The visitor to St. Peter’s should not fail to ascend to the dome; a long journey, but involving no danger and not a great amount of fatigue. From the church to the roof the passage is by an inclined plane of pavement, with so gradual an ascent that loaded mules pass up without difficulty. In stepping out upon the roof, it is difficult to believe that we are more than one hundred and fifty feet from the ground, or that so extensive an architectural surface could have been reared in air by the patient labor of men’s hands. It rather seems as if a little village had been lifted up by some geological convulsion. Here are wide spaces to walk about in, houses for human habitation, a fountain playing, and all the signs of life. The views are everywhere fine, and one can fancy that the air is purer and the sky more blue than to those left below. The dome soars high above the eye, and a new sense of its magnitude seizes upon the mind. The two cupolas which flank the facade are upward of one hundred feet high, and the five smaller ones which crown the chapels are of great size; but here they seem like dwarfs clinging about a giant’s knee.
The dome of St. Peter’s, as is well known, is double; and between the outer and inner wall is a series of winding passages and staircases, by which the ascent is made to the top. The length of these passages and staircases, their number, and the time it takes to traverse them, are a new revelation of the size of this stupendous structure. We begin to comprehend the genius and courage which planned and executed a work so novel and so bold. From the galleries inside, the view of the interior below is most striking. It looks as the earth may look from a balloon. The men moving upon the pavement appear like that “small infantry warred on by cranes”; and even the baldccehino hardly swells beyond the dimensions of a candelabrum.
At the base of the ball, a railing, unseen from below, enables the visitor whose nerves are tolerably good to enjoy an extensive and beautiful prospect, embracing a region interesting not merely to the eye but to the mind : the cradle of that mighty Roman race which here began its ever-widening circle of conquest and annexation. It comprises the Campagna, the Tiber, the distant Mediterranean, the Apennines, the Alban and Sabine hills, and the isolated bulk of Soracte. From no point on earth can the eye rest upon so many spots on which the undying light of human interest lingers.
From this place the ascent is made to the interior of the ball itself, into which most travelers climb, probably more for the sake of saying that they have been there than anything else. Tho the ball looks like a mere point from below, it is nearly eight feet in diameter; and the interior will hold a dozen persons without inconvenience. Altho I visited it on a winter’s day, the atmosphere was extremely hot and uncomfortable, from the effect of the sun’s rays upon the gilded bronze. By means of an exterior ladder, it is possible to climb to the foot of the cross; a feat which few landsmen would have the nerve to undertake.