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The Vatican Grottoes

Written and read by Pietro Zander

The Vatican Grottoes are located on the lower level of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and consist of a system of vaults built between 1590 and 1591 to support the floor of the Renaissance building. Their origin, however, is more ancient and dates back to a design variation presented to Pope Leo X by the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, after the death of Raphael in 1520.

In 1592, Clement VIII Aldobrandini carried out major expansion and restoration works, renovating the medieval crypt, to which he gave the name “Clementine”, where the seventeenth century altar is located, near the tomb of Peter (“ad caput Sancti Petri”).

Between 1616 and 1617, Pope Paul V had two straight corridors built, leading to the Confessio of Saint Peter, and added to the grottoes the Chapel of the Salvatorello, the Chapel of the Madonna of Bocciata, and the Chapel of the Madonna of the “Partorienti” (child-bearing women), which, together with the peribolos around the Confessio, he had frescoed by the painter Giovan Battista Ricci da Novara with hagiographic paintings of the miraculous events at the Petrine tomb, and with illustrations of monuments of the ancient basilica.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, while the last vestiges of the old basilica were demolished to enable the completion of the new Saint Peter’s, the Vatican Grottoes became a place of memorial, a sort of ante litteram “museum”; where statues, mosaics, paintings and inscriptions were displayed as relics of the venerated and lost church. Here we find the last images – internal and external views, alternated with reproductions of the individual monuments – of the ancient basilica that would not be seen again.

Later, with Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), four small oratories – Saint Veronica, Saint Helen, Saint Longino and Saint Andrew – were created at the base of the large pillars supporting the dome, linked to the basilica by as many spiral staircases. The four new chapels with their accesses to the Vatican Grottoes, were designed and created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and then decorated by a team of accomplished painters: Agostino Ciampelli, Guidobaldi Abbatini and others.

After the mid-twentieth century, further spaces of devotion were added around the tomb of Saint Peter, with the building and extension of the Irish (1954), Polish (1958 and 1982), Lithuanian (1970), Patron Saints of Europe (1981), and Mexican (1992) chapels, and the oratory with the tomb of Pius XII (1958), the pope who had promoted the difficult archaeological explorations that led to the discover of the tomb of Saint Peter and the Vatican Necropolis. Two connections from the grottoes to the outside of the basilica were also created: to the south on Largo Braschi, and to the north on Largo San Gregorio l’Illuminatore.

In 1979, a large archway was opened in the central part of the grottoes, in order to make visible the front of the Confessio with the Niche of the Pallia, the place closest to the tomb of Saint Peter. A series of chapels dedicated to Our Lady were arranged like a crown around the tomb of the Apostle. The central space of the grottoes, where the tombs of the popes, successors of Peter, thus became a sort of lower basilica with three naves.

© Fabric of Saint Peter