Anyone who had ever traveled to Rome with even a few hours to spare seems to automatically gravitate, not to the seven ancient hills upon which the city was founded, presumably by the brothers, Romulus and Remus, but instead, across the Tiber to another, hill, historically referred to as Vatican Hill. The valley next to it, once held the Circus of Nero, the hill itself a cemetery. Catholic tradition has it the apostle Peter was slain in the circus, and buried just outside it's walls. Eventually the cemetery was essentially "roofed over" to form a necropolis upon which the original St. Peter's Basilica church was build, it's high altar placed strategically over the tomb of the apostle and first bishop of Rome.
Around 1506, during the first years of his reign as pope, Julius II and his erstwhile architect, Donato Bramante, decided to tear down the badly deteriorated, thousand-year-old church and erect one more worthy of the center of world-wide Catholicism. Bramante fabricated a Greek cross plan housed in the center of a square with a complex of auxiliary chapels occupying the corners of the square. Work was begun, literally building around the old church for a time before it was finally torn down as being in the way of construction for the new cathedral. Forty years after Bramante began, Michelangelo significantly altered, simplified, and improved the design, adding an east portico and his famed dome. And had his design, or even that of Bramante, been carried through to completion, we would, today, have one of the most beautiful churches in Christendom. One can best get a feel for the organic unity of design Michelangelo contemplated by looking at St.Peter's from the Southwest...or actually ANY side but the front with its ungainly Baroque facade designed by Carlo Maderno around 1606-12.
Maderno was not a bad architect. His debut piece, the facade of Sta. Susanna constructed in Rome between 1597-1603 is a masterful handling of Late Renaissance/Early Baroque style and an adept solving of the problem created by a tall central nave and low side aisles. It undoubtedly won him the admiration of Pope Paul V and the job as architect of St. Peters. No, the problem was not with the pope's architect but with the pope himself. As the church neared completion around 1600 based approximately of Michelangelo's design, the decision was made by certain architecturally illiterate clergy, not the least of which was the pope himself, to extend the East arm of the Bramante/Michelangelo Greek cross to the East by several hundred feet (three bays). To his credit, on the INSIDE at least, Maderno carried off the misguided extension with a seamless design and execution hinting not in the least at the unmitigated disaster caused by the design change on the OUTSIDE. He was a superb interior decorator.
Outside the effect of the improvised Classical facade with it's brownstone lower two levels and it's white marble "attic" is, for lack of a better term, dismal. From the immediate environs in front of the cathedral, the massive stage set grouping of columns, superhuman portals and windows, completely eliminates the view of Michelangelo's magnificent dome. And to make matters worse, as Maderno's "wedding cake" facade was nearing completion, the decision was made by the same red-hatted architect wannabes to build twin bell towers, one on either end of the facade. Work was begun. An additional vault was added on each end connecting the largely freestanding tower bases with the already way too wide facade.
But, had the towers grown to completion they would have somewhat mitigated the distressingly horizontal tendencies of the facade. Unfortunately, as work progressed on the North tower, it soon became obvious the foundation and subsoil would not support the intended tower's immense weight. So, it was torn down level with the top of the new facade and work was halted on the South tower at the same level. Thus the facade ended up being more than two and a half times as wide as it was tall. As a result, only from a great distance does one even get the feeling of standing before a church. Up close, the effect is more one of some enormous government ministry building over-decorated with triple life-size statuary and every form of architectural adornment known to man.
Bramante and Michelangelo thought big. In effect, they forced Maderno to do so too. Anyone who has ever stood before Maderno's massive facade has an idea what it feels like to be an ant. Virtually nothing about St. Peter's inside or out, is built on anything approaching a human scale. The doors on the front are so big they themselves have doors. Later church officials quickly recognized the architectural folly their predecessors had wrought. The Baroque sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini, was brought in to try and rectify the problem by constructing a massive piazza employing a tricky bit of reverse one-point perspective in his dramatic embracing colonnades. To a degree it helped, at least as one initially approaches the great church. But the closer one gets to Maderno's facade, the more grievous the architectural errors once more become. What could have been a beautiful, gracious, monument to God, instead became a cluttered, ungainly, ignoble monument to aesthetic ignorance.