A colour fresco of Old St Peter’s, half-demolished but with the obelisk in position

A kind commenter drew my attention to this fascinating fresco of the appearance of Old St Peter’s.

It shows clearly the rather ramshackle old front of Constantine’s basilica – there was an atrium/courtyard behind, and then the main front.  The huge construction of New St Peter’s looms at the back, unfinished – as indeed it stood for some decades.

But the most interesting feature is the Egyptian obelisk, already moved from its medieval position to the left of the church, and standing where it stands today.

I’m not sure where this fresco is from.  I think it may be from the Papal palace, which still stands, to the right of the basilica in the above picture.  It is notable how the palace dwarfs the old basilica!

It’s also interesting to see the slope of the Vatican hill, to the left.  The circus of Calgula and Nero stood at the foot of the hill, and St Peter was executed on a cross on the spina or central spine of the race-track.  His grave or trophaion was in an existing cemetery further up the hill.

Constantine built his basilica over the grave.  His Roman architects had to underpin the left side of the church, to prevent it sliding down the hill.  In fact cracks developed over the succeeding millennium, and this was one reason why the old basilica was demolished.

It’s a marvellous depiction, and I wish I knew more about it.


10 thoughts on “A colour fresco of Old St Peter’s, half-demolished but with the obelisk in position

  1. Now is a good time to look at Raphael’s historical pictures (mostly imaginary) which are set inside of Old St. Peter’s (as it had been in Raphael’s time).

    But I love this pic.

  2. Yup, the Apostolic Palace is the official name of the Vatican Papal Palace. Technically, though, Castel Gandolfo is also named the “Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo.”

    I don’t think I have ever seen an official floor plan or rundown of all the art there in all the buildings, but there is more online (even on Wikipedia) than there used to be. And a lot of the “historical” paintings and tapestries seem to include Old St. Peter’s. Maybe Wikimedia is our friend.

  3. The tapestry of the pope returning from Avignon shows people opening windowpanes, and a cute little picket fence with gate in front of one of the side entrances. The chick symbolically pointing the way is St. Catherine of Siena.

  4. Okay… The Vasari Avignon return thing is a fresco when seen close up. The concept is that the great historical figures of Rome, plus Roman saints, are waiting there. (Romulus and Remus, the personified Tiber, etc.) So the Wikimedia closeups are nice.

  5. Wikimedia is undoubtedly our friend. It’s wonderful to have these things. The more we have on Old St Peter’s the better.

    One of the good things about this fresco is that it shows how tatty Old St Peter’s had become.

  6. I am more interested in the white donkey at the forefront which is driven by a man. A donkey in the Vatican?

  7. It’s a street and a public square. Donkeys were the small trucks or vans of the pre-modern world. A nice picture of business continuing on, while sightseers gawk.

  8. Oh, hey, Roger! I found another source for Old St. Peter’s pix. Apparently some of the crypt chapels or “grottos” under New St. Peter’s include frescoes that show Old St. Peter’s. The artwork was recently restored, as it had become so gunky that basically nobody remembered what they had. (Not just soot, but also salt surfacing on the plaster, reproduction paintings painted on top of the original murals, paintings whitewashed with double coats of white paint to save cleaning, etc.) The Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal organization) funded all this stuff.

    Pdf about all the restoration.

  9. Also they have a TON of the Old St. Peter’s stuff that got saved, down in the crypt and “grottos.” Which makes sense, because lots of Catholic stuff ends up repurposed or moved into honorable storage or new placements in undercrofts.

    The inscription instituting the saints’ oratory and the new Roman date for All Saints Day is down in the Chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata, right cattycorner to a miraculous fresco! So that must be the official “Halloween Is Christian and Italian” place to visit!

    Sadly, I am still looking for close-up pics of the inscription itself.

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