Lightning strikes St Peter's dome at the Vatican on February 11, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI announced today he will resign as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on February 28 because his age prevented him from carrying out his duties -- an unprecedented move in the modern history of the Catholic Church. (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
An apparent photo of a lightning bolt striking St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican Monday night -- the same day that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, stunning the world -- has gone viral.
Filippo Monteforte, a photographer with Agence France Press, told England's Daily Mirror that "I took the picture from St. Peter's Square while sheltered by the columns. It was icy cold and raining sheets. When the storm started, I thought that lightning might strike the rod, so I decided it was worth seeing whether - if it DID strike - I could get the shot at exactly the right moment."
Monteforte waited for more than two hours and was rewarded for his patience with not one but two bolts, the Mirror reported.
But could it be fake? One expert, AccuWeather meteorologist and lightning photographer Jesse Ferrell, thinks it's real. In addition to the account from Monteforte -- a trusted and well-known photographer -- Ferrell sees telltale signs of a genuine lightning strike.
"I believe the photo is plausible, and since it was taken by a professional, with potential video to back it up, I'd say that the photo is legitimate," Ferrell writes on his blog.
Also, he notes that thunderstorms were present in Rome Monday afternoon, according to several Facebook users.
What's a bit spooky, Ferrell says, is "that it doesn't appear from a Google Image Search that a similar image has ever been captured before...."
Lightning has a long, symbolic history in the Italian capital, even predating the Catholic Church: "In Rome, from before 300 B.C. to as late as the fourth century, A.D., the College of Augurs, composed of distinguished Roman citizens, was charged with the responsibility of determining the wishes of Jupiter relative to state affairs," writes engineer and lightning expert Martin A. Uman in his book Lightning Discharge.
"This was accomplished," Uman writes, "by making observations of three classes of objects in the sky: birds, meteors, and lightning. In the case of the latter, the observation was always made while looking south, and the location of the lightning relative to the direction of observation was taken as a sign of Jupiter's approval -- or disapproval."
On average, according to Uman in his book All About Lightning, there are about 8 million lightning strikes each day around the world.