The Constantinian, or Old St. Peter’s, Basilica was constructed c. 354 BCE. Having recently gained control of the land where the Vatican now sits, Constantine desired to display his power and wealth by building something magnificent. The grave of St. Peter was chose as the site for Constantine’s exhibition. Old St. Peter’s Basilica marked the alleged site of his burial, and became the most important building in the Roman Catholic Church. Pilgrimage to this shrine became the goal of many Christians throughout the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. In 1420, shortly after the Great Schism, Pope Martin V returned the papacy to Rome and noticed the disarray that had fallen upon the basilica. Martin performed a few partial restorations, but nothing lasting. By 1455, the structure was falling apart. Pope Nicholas V desired to fully reconstruct the edifice, but he died before completing any plans. It was not until 1506, with the papacy of Julius II, that actual progress happened.
Pope Julius II decided to demolish Old St. Peter’s and erect a completely new structure in its place. This idea was highly contested due to the venerated status of the old building. However, the pope was confident in the accomplishments of the Renaissance architects, and believed that this new building should exemplify the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Funded mainly by indulgences, Julius continued with his plans and constructed the “greatest building in Christendom.”
Bramante, a Renaissance architect, was the first to undertake the design of the basilica. He was already well known for is construction of Il Tempietto, or, The Little Temple, built on the supposed site of St. Peter’s crucifixion. His history with the saint and impeccable work caused him to be Julius II’s first choice for the new basilica. In order to portray the Renaissance focus on perfection and emulate Early Christian tradition, he devised a central plan for the building. The new structure would be in the shape of a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length and an enormous dome in the center. Unfortunately, Pope Julius died in 1513, and Bramante in 1514, leaving the new pope, Leo X, to take over the papacy and the responsibility of finding a new architect.
The Italian painter, Raphael, became the next to work on this great undertaking. In 1514, he began to redesign the ideas for the basilica. Eliminating the Greek cross and central plan, the Latin cross, with its three short arms and one long, became the new idea. This provided the church with an extended nave and allowed a larger congregation to gather. Raphael continued his work on St. Peter’s until his death in 1520. Due to intense turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church, construction on the building came to a halt after his death. The Protestant Reformation took the forefront in the pope’s mind, and challenged the collection of indulgences. Difficulties arose concerning financing the basilica’s completion, as indulgences largely...