The Vatican State - in a Nutshell

Facts and Factoids

  • Vatican City is, uniquely, a city-state and enclave, totally surrounded by Rome. (The border is two miles long.)
  • This microstate is the smallest country in the world.
  • It is ruled by the Pope, as absolute monarch, with the assistance of other high ranking Catholic clergy.
  • Vatican City consists mainly of offices, residences and St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. These feature some of the world's most famous paintings and sculptures.
  • The economy of Vatican City is supported entirely by donations from the faithful, by the sale of publications, postage stamps and souvenirs and museum ticket sales. There are no taxes.

A Brief History of Vatican City

  • If you've watched TV and films (everything from The Borgias to The Two Popes), you'll know that the history of the papacy has been colourful and fascinating.
  • The Vatican City evolved on the site of Ancient Rome's Nero's Circus. Saint Peter was said to be crucified upside down here. Constantine built a basilica on the spot.
  • There are numerous list of popes, spiritual Christian leaders, with Peter generally said to be the first. But it is thought that there was probably no single 'monarchical' bishop in Rome before the middle of the second century at the earliest. As their powers grew, so their lands extended and the Papal States covered a large portion of the Italian peninsula, for more than a thousand years until the mid-19th century, when all the territory belonging to the papacy was seized, by the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
  • After the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377) the popes have mainly resided at the Apostolic Palace, within what is now Vatican City, although at times residing instead, in the Quirinal Palace in Rome, or elsewhere.
  • The Vatican has only been independent from Italy since 1929.
  • The popes and the Apostolic Palace are protected by the Pontifical Swiss Guard in their distinctive striped uniforms. The guard is one of the oldest military units in continuous operation. It was established in 1506, by Pope Julius II.

The Holy See

The Vatican State should not be confused with the Holy See (I'm told). This is the jurisdiction of the Pope, in his role as the Bishop of Rome. It includes the apostolic episcopal see of the Diocese of Rome, which has universal ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Catholic Church, as well as the sovereign city-state known as Vatican City. According to Catholic tradition it was founded in the first century by Saints Peter and Paul. The Holy See has permanent observer status at the United Nations - it has never applied for membership.

Visiting the Vatican

  • Visiting the Vatican when you're in Rome is a daunting affair. The crowds are huge, and the queues lengthy. To be frank it’s a scrum. It can take an age to get into the basilica. And if you want to see the Pope declaiming the Angelus prayer from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at noon on a Sunday, you need to bag your place early.
  • Finding the museums and the Sistine Chapel isn’t easy either. The chapel isn’t well signposted, it isn’t open on most Sundays and they shut the doors well before closing time. Other museums and buildings seem to be closed on an arbitrary basis.
  • Assuming you can actually get in and get a clear view of the paintings and sculptures, without getting shoulder barged, they are, of course, sublime. If you survive yet another queue, and paying another admission charge, the view from the top of the basilica is wonderful - a panorama of the square and the city behind.

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