Cleaning St. Peter’s Basilica
Have you ever wondered what it takes to maintain the sparkle of the world’s largest Basilica? The behind-the-scenes cleaning and maintenance of the Basilica of St. Peter’s take place daily thanks to the large team of specialized staff (including electricians and other tradesmen) known as Sampietrini, or as I like to call them – the building blocks of St. Peter’s, since their Italian name also translates to the word ‘cobblestones’. You’ll hardly even notice their presence when you’re inside the Basilica, but if you do make eye contact give them a smile because the sparkle and shine is due to their hard work.
Their morning (every day) goes a little like this:
6-7 AM: At 6.00 a worker comes out of the Basilica to clean the portico or atrium, the space between the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square, ready for the deluge of tourists and pilgrims that are about to descend. All the Basilica doors are unlocked keyhole by keyhole – nothing electronic here!
7-11 AM: The Sampietrini commence cleaning with specialized ride-on equipment for the majority of the marble floor covering the Basilica, and then they finish every nook and cranny by hand. It’s a labor of love! At 7.00 when the Basilica opens to the public, you’ll find Mass being offered at nearly every Altar and Chapel. This is in addition to the regular Mass hours of 8.30, 9.00, 10.00, 11.00, 12.00 and 17.00.
Some other facts you might not know:
Every day someone washes the 551 steps leading up to the Cupola (Dome) of St. Peter’s. It’s best to make this climb at 8:00 when the Dome line opens (on the right of the portico) and take advantage of the coffee bar on the roof of St. Peter’s. Not to mention it’s cool and quiet all year round at this time of day. Dome opening hours: 8.00 to 18.00, April to September and from 8.00 to 17.00, October to March.
Every day someone cleans down underneath the floor of the Basilica where you can visit many of the Papal tombs. The Vatican Grottoes are officially open every day from 7.00 to 18.00, April to September and from 7.00 to 17.00, October to March. The entrance is at the transept of St. Peter’s Basilica. However, be aware that you may be stopped temporarily from visiting if Mass is being celebrated below. Last time I went, it was open after 9.30.
Every day the Holy Water in the fonts is changed and they are cleaned out. The water is then replaced by Holy Water from the large font in the Sacristy.
Bernini’s famous Baldicchino receives a dust-off thrice yearly in preparation for Christmas and Easter celebrations, and for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29 (Patron Saints of Rome). Years ago this process used to take a week. Now it is completed almost within the day, one of the San Pietrini revealed to me. He said, “It leaves a strong chemical smell afterwards but it’s worth it to see Bernini’s masterpiece sparkle again.”
Similarly, the Chair of St. Peter at the apse of the basilica (also by Bernini - and set above the altar on January 17, 1666) is cleaned from top to bottom to celebrate these key Church feasts. As you can see in the pictures above, one of the alabaster windows (which show the Holy Spirit as a dove) has been opened to allow for cleaning.
The Sampietrini do much more than clean and maintain the basilica. Each Christmas they build the Nativity Scene which becomes more complex with more moving parts each year as they try to outdo their past efforts. It will open on Christmas Eve and remain open for the public until early February. I hope you have a chance to enjoy the details (which I’ll post here in the New Year), right down to the falling snow!
Opening hours of St. Peter’s Basilica are: 7.00 to 19.00, April to September and from 7.00 to 18.00, October to March.