St Peter’s Basilica
Some may find the display of wealth and power a little incongruous for an institution expounding the teachings of Christ, but put this aside for a while and you are left to marvel at one of the most impressive buildings in the world. Inside the hallowed walls are 100 tombs, 91 of which are deceased popes, including the supposed remains of the first ever pope, Saint Peter, whom Christ declared to be the rock on which he would build the church. The much-imitated dome was designed by Michelangelo in 1546; unfortunately he died before its completion. With a diameter of 42.3 metres it is almost as big as the Pantheon, while the church itself can accommodate over 60,000 worshippers. One of the most important, and famous, works in the church is Michelangelo’s Pietà, an acutely emotional marble sculpture of the Deposition from the Cross, with the dead Christ lying limp in his mother Mary’s arms. Unfortunately, since 1972, the sculpture has been kept behind an impenetrable glass screen, when Laszlo Toth, an insane geologist, attacked the work with a hammer. Other precious works include Gina Lorenzo Bernini’s bronze baldacchino canopy over the main altar, which apparently is made from bronze beams pillaged from the Pantheon in 1628. Avoid climbing the dome’s 320 steps if you are at all claustrophobic, but the vertiginous views over the city are unparalleled. The Sistine Chapel is not in the basilica – you must access it through the Vatican museums, which are a brisk, well-signposted, 15-minute walk away. Dress code is very strict: anyone with shorts, short skirts, bare shoulders or midriffs will be promptly turned away.