If St. Peter’s Basilica is the main draw of a trip to Vatican City, then St. Peter’s Square is the welcoming embrace inviting you in. The huge piazza in front of the enormous church is oval in shape, with long colonnaded arms extending out on either side of the Basilica. It’s a grand sight, whether viewed from the street leading toward St. Peter’s or from the church’s dome.
St. Peter’s Square took its present shape in the 17th century under the direction of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Some of the existing buildings adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica made it impossible to put the largest part of the piazza directly in front of the church, so the square opens up dramatically into the elliptical shape only after it is some distance away from the front of the Basilica. Bernini envisioned the colonnades as “the maternal arms of Mother Church.”
There are almost always some crowds in St. Peter’s Square, but the piazza really fills up during the weekly public Papal Address, services at Christmas and Easter, and during the election process for a new pope.
At the center of the piazza is a mammoth 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk more than 83 feet tall, sitting atop a bronze base, making the entire piece more than 134 feet from the ground to the top. The obelisk was erected in 1586, nearly 100 years before Bernini redesigned the piazza around it, using it as the centerpiece. In the circle surrounding the obelisk’s base, there are 16 markers in the pavement marking compass points – the “West” marker was used as a clue in the Dan Brown novel, “Angels & Demons,” so this spot is a popular one on “Angels & Demons” tours in Rome.