During the night of July 15th/16th, 1823, thanks to the carelessness of one of its workers, a fire broke out in the roof of San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls), which mostly destroyed the ancient basilica.
The rebuilding of St Paul's began immediately, first under the direction of the Roman architect Pasquale Belli (1752-1833) and then under Luigi Poletti (1792-1869), The new basilica was consecrated by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) on December 10th, 1854. However, work on the exterior continued well into the 20th century.
The bell tower, which many think looks more like a lighthouse, was designed by Luigi Poletti and completed in 1860. Four of its seven bells were rescued from the old basilica.
Poletti also designed the north portico, which incorporates twelve marble columns from the old basilica.
The mosaic that adorns the facade was created between 1854 and 1878. Designed by Filippo Agricola and Nicola Consoni, it is divided into three tiers. At the top Christ is flanked by St Peter and St Paul. In the middle the Agnus Dei is seated on the mount of paradise. The sheep to either side represent the twelve apostles. At the bottom stand four prophets: Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
The huge colonnaded courtyard, or quadriporticus, which is made up of 146 enormous monolithic granite columns, was built between 1892 and 1928. It was commissioned by Pope Leo XIII (r. 1876-1901) and the roof on three sides of the portico is decorated with the heads of lions.
In the centre of the courtyard stands a giant marble statue of St Paul, the work of the Giuseppe Obici (1807-78). The head of the saint also appears at the top of the capitals of the columns on the east side of the portico.
The pedestals in the four corners of the courtyard are empty apart from one. On it stands a marble statue of St Luke by Francesco Fabi-Altini (1830-1906). Why is Luke the only one of the four evangelists to be represented with Paul? One explanation is that in the second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11, KJV), Paul writes 'Luca est mecum solus' ('Only Luke is with me').
The monumental central door (7.48 m by 3.3 m), the work of the Roman sculptor Antonio Maraini (1886-1963), was added in 1931. It is made up of twelve bronze panels, overlaid with a cross of silver damascene. The panels depict salient events in the lives of St Peter and St Paul. The figure of Christ, executed in silver, is the focal point of the two panels that depict the Handing of the Keys to St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.
The door is flanked by marble statues of St Peter and St Paul by Gregorio Zappalà (1833-1908).
The Porta Santa (Holy Door), to the right, is a much less grandiose affair. Made of gilded bronze, the Porta Santa was created by Enrico Manfrini (1917-2004) for the Jubilee of 2000.
The four bronze panels of the Porta Paolina (Pauline Door) were installed in 2008 to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St Paul. The panels, which are the work of the Roman sculptor Guido Veroi (1926-2013), depict four scenes from the life of St Paul: Stoning of St Stephen, Road to Damascus, Meeting with St Peter & Martyrdom.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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