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The Square of Saint Peter
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Saint Peter's Square is a massive plaza located directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the papal enclave within Rome.
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The open space which lies before the basilica was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667, under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, as an appropriate forecourt, designed "so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace."
At the center of the plaza stands a four-thousand-year-old Egyptian obelisk of red granite, 25.5 meters tall, which was placed in the square in 1568. It was originally erected at Heliopolis by an unknown pharaoh of the Fifth dynasty of Egypt. The Emperor Augustus had it moved to the Julian Forum of Alexandria, where it stood until year 37 A.D., when Caligula ordered the forum demolished and the obelisk transferred to Rome. He placed it in the center of the Circus, where it would preside over Nero's countless brutal games and Christian executions.
The obelisk was moved to its current site in 1586 by the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana under the direction of Pope Sixtus V; the engineering feat of re-erecting its vast weight was memorialized in a suite of engravings. The Vatican Obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled since ancient Roman times. During the Middl- Ages, the gilt ball on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. Fontana later removed the ancient metal ball, now in a Rome museum, that stood atop the obelisk and found only dust. Though Bernini had no influence in the erection of the obelisk, he did use it as the centerpiece of his magnificent piazza.
In 1817 circular stones were set to mark the tip of the obelisk's shadow at noon as the sun entered each of the signs of the zodiac, making the obelisk a gigantic sundial's gnomon.
St. Peter's Square today can be reached from the Ponte Sant'Angelo along the grand approach of the Via della Conciliazione (in honor of the Lateran Treaty of 1929). The spina which once occupied this grand avenue leading to the square was demolished ceremonially by Benito Mussolini himself on October 23, 1936 and was completely demolished by October 8, 1937. St. Peter's Basilica was now freely visible from the Castel Sant Angelo. The effect of its demolition, however, was to destroy the characteristic Baroque "surprise". The Via della Conciliazione was completed in time for the Great Jubilee of 1950.
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