Vatican Corner 07-26-2020

The dome of the roof of Saint Peter’s Basilica, with its exceptional height and beauty unmistakably marks the skyline of Rome. It is 394 feet high above the floor and is still the tallest of its kind in the world today. It was designed by Michelangelo who used the ideas of the previous architects and his own to create this monumental and distinctive architectural feature. He began the work on the dome in his seventies as a gift to the Church, however only the lower section known as the drum (where the windows are located) was constructed before Michelangelo’s death in 1564 at the age of 89. Architects Giacomo Della Porta and Domenico Fontana completed the dome in 1590. They made a noticeable change in the bend curvature of Michelangelo’s design, getting back closer to an earlier design. They also added a series of massive chains for strength to hold the transverse forces in check. Before the current Covid Pandemic, there were two tours of the dome available for Vatican visitors. One tour was a climb of the 551 winding steps, where the passages get narrower and narrower near the top. The other tour was an elevator ride with a few stairs at the end. A spectacular view of Rome is to be had by all at the top. Michelangelo’s design showed the placement of a sphere with a cross above the dome. A golden globe bearing a heavy white cross was therefore constructed atop. It was meant to represent Christ’s impact on the world. The Romans affectionately call the globe “palla” (“the Ball”). A deep cleaning was performed in 2003 to bring back its luster. It seems so small when seen from below, but it is actually large enough to hold 16 people. The sphere was made from 54 trapezoidal-shaped pieces of mercury-gilded bronze and it measures a little more than 8 feet in diameter. The sphere weighs 4,104 pounds, is accessible from the top of the dome by a small ladder, and has a very narrow trap door. Inside there are four small seats and little slits of windows for air and to let people see the beautiful view. However, the public has been forbidden from accessing the globe for the past 50 years due to safety and conservation reasons. Few people today even know it is possible to enter. However in the 18th century the bronze globe was a highly coveted place where prestigious travelers desired to visit. To record the
visits of the royal families who came to the globe, there are 70 marble tablets displayed on the wall of the winding staircase. King Ferdinand of Naples, Prince Gustaf of Sweden and Norway, and Tsar Nicholas I of Russian were among the famous visitors to the globe. There are stories of several incidents where visitors got stuck in the trap door and various queens were unable to climb the stairs to the globe because of the clothes they wore. There are also several testimonies of royal banquets held on the terrace of the dome, and that during their visit the queens changed clothes to continue climbing to the globe.