Vatican (67)

In the heart of Rome, by the river Tiber, is the smallest, most powerful country in the world: the State of the Vatican City.

It was Caligula who built a circus on the site where Peter was to be martyred and where, around the year 320, Constantine established the basilica. 

Popes have lived in the Vatican since the fourteenth century, when they returned from exile in Avignon, although it was not until the mid-fifteenth century that great works turned the Vatican into the striking place it is now. It was at that time that Nicolas V embellished and enlarged the monuments there. Later, Sixtus IV founded the Apostolic Library and the famous Sistine Chapel. Alexander VI added the Borgia Tower and Julius II reconstructed and created the new Basilica of Saint Peter. This reconstruction was commissioned to Bramante, who designed the magnificent Belvedere courtyard and the three-floor galleries. 

It was not until the seventeenth century, however, that the basilica and the papal residence was completed. In this century, Sixtus V commissioned Domenico Fontana to finish the dome and to place the great obelisk in the centre of Saint Peter’s Square. 

Today, much of the Vatican is occupied by the Vatican Museums, which are home to some of the most significant works from the history of art. 

On the exterior is the ward of Borgo, which joins the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo. This district was partially destroyed when in 1930 Mussolini granted Pope Pius XI permission to join the two buildings. This was how the broad Via della Conciliazione was created. 

You will also see that the Vatican zone is surrounded by a large wall. This was built at the time of Leo IV, after the Arabs had plundered the Basilica in 846.

Although Rome was chosen as the See of the Catholic Church almost two thousand years ago and the Basilica of Saint Peter was built three centuries ago, the State of the Vatican was established less than 80 years ago. You will certainly be aware that The Vatican is an independent state. However, it was not so until 11 February 1929, the date upon which it came into existence by virtue of the Letran Treaty or Treaties. Signed by Benito Mussolini on behalf of Italy and by Cardinal Pietro Gasbarri, secretary of state of Pope Pius XI.

This agreement resolved the differences between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, and saw the establishment of the sovereign, independent State of the Vatican City.

It is, in fact, the world’s smallest state, with an area of 44 hectares and few more than 500 inhabitants. It has its own currency (the Vatican euro) and its own flag, which comprises two vertical stripes, one yellow and the other white, upon which the two keys of Saint Peter and the symbol of the Pope’s office are featured.

The Vatican has almost everything: a power station, a heliport, a health and postal service, a laundry, a tailor’s shop, a chemist’s, a newsagent’s, its own television channel, its own legal system, a railway station, a petrol station, a police station, and even its own newspaper (the influential “Osservatore Romeno”). It also broadcasts the famous Vatican Radio in 35 languages. It has shops of all kinds but, curiously, there is no baker’s. Bread is delivered every day from Rome.

You will also have noticed the colourful guards at the entrance. These are members of the Swiss Guard, which was established in 1505 in response to the need for a military corps that was always available to protect the Pope. It comprises a hundred soldiers who are subject to very hard tests to show that they can perform this job. They must be Swiss males of 19 to 30 years old, Catholics, measure over 174 cm in height, and have completed basic instruction in the Swiss army. They are not only trained in procedures and handling modern weapons, but are also taught, for example, swordsmanship.

This great yet tiny state is open to visitors, 10 million of whom visit annually, 365 days per year.

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