I’ve just finished Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s
by R. A. Scotti. http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Basilica/R-A-Scotti/e/9780452288607/?itm=1&USRI=basilica
I listened to it as an audio book: http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B002V8HEHG&qid=1291484581&sr=1-1
It took 120 years to build (April 18, 1506 - November 18, 1626), and in hearing its story one also gets a taste of Church history during that time. The design and construction of the basilica did indeed involve both splendor and scandal.
Engineering and construction are not my trades, but I’ve been involved with some modest commercial and academic construction projects, and it is absolutely amazing to read of something of this magnitude being built without the engineering skills and construction technology we employee today, and there were indeed mishaps. The obelisk, in the center of the plaza, predated the construction of the new basilica (it replaced the original basilica constructed by Charlemagne), and was moved to its present location, the story of which defies imagination. It’s not completely centered, but they decided not to move it again.
One of the more interesting tidbits from the book: Michelangelo was a sculpture by training and inclination, not a painter, and he was considered a bit of a young upstart (but not as pretentious as Rafael). A rival architect / artesian (I don’t remember who now) schemed to have Pope Julius II order Michelangelo to paint a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, assuming he would “flub” the job, be discredited, and banished from the project. Michelangelo was not pleased with this and not only painted the fresco he was assigned, but proceeded on to paint the whole ceiling, which took from 1508 – 1512. The rest of that story is now history.
A good summary of the basilica’s story is at Wikipedia:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter's_Basilica