ST. PETER-IN-CHAINS TOUR - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


Michelangelo—the world’s greatest sculptor—died having failed to complete his greatest work, the tomb of Pope Julius II. Today, you can visit the powerful remains of that unfinished masterpiece, including the famous statue of Moses, housed in a historic church that also contains Peter’s chains.


Cost: Free.

Hours: Daily April-Sept 8:00-12:20 & 15:00-19:00, until 18:00 in winter.

Dress Code: Modest dress is required.

Getting There: The church is a 10-minute uphill walk north of the Colosseum. From the Colosseo Metro stop, take the escalator just inside the station exit (following S. Pietro in Vincoli signs). When you emerge, cross the pedestrian bridge and head straight up the Via della Polveriera. At the top, turn left to reach the church. There’s also a staircase 50 yards east of the station. For a shorter walk (but with steep steps), use the Cavour Metro stop; from that station, go downhill on Via Cavour a half-block, then climb the big pedestrian staircase called Via di San Francesco di Paola, which leads right to the church. If asking for directions, say “San Pietro in Vincoli” (sahn pee-AY-troh een VEEN-koh-lee). From the outside, St. Peter-in-Chains’ rounded arches and columns look more like a Renaissance loggia than a church.

Information: Tel. 06-9784-4950.

Length of This Tour: Allow 30 minutes.

Photography: Generally, photos without flash are allowed in Rome’s churches. Bring €1 coins to light Moses and the tomb.

Eating: See the recommended eateries for the Monti neighborhood listed on here, as well as those closer to the Colosseum on here.

The Tour Begins

✵ In the far-right corner of the church, you’ll find a wall full of marble statues. In the center sits...

Michelangelo’s Moses (1515)

Moses has just returned from meeting face-to-face with God. Now he senses trouble back home. Slowly he turns to see his followers worshipping a golden calf. As his anger builds, he glares at them. His physical strength is symbolic of his moral and spiritual fortitude as a leader of his people. His powerful left leg tucks under and tenses, as if he’s just about to spring up out of his chair and punish the naughty Children of Israel with the Ten Commandments under his arm. Enjoy the cascading beard, one of the greatest in art history.


And if he did stand up, this statue would be 13 feet tall, nearly the height of Michelangelo’s famous David. This Charlton Heston-with-horns is interesting in photographs...and awe-inspiring when confronted in person. His bare, muscular arms exude power. Michelangelo completed the statue after practicing for four years painting the seated prophets on the Sistine ceiling.

Like other Michelangelo statues, Moses is both at rest (seated) and in motion (his tensed leg, turning head, and nervous fingers). This restlessness may reflect Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonic belief that the soul is the claustrophobic prisoner of the body. Or it’s the statue itself fighting to emerge from the stone around it. A fanciful legend says that Michelangelo, frustrated at trying to bring God’s statue into existence, hit Moses with his hammer (causing the scar on Moses’ right knee), imploring, “Now, speak!”

The horns are the crowning touch. In medieval times, the Hebrew word for “rays of light” (halo) was mistranslated as “horns.” Michelangelo knew better but wanted to give the statue an air of terribilità, a kind of scary charisma possessed by Moses, Pope Julius II...and Michelangelo. This Moses radiates the smoldering terribilità of a borderline-abusive father.

The Tomb of Pope Julius II

Moses sits on the bottom level of a three-story marble wall filled with statues. This is a puny, cobbled-together version of what was to have been a grand tomb for Pope Julius II.

In 1505, Pope Julius II hired young Michelangelo to build his tomb, a huge monument to be placed in St. Peter’s Basilica. An excited Michelangelo sketched designs for a three-story wedding-cake mountain of marble studded with 48 statues and bronze reliefs, and topped with a huge statue of the egomaniacal pope. Moses was to have been placed on an upper level on the right-hand corner, looking away from the monument.


Michelangelo traveled to Carrara, selected 100 tons of marble for the project, and started working. Then Julius changed his mind. He ordered Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel instead. Michelangelo knocked it off in a mere four years so that he could return to his true masterwork. Michelangelo would spend 40 years of his life working in fits and starts on the tomb. But when Julius died (1513), the funding for the project petered out, and Michelangelo eventually moved on to other things. Julius was buried in a simple grave in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

The Tomb Today

In 1542, remnants of the tomb project were brought to the St. Peter-in-Chains church and pieced together by Michelangelo’s assistants. What we see today is a far cry from the original design, which was to have been fully three-dimensional and five times as big. Some of the best statues ended up elsewhere, such as the Prisoners in Florence and the Slaves in the Louvre. Though the assistants had Michelangelo’s original instruction manual, they were trying to assemble it with most of the parts missing.

Moses and the Louvre’s Slaves are the only statues Michelangelo personally completed for the project. Flanking Moses are the Old Testament sister-wives of Jacob, Leah (to our right) and Rachel, both begun by Michelangelo but probably finished by pupils. On the second story, a Madonna and Child stand above a reclining, thoughtful-looking Pope Julius II on a coffin.

The sheer variety of decoration we see here gives us a glimpse of the tomb’s original scope—nearly 50 statues laced together with Pompeii-esque garlands and proto-Baroque scrolls.

Michelangelo went to his grave thinking that he’d wasted the best years of his life on the tomb. Today, we can only reconstruct it in our minds, imagining a monument intended to exceed (according to Giorgio Vasari) “every ancient or imperial tomb ever made.”

The Church

Founded in 440, it’s one of Rome’s oldest, built to house Peter’s chains. Though the church was greatly changed in 1475, the 20 Doric columns flanking the wide nave are from the original church. The central ceiling painting (c. 1700) shows the chains—with their miraculous curative powers in action—healing someone possessed by demons, on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Sculpted skeletons and grim reapers adorn a number of the tombs lining the side naves. These memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) were popular in the 17th century and are graphic reminders of mortality, the fate that awaits rich and poor alike.


✵ On the altar is a gold-and-glass case, containing what tradition claims to be...

Peter’s Chains

There are actually two different sets of chains, linked together. One set is said to have held Peter when he and Paul were in the Mamertine Prison in Rome (near the Forum). The other dates from when Herod jailed Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 12; see the scene frescoed on the left wall of the apse). During the night, “Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with chains, while sentries were guarding the doors. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. The angel struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands.” The angel led Peter, who thought he was dreaming, out of the prison to safety. (Raphael’s depiction of this is in the Vatican Museums. A less-famous 1577 version by Jacopo Coppi is behind the altar, on the left wall.)


In the waning days of ancient Rome, the Jerusalem chains ended up here as a gift from the Eastern empress (as depicted in another Coppi fresco on the right wall of the apse).

According to tradition, when the Jerusalem chains arrived and were paired with the Mamertine chains, the two sets—chink!—joined together miraculously.