This is an extract from the Reading Materials in English that are available in the English and Education section of the website of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka,

The entire text of Historic Buildings by Goolbai Gunasekara, covering twelve famous constructions, is now available on that website.

St. Peter's Basilica

The first place a tourist in Rome wishes to visit is usually St Peter’s Cathedral. It is the largest church in the world and certainly the most famous.

The site of the church has a story behind it. It is believed that St. Peter, Jesus Christ’s chief disciple who is said to have been the first Bishop of Rome, was martyred and buried around 64 BC on the very spot where St Peter’s Cathedral now stands. It was therefore considered holy ground even before anything was built on it.

In 319 AD the Emperor Constantine built the original basilica there. It lasted over a thousand years. But in the 15th century the Popes, as the Bishops of Rome were called when they established themselves as the heads of the Catholic Church, left Rome and lived at Avignon in France. There was a split in the Catholic Church and many old churches were badly neglected. St. Peter’s was particularly affected so Pope Nicholas V began a new construction when the Papacy came back to Rome.

There were many quarrels over the building of St. Peter’s, but finally the architect Bramante was employed. He is one of the most famous Renaissance names but he was accused of embezzling funds and was sacked. Then a series of equally famous architects were brought in over the years.

The Dome

One of the last was Michelangelo who was hired when he was already 72 years old, many years after he had completed his beautiful statue of David in Florence. As might have been expected he died before completing the magnificent Dome he planned. But the design was exceptional, and the finished building is considered an architectural masterpiece, which draws tourists by the thousand.

St. Peter’s took about 176 years to complete. Sections were added as and when each Pope felt like it or had money. There are many interesting details about the building and various parts of it. For instance, if you look at the bronze statue of St Peter you will see that the right foot has been worn down since the 13th century because millions of adoring visitors keep kissing it.

Bernini's canopy (Baldacchino) above St. Peters tomb

Bronze taken from the Parthenon in Athens was melted down to make Bernini’s canopy above the altar. The bronze throne above the main alter encases a wooden throne. People like to think that it was the throne of St Peter himself. In actual fact, it probably dates from the Middle Ages.

Michelangelo’s beautiful statue of the Pieta is on the North side of the Church. This is a tender sculpture of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, holding him as he was dying. It is protected by glass because a few years ago a mad tourist attacked the statue.

Roof of the Sistine Chapel

Another of Michaelangelo’s grand creations should also be mentioned here, though it is not part of the church. This is the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which may be visited as part of the Vatican Museum, in the building which is the official residence of the Pope. The fresco on the roof, of God creating Adam, the first man according to Christianity, is one of the greatest of all religious paintings.

One of the most admired features of St Peter’s is Bernini’s long symmetrical colonnade that leads up to the church. It encircles a square and features a central obelisk and two identical fountains.

Swiss Guards at the Vatican

In St Peter’s you can also see the Swiss Guards who wear the same uniforms they have worn since 1506 when they came to the Vatican at the invitation of Pope Julius II. The guards have to be Swiss by nationality and new entrants take their oath to defend St Peter’s on the 26th of May, so as to commemorate the sacking of Rome in 1527 when the Swiss Guards protected the Pope and saved his life. On that day only 42 of the 189 who defended him survived.

St Peter’s is located in the Vatican City, which is an independent country. It is ruled by the Pope, who is thus a religious leader who also has political power. The Vatican City is however completely surrounded by the city of Rome, the capital of Italy, and the Vatican relies on Italy for many of its needs. And even if they are not practising Catholics, all Romans, indeed all Italians, are very proud of this magnificent Cathedral.


Grammar and Vocabulary

  1. Give in your own words the meaning, as used in the passage, of the words or phrases that are highlighted.
  2. To what do the pronouns or other words in italics refer?
  3. Divide the proper nouns in this passage into those that name people, those that name places, and those that describe a special type of place or person. Which proper nouns are used as adjectives? Are there any proper nouns that name things?
  4. Identify the main verbs in the third paragraph and the subjects of each of them.
  5. Identify the different ways in which the underlined infinitives have been used in this passage.

Comprehension and Further Activities

  1. Find out more about Michaelangelo and write a brief account of his life and work. Try to find illustrations of some of his work to accompany your account.
  2. Mark Rome on your map along with Florence and the capitals of France and Switzerland.
  3. Identify ten items that tourists might look for at St Peter’s, and specify which of these you would find inside the church and which outside.
  4. The Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world. Identify at least three other small states, and find out what sorts of government they have.
  5. Write down briefly in your own words the main point of each of the paragraphs in this passage. Which paragraphs deal with the The Vatican, which with the Papacy and which with St Peter’s?
  6. Do you know of any other religious leaders who exercise political power?
  7. Find out about the different types of Christianity and when the main divisions developed.