Liepa Valiulytė

Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli: Everything You Need to Know

Discover the artistic and architectural marvels of Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli, home to Michelangelo's Moses.

Michelangelo's Moses statue in San Pietro in Vincoli


Did you know that there is a church in Rome that houses the chains that bound Saint Peter in Jerusalem and a masterpiece by Michelangelo? If you are curious to discover this hidden gem, follow me to Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli, a square that is home to the Basilica of the same name. Here, you will learn about the origins, historical significance, lesser-known stories, intriguing facts, and dark histories of this fascinating place.

Historical Context

The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) was built in the fifth century by Licinia Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Valentinian III and the daughter of Theodosius II, the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. She received the chains that had kept Saint Peter captive in Jerusalem from her mother, Elia Eudocia, who had obtained them from Juvenal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. She decided to donate them to Pope Leo I, who already had the ones used to imprison Saint Peter in Rome's Mamertine Prison. When the two chains were brought together, they miraculously fused into one. The church was erected to commemorate this miracle and to preserve this precious relic. The basilica owes its name to the chains, which in Latin are called vincula.[1](

The church underwent several restorations over the centuries, especially in the 16th century under Pope Julius II, who commissioned a new facade and a portico. The basilica also became famous for hosting one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art: Michelangelo's Moses, a colossal statue sculpted between 1513 and 1515 to adorn the tomb of Julius II. The pope had originally planned a grandiose mausoleum for himself, but he abandoned the project to focus on rebuilding Saint Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo was disappointed and called it "the tragedy of the tomb". He finished the sculpture after the pope's death, but Julius II was buried in Saint Peter's Basilica instead. The tomb of San Pietro in Vincoli is therefore empty. The statue depicts Moses sitting with the Tablets of the Law that he received from God on Mount Sinai. The moment captured by Michelangelo is when Moses returns and finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, a pagan idol. Moses is so angry that he seems ready to rise and destroy everything. Michelangelo masterfully portrays the terrible wrath of the prophet, carving realistic veins that seem to pulse, tense muscles, and a solemn and furious face. A curiosity: the horns on Moses' head are due to a mistranslation of the Book of Exodus, which says that Moses had two rays on his forehead when he descended from Sinai. In Hebrew, rays are karan or karnaim, while horns are keren.[2](

Among the other attractions of the church are the frescoes on the left side altars, which depict skeletons and other macabre images that are not very common in Catholic churches. These are part of a cycle of paintings dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who was swallowed by a dragon and then escaped from its belly thanks to a cross she carried with her. The frescoes illustrate her life, miracles, martyrdom, and cult.[3](


The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) is a church that dates back to the fifth century, built to house the chains that bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. The church has a 16th-century facade and a porch, but its interior is simple and austere, reflecting its ancient origins. The church is also known as the Eudoxian Basilica, after Licinia Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Valentinian III and the daughter of Emperor Theodosius II, who donated the chains to Pope Leo I .

The most impressive feature of the church is the mausoleum of Pope Julius II, which contains one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art: Michelangelo's Moses. The statue was sculpted between 1505 and 1515 as part of a grandiose project for the pope's tomb, but was never completed. The Moses depicts the prophet holding the Tables of the Law, with a furious expression on his face after seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. The statue is remarkable for its realism, dynamism, and expressive power. A curiosity: the horns on Moses' head are due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for rays .

Iconic Buildings

Besides the basilica itself, there are other notable buildings in or around Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli. One of them is the Palazzo del Collegio Romano, which was built in the 16th century as a Jesuit college and later became the headquarters of the Ministry of Education. The palace has a Renaissance facade and a Baroque courtyard, decorated with statues and fountains . Another building is the Palazzo delle Scuole Pie, which was also a Jesuit school until 1870, when it was confiscated by the Italian state. The palace has a neoclassical facade and a monumental staircase . Finally, there is the Torre dei Margani, a medieval tower that belonged to a noble family and was later incorporated into a convent. The tower has a square base and four cylindrical turrets at the corners .

Tips and Recommendations

If you want to visit the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, here are some tips and recommendations:


The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is a fascinating place to visit in Rome, not only for its religious significance, but also for its artistic value. The church preserves one of the most famous sculptures by Michelangelo, as well as other works of art and architecture from different periods. The church also offers a glimpse into the history of Rome, from the ancient times to the modern era. If you are looking for a unique and memorable experience in Rome, don't miss this church!