it measures 340m by 240m. There are
284 columns and, atop the colonnades, 140 saints. The 25m obelisk in the centre was
brought to Rome by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt and later used by Nero as a
turning post for the chariot races in his circus.
Leading off the piazza, the monumental approach road, Via della Conciliazione, was
commissioned by Mussolini and built between 1936 and 1950.

Designed and built by Bernini between 1656 and 1667, during the pontificate
of Alexander VII (1655-1667), the square is made up of two different areas.
The first has a trapezoid shape, marked off by two straight closed and
convergent arms on each side of the church square. The second area is
elliptical and is surrounded by the two hemicycles of a four-row colonnade,
because, as Bernini said, considering that Saint Peters is almost the matrix
of all the churches, its portico had to give an open-armed, maternal welcome
to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the
Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith. Bernini
had in fact designed a three-armed portico, but after Alexander VIIs death,
construction of the portico was halted, and the third arm was never built. It
would have enclosed the whole building and separated the ellipse from the
Borgo quarter, thus creating a surprise effect for the pilgrim who
suddenly found himself in the square. This effect was somewhat achieved by
the buildings surrounding the square, the so-called Spina di Borgo, which
naturally closed in the square. In 1950, Via della Conciliazione, a new,
wide street leading to the Vatican Basilica, was opened. It amplifies the
majestic view of Saint Peters dome, but it also profoundly modified Berninis
original plan. The measurements of the square are impressive: it is 320 m
deep, its diameter is 240 m and it is surrounded by 284 columns, set out in
rows of four, and 88 pilasters. Around the year 1670, Berninis pupils built
140 statues of saints, 3.20 m high along the balustrade above the columns.
On either side of the obelisk, which was moved to the middle of the square
by Domenico Fontana in 1585, are two great fountains built by Bernini
(1675) and Maderno (1614). Below, at the foot of the staircase in front of
the basilica, the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul seem to welcome
visitors.
Of great interest is the Royal Staircase, which links the square to the Vatican
Palaces. It was built between 1662 and 1666, and although it actually
measures 60 metres, perspective devices, such as the progressive narrowing
of the width and a reduced distance between the columns towards the top,
make it look much longer.

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