History of Vatican City Rome Italy

Officially known as the State of Vatican City - Stato della Citta del Vaticano - this is the smallest independent country in the world.

It is all that remains of the once expansive Papal States. It serves as the spiritual and government centre of the Roman Catholic Church.

Its ruler is the pope. Entirely surrounded by Rome, it is foreign soil to Italian citizens, as it has been an independent country since 1929.

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The Papal States - The Coming About of Vatican City

During the Middle Ages, popes were not only spiritual leaders but also temporal, therefore they engaged in wars and trade. This dominion was named "the Papal States".

The Political power of the Pope began to wane in the 1820s. It resulted in the unification of the Italian peninsula under Victor Emmanuel II. Later, in 1871, after a series of political defeats, Pope Pius IX lost his power over the Papal States all together. Angered, he retreated into the Vatican and refused to deal with the Italian government. Finally, in 1929, at the behest of Mussolini, the treaty of the Lateran was signed. In this the Pope gave up all claim to the states and Italy agreed to the establishment of the independent State of Vatican City.

Picture of St Peters from inside the Vatican

Vatican Buildings

The immense building that is called St Peter's Basilica, with its giant dome, dominates the entire city. The principal building is the Vatican Palace, which is a group of connected buildings with well over 1,000 rooms. The pope's apartment occupies one part of the palace. The remainder is devoted largely to the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Archive, and the Vatican Library.

Other buildings belonging to Vatican City are located outside the city walls. These include the basilica of St John Lateran, the Pope's summer villa and the Vatican observatory at Castel Gandolfo.

Vatican Museums Archive and Library

The museums contain some great works of art, such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon. The works of such master artists as Fra Angelico, Pinturiccio, Raphael, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci decorates the many rooms and chapels within the museums. The archive contains important religious and historical documents. Some of the documents include the original report on the trial of Galileo (1633) and the concordat of Napoleon (1801). The Library has one of the world's largest and most valuable collections of early manuscripts and books.

Picture of St Peters and the city of Rome from one of the hills

An Independent City / Country

Like other countries, the Vatican City issues its own postage stamps, coins, and license plates. The Pope's yellow-and-white banner is the official state flag of Vatican City. The Vatican maintains its own mail system, telephone and telegraph systems, water supply, lighting and street-cleaning services. It also has its own bank, a large printing plant, and a rarely occupied jail.

Swiss Guards

Unlike other countries, the Vatican City has no army or navy, but there is a military corps known as the Swiss Guard. The Swiss Guards are the personal guard of the Pope and his residences. They first appeared in 1506. Any entrant to its ranks must be Swiss, Catholic and swear an oath of loyalty to the Pope.


The hill on which the Vatican lies was where the emperor Nero had his public gardens and circus. It is said he used it as the place to execute Christians, including crucifying St Peter. A shrine was built there to mark the site of St Peter's tomb soon after his burial in A.D. 64.

Picture of St Peters from the River Tiber

St Peter's Basilica

In the A.D. 349, the first St Peter's Basilica was completed. The first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, initiated the project. he build the basilica believing this to be the place of St Peter's tomb, which it is not. Unfortunately the building was deteriorating. Attempts were made to restore it in the middle of the 15th century, under Pope Nicolas V. The Vatican Palace and other structures were gradually added around the basilica.

Michelangelo: A New Basilica and the Sistine Chapel

In 1506, Pope Julius II tore down the shrine and church to build a new basilica. Its' construction would take over 120 years. Michelangelo was one of the architects to work on it. He was personally commissioned to paint frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is where you can see his work the Creation (1512) and the Last Judgment (1541), which is behind the altar. He designed the dome but died in 1564, two years before its' completion. The "New" St Peter's Basilica was dedicated in 1626.

Other Interesting Facts about St Peter's

  • St. Peter's is one of the largest Christian churches in the world.
  • It is not a cathedral. The Pope is the bishop of Rome, and his cathedral church is St. John Lateran.
  • The nave is 218 metres long and the dome is 42 metres in diameter and 138 metres high (over 450 feet).

Works of Art in The Vatican Include

  • Michelangelo's Pieta; meaning the dead Christ in the lap of the mourning Virgin Mary
  • Bernini's Throne of St. Peter
  • Canova's Monument to the Stuart's

Traveller's Tips

  • Book your tickets in advance. The cues to get into the Sistine Chapel, especially during religious festivals, are enormous.
  • Be careful with your belongings. Although this place is a holy place to Christians, pickpockets also frequent the area.
  • Take your time. 2 days is reasonable amount of time to spend here. Make sure you see stuff, don't just pass things by.
  • Go to the top of the dome via the long spiral staircase, Here you get beautiful views of Rome.

For the official site of The Vatican click here

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