Reconstructions of Old St Peters’ from the “Altair 4” design house

An Italian computer graphics firm has created a 3-D model of Old St Peters‘, the 4th century basilica built by Constantine atop the ruins of the Circus of Gaius and Nero on the Vatican hill.  They have also created reconstructions of the site from the 1st century to our own day.  The material is all here.

1st century AD – Circus of Gaius and Nero on the Vatican Hill. Via
Late 2nd century AD – The circus lies in ruins, and a circular tomb has been built on the “spina”. Via
4th century AD – Old St Peter’s stands on the Vatican Hill. Two 3rd century tombs are on the south side. The obelisk stands on the spina of the old circus. Via
21st century AD – The modern view today. Via

Further images, videos and other media content can be obtained from the publisher, if you want something on Old St Peter’s.


H/t Twitter.


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.


Drawings of Old St Peter’s in Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter

Another Vatican manuscript has come online, as I learn from @gundormr on Twitter here, and this one contains 16-17th century drawings of Old St Peter’s church in Rome. It has the rather awkward shelfmark of Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter, and may usually be found here, although I see tonight that the site is not working.

Here’s a small image in folio 10r, showing the courtyard outside the entrance, with annotations for the features.  A detailed list of contents is here.

On the right is the papal palace, in the middle is the fountain of the pine-cone, and ahead is the mosaic facade of the old church, behind a portico.

This is all well and good.  But the really spectacular part is if you download the image from folio 10r yourself.  The resulting .jpg file is huge – and this has an interesting effect, when you open it on your screen. You find yourself zooming in, effectively, on different parts of the courtyard.  Suddenly, we can see it!  It’s like being there:

We can see the entrance in the middle into the basilica.  That is not maximum resolution, by the way, either.

I can’t make out that much of the annotations, but it is simply wonderful to be able to do this.

Folio 12r is the inside of the basilica, and you can do exactly the same thing, and zoom in.

Well worth a look!


A fresco of the interior of Old St Peter’s by Filippo Gagliardi in San Martino ai Monti in Rome

Via Twitter I learned today of the existence of a fresco in the church of San Martino ai Monti in Rome, which depicts the interior of Old St Peter’s.  Here’s a somewhat muddy picture of it that I found on the web:

San Martino ai Monti: fresco of Old St Peter’s basilica, by Filippo Gagliardi (1648)

A better:

The following inset was on Google Image search, from a now vanished site:

Initially I was rather excited by this.  But, alas, it is a reconstruction. Two articles by Ann B. Sutherland in 1964 make clear that the work was done by Filippo Gagliardi.[1]

The payments to Filippo Gagliardi are simpler. Although the Filippo entertained in 1647 may not be Gagliardi, he must have been working in the church by December 1648, and had finished his fresco of the interior of Old St Peter’s by July of 1649.

Sutherland adds in footnote 131 that “There is a painting by Filippo Gagliardi, signed and dated 1640, of an Interior View of St Peter’s, in the Prado.”  Clearly the artist had made a habit of this particular theme.

But Gagliardi never saw Old St Peter’s.  Work to demolish it began in 1506, and much of the east end of the old church was quickly destroyed.  The new basilica was itself fully complete in 1626 when Gagliardi was only 20.  So his work is based on other depictions that he had seen.


  1. [1]Ann B. Sutherland, “The Decoration of San Martino ai Monti – I”, The Burlington Magazine vol. 106, No. 731 (Feb., 1964), pp. 58-67+69.  JSTOR; Ann B. Sutherland, “The Decoration of San Martino ai Monti – I”, The Burlington Magazine 106, No. 732 (Mar., 1964), pp. 114-120. JSTOR.  See p.115.

Nice big image of the Nuremberg drawing of Rome (with Meta Romuli)

Again seen on twitter, a link to a wonderfully large image of the page in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) with a picture of Rome.  It may be found here, but I reproduce it below because images vanish from the web like butterflies.  The basilica of Old St Peter’s may easily be seen; but also the vanished pyramidal monument, the Meta Romuli, between St Peter’s and the Castel S. Angelo.

Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: A correspondent writes to say that the Nuremberg Chronicle 1497 (767 pages) is available at the following web sites:

  • University of Adelaide (Australia) ebooks here .
  • Bayerische Staatsbibliothek here (downloadable as a PDF file (349MB) and also as JPEG files (300DPI).

Always useful to know!


1603 Zuccaro drawing in red chalk of Old St Peter’s, Rome

Here’s another image of Old St Peter’s, part-way through the transformation into New St Peter’s.  The main entrance, steps and square are all still present.  From the Getty website:

Federico Zuccaro (Italian, about 1541 – 1609).  25.9 x 41.3 cm (10 3/16 x 16 1/4 in.)

Using red chalk in a highly detailed manner, Federico Zuccaro depicted Saint Peter’s Square in Rome as it appeared in 1603, with the Egyptian obelisk in place at the extreme left and the church dome complete. At the left, the archepiscopal palace adjoins the old facade of Saint Peter’s basilica. In the center, the three-story benediction loggia begun by Pope Pius II in 1462 adjoins the loggia painted by Raphael, lightly sketched at the extreme right. The bastion for the papal guard protects the front of the Vatican entrance, and statues of saints Peter and Paul from the 1400s adorn the foot of the staircase.

I’m rather impressed with the Getty site here. Who of us knew this even existed? (Click for larger image)



Vatican manuscript with Grimaldi’s memories of Old St Peter’s in Rome uploaded

The digitisation of the Vatican manuscripts is a very good enterprise, but undertaken in a less than entirely satisfactory way.  The manuscripts are uploaded – but there is no indication of contents beyond the shelfmark.  Thankfully, and in the spirit of crowd-sourcing, J.-B.Piggin has been making notes on them as they appear, and publishing lists at macrotypography blog.  In doing so, he is discovering treasures!

In his latest post, Memories of Old St Peter’s, he draws attention to  This is a handwritten account of various monuments in the 4th century basilica of Old St Peter’s, before its demolition in the 16th century and replacement with the church we know today.  The book was written by the Vatican archivist, Giacomo Grimaldi, and is also illustrated with drawings!   (I do wish it could be downloaded as a PDF!!)

Ottavio Bucarelli tells me that there is an edition with notes of the work: G.Grimaldi, Descrizione della basilica antica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, a cura di R. Niggl, BAV, 1972.  But of course this is offline and inaccessible.  So the original is what we have to work with.

On f.152v-153r is an opening with a picture of the front aspect of the old basilica.  These motley buildings led into the atrium in front of the church.  Click on it to enlarge:

Ms Barberini lat. 2733. Grimaldi, Old St Peter's basilica, Rome. Facade
Ms Barberini lat. 2733. Grimaldi, Old St Peter’s basilica, Rome. Facade

There are a number of drawings.  Unfortunately the photographers didn’t try to mask the ink showing through from the other side. This is usually done by inserting a sheet of black paper behind the page.  So it can make it hard to read.

Much of the material is the opening of the graves of various popes, including Leo I, and a drawing of his shrouded body in his grave (!)

Here is another double-page opening, f.104v-105r, of the interior of the basilica, showing where various monuments were:

Grimaldi, Interior of Old St Peter's.  Barberini ms lat. 2733, f.104v-105r.
Grimaldi, Interior of Old St Peter’s. Barberini ms lat. 2733, f.104v-105r.

There are also colour pictures of the decoration, much of it under Pope Formosus.

On fol. 133v-134r is a picture of the atrium, inside the front buildings, with the nave in front of us:

Grimaldi, Atrium of Old St Peter's. Ms. Barberini latin 2733, fol.133v-134r.
Grimaldi, Atrium of Old St Peter’s. Ms. Barberini latin 2733, fol.133v-134r.

This is followed by an account of the atrium or “paradise”.

It’s delightful to think that this material is online!  More!


Paulinus of Nola, and the “Liber Pontificalis”, on the courtyard outside Old St Peter’s

In early 396 AD Paulinus of Nola wrote a letter of consolation to his friend Pammachius which contains an interesting passage on the entrance courtyard at the front of Old St Peter’s.[1]

It is a pleasure even now to linger on the sight and the praise of such a great work. For we do not laud the works of a human being but the divine works accomplished through a human being. What a joyous spectacle did you [Pammachius], sacred producer, display for God and his holy angels from this—as the saying goes—rich provision of yours.

With what great pleasure did you exalt the apostle himself when you packed his whole basilica with dense crowds of needy people, where—under the height of its roof with ceiling panels in between—the spacious church lies wide open; and where, glittering from afar with the apostolic tomb, it binds the eyes and gladdens the hearts of those who enter.

Where, under the same massive roof, the church expands on both sides with double porticoes and where, with the church extended through a vestibule (vestibulum) in front, there is a bright atrium; where a cupola (tholus) topped with solid brass adorns and shades a cantharus, which belches forth streams of water serving our hands and faces.

Not without secret meaning does it surround the water spouts with four columns; such a decoration is proper for the entrance of the church in order that what is done inside by the mystery of salvation may be marked by the noteworthy work outside. For one single faith of the gospel also sustains the temple of our body with a fourfold support; and, since the grace by which we are reborn flows from it, and Christ, in whom we live, is revealed in it, surely a fountain of water springing to eternal life is born in that place for us on four columns of life; and it waters us within and boils in us, if only we should be able to say or deserve to feel that we have a burning heart on the road, which is kindled when Christ is walking with us. (Ep. 13:13)

That the basilica hall itself was filled by Pammachius with the needy, to whom he was giving charity, is itself interesting in 396 when, presumably, the sportula was still being distributed by the state.


The “cantharus” is some sort of fountain, and the 1575 image above shows the curious construction that stood there towards the end: a large canopy decorated with bronze peacocks, resting on eight porphyry columns, with the colossal bronze pine-cone inside it which spurted water from various apertures.

But this construction does not seem to be original.  Paulinus refers above to four columns, not eight.

Our earliest literary source for the fountain in the atrium outside Old St Peter’s is the Liber Pontificalis, which records under Pope Symmachus (498-514) that:[2]

He built the basilica of Saint Andrew, the apostle, near the basilica of the blessed Peter. [A list of gifts made to the shrines] Also he adorned with marbles the basilica of blessed Peter.  The fountain of blessed Peter with the square portico around it he beautified with marble work and with lambs and crosses and palms of mosaic. Likewise he enclosed the whole atrium; and he widened the steps before the doors of the basilica of Saint Peter, the apostle, and he made other steps of wood on the right and on the left. Also he built palaces in the same place on the right and on the left. Also, below the steps into the atrium, outside in the square, he set another fountain and an accommodation for human necessity. And he built other steps for ascent into the church of blessed Andrew and set up a fountain.

The “basilica” of Andrew is in fact the converted circular 3rd century tomb that stood on the south side of St Peter’s until the 18th century.

But the key phrase is translated differently by van den Hoek (p.21):

Ad cantharum beati Petri cum quadriporticum [42] ex opere marmoribus ornavit et ex musivo agnos et cruces et palmas ornavit

He embellished the area around the cantharus of Saint Peter with a quadruple porch made out of marble and he adorned it with lambs and crosses and palms made of mosaic.

42. For cum + acc., see Blaise-Chirat, s.v. “cum”.

Whether we should interpret this as meaning that the fountain already had a square portico around it, which Symmachus decorated with marble, or that he created the portico, is unimportant for our purposes.

G.A.Dosio, 1575 or shortly before, formerly Uffizi, Florence 2555.
G.A.Dosio, 1575 or shortly before, formerly Uffizi, Florence 2555.

Even after this, there were more changes.  The eight porphyry columns – which survive – did not arrive until Pope Stephen II (752-757 AD).  A mysterious piece of evidence is quoted by van den Hoek from a source which unfortunately I have no present access to:[3]

Renovavit in atrium ante fores beati Petri Apostoli qui quadriporticos dicitur, columnas marmoreas VIII, mirae pulchritudinis, sculptas, quae desuper quadris composuit et aereum desuper conlocavit tegumenum

In the atrium in front of the entrance (of the church) of the Blessed Apostle Peter, which is called the quadruple porch, he renovated [with] eight marble columns of amazing beauty, sculpted, which he placed over a square and he set up a bronze covering above

The reference for this is “Cited in R. Krautheimer, CBCR 5 (1977), 175″.  The CBCR is the Corpus basilicarum christianarum Romae, a series of huge and hard-to-photocopy volumes of impeccable scholarship.  (I see that some volumes are at the Hathi Trust here, if anyone would care to help me access this item).

Van den hoek suggests, probably rightly, that the bronze pine-cone was brought here and installed at this time.  It was certainly present in the 12th century, when Petrus Mallius mentions it in his Descriptio basilicae Vaticanae, chapter 41, p.100[4] (written between 1159-1181):

IIII funes extenduntur in festa S. Petri et octava eius in atrio eiusdem ecclesiae id est in paradiso, in modum crucis et ligantur de porticalibus ad pineam aeneam, quae est in paradiso; et in unoquoque fune X candelae suspenduntur.

I don’t quite know how to translate all of that – funes is “ropes”, apparently – but I see that “… in the atrium of the same church, i.e. in the ‘paradis’, in the shape of a cross, and they are tied from the porticos to the bronze pinecone, which is in the paradise”.  So the bronze pinecone was at Old St Peter’s by that time.

Where did it come from?  Well, that must be a story for another time.

NOTE: There are extensive 16th century descriptions and diagrams collected by C. Huelsen in his “Cantharus von Alt-St. Peter”, which I linked to in my last post.

UPDATE: See the comments for a translation of the rest of the Liber on Stephen, and an explanation of what it all means, courtesy of a regular reader!

  1. [1]CSEL 29, 94-95.  This material from A. van den Hoek &c, Potteries, Pavements and Paradise, p.11. Google Books Preview here.
  2. [2]Online at here.
  3. [3]Van den Hoek &c, p.46.
  4. [4]Huelsen gives the over-abbreviated reference De Rossi I. chr. I, 2, p.219; and no doubt he knew what he meant, even if everyone else before the arrival of Google had to scratch their heads.

The fountain of the pine-cone outside Old St Peter’s in Rome

In the little courtyard or “atrium”, inside the portico but outside the main doors of Old St Peter’s (and you can follow the tag below for many images of the church), stood a little fountain.

pianta di Roma di Etienne Du Perac (1577), particolare del Vaticano.
pianta di Roma di Etienne Du Perac (1577), particolare del Vaticano.

It included a colossal pine-cone of bronze, which will be familiar to many who have visited the Vatican[1]:

The Vatican pinecone and peacocks today. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The Vatican pinecone and peacocks today. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I found online at Google Books[2] the following copy of a drawing of the fountain, itself taken from Huelsen[3]:

Water installation with bronze pine-cone in the atrium of Old St Peter's, Rome.  Drawing by Cronaca (1457-1505).  Uffizi, Florence, 1572.
Water installation with bronze pine-cone in the atrium of Old St Peter’s, Rome. Drawing by Cronaca (1457-1505). Uffizi, Florence, 1572.

The Huelsen article includes further drawings.

Andrea della Vaccaria, “Ornamenti di fabriche antichi e moderni dell’alma citta di Roma”, 1600, quarto.

Another image comes from a manuscript, Ms. Brussels 17872, fol. 56v, by Philipp de Winghe, and made around 1591-2.


Supposedly water would come out of the pinecone at various places, although how I don’t quite know.  The pinecone and two of the peacocks have survived, as may be seen above.

  1. [1]Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Wknight94, April 2008.
  2. [2]A. van den Hoek & John H. Herrmann Jr, “Paulinus of Nola, courtyards and canthari: a second look”, In: A. van den Hoek &c, Pottery, Pavements, and Paradise: Iconographic and Textual Studies on Late Antiquity, Brill (2013), p.45, fig. 13.
  3. [3]C. Huelsen, “Der Cantharus von Alt-St. -Peter und die antiken Pignen-Brunnen,”, Romische Mitteilungen 19 (1904), 88-102. Plate 5a.  Online at here.

More images of then-surviving Roman monuments from “Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae” by A. Lafrery (1593)

Following my post yesterday, Ste Trombetti has found that the prints by Lafrerie / Lafrery are to be located in the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (1593).  Happily this is online in high resolution, and downloadable in PDF form, at the UB in Heidelberg here (and the page shows all the pix in thumbnail too – a very well organised site).

This means that, for the first time, we can get some decent resolution images of some of the monuments.  Some of these we have seen before, in squinny little images defaced with bumptious watermarks, but here we have the full size images.  (Click on the pictures below to get these).

First up on tafel 116 is the Seven Churches of Rome and the Old St Peter’s (1575).  This is stylised, and the surroundings of each church are incorrect; but the depiction of the basilica itself is spot-on!



Note the steps, the atrium behind it – interesting that Raphael omits the section with three arches leading into it, as being a later addition – then the  nave, with the hulk of the new basilica at the far end, and on the left the Vatican rotunda, the 3rd century tomb being used as the chapel of S. Andreas.  To the right of the church, as today, is the papal palace.

Also included by Lafrery is the picture of Old St. Peter’s (1581-86) by Claudio Duchetti & Ambrogio Brambilla, tafel 115:

lafrery_000g_Tafel_115_old_s_petersNote the pope in the Loggia, blessing the sea of people!

Next on plate 27 is the now vanished Septizonium, drawn by C. Duchetti & A. Brambilla:


Pretty marvellous!  Our thanks to the UB in Heidelberg for making all this material accessible; and in a manner which means that we can actually study it, for once!