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Bill Thayer

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The Topography of St. Peter's Basilica

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The engraving by Ciampini (1588) to the right shows the atrium or forecourt of the old basilica of S. Peter just before its total demolition.

Directly below it is a plan by Rodolfo Lanciani (1892) of the old basilica superimposed on a plan of the Circus of Nero where St. Peter was put to death, and the nearby road along which he was buried: this topography is what accounts for the position and orientation of St. Peter's to this day.

→ Because the plan is so large, it will extend offscreen. I've minimized the inconvenience to you by lining up the engraving with the most relevant part of the plan: once you've scrolled over, you should at least be able to stay there.

If you've come to this page out of the blue, you'll find a full discussion of the topography of St. Peter's by Prof. Lanciani (an archaeologist who directed many important excavations in Rome) here.

[image ALT: A drawing of a large courtyard, the front side of which toward the viewer has been cut away for clarity; at the back an elaborately decorated four-story church topped by a pediment surmounted by a cross, the building preceded by a low portico with five arched doorways. On the sides of the courtyard, two nondescript buildings, the one on the right of 5 stories, the one on the left a mere creneallated one-story wall interrupted two-thirds of the way toward the back by a two-story church with another pediment surmounted by a cross. In the center of the courtyard a small square pillared baldacchino housing a giant pinecone. It is a view of the medieval church of St. Peter's in Rome, engraved in 1588 just before it was demolished.]

[image ALT: A complex plan of several very large long rectangular buildings. It is a plan of the relationship between the medieval church of St. Peter's in Rome and the Circus of Nero that preceded it on more or less the same space.]


The cross on the spina marks the probable place, according to Lanciani, of execution of S. Peter = Chapel of the Crucifixion.

Since Lanciani's time, much new research has been conducted, including major excavations in 1940‑1946, which, thanks to some splendid work by the epigrapher Margherita Guarducci, have scientifically determined in most scholars' minds that a specific skeleton found under the main altar is indeed that of St. Peter.

I will eventually add the exact bibliographic references here, but if you want some fascinating reading, just look up Margherita Guarducci in the catalog of a good library. A good summary of the entire matter can be found here.

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Page updated: 28 Oct 17