Find in
Vatican City > Vatican City travel guide

Vatican City Travel Guide

Spiral staircase

Covering a total area of approximately 100 acres, Vatican City is by far the world's smallest independent sovereign entity. If size were the only measure of a nation's power or importance, the Vatican would demand even less heed than we pay to such countries as Djibouti or Nauru — perhaps a passing curiosity, nothing more. Yet the Vatican serves as an exception to the rule that postage-stamp sized nations are famous for little more than their postage stamps.

Steeped in an age-old tradition of political and spiritual might, for many centuries the unchallenged center of the Western world, the Vatican invites continued fascination. Its symbolic significance, both past and present, and its enduring international role, as both a religious and diplomatic force, have in many ways elevated this tiny city-state to a position of equality with nations many millions of times larger. No matter how secular our world has become, divine right of authority seems still to count and to make the Vatican much more than a geographic oddity, much more than the academic footnote it might otherwise be.

Church, museum, mausoleum, St. Peter's is all three. No other temple surpasses it in terms of historical significance or architectu­ral splendor. Some may feel that the immen­sity of the interior is more suited to moving commuters through a railway station than to inspiring the faithful to an act as intimate as prayer. The cathedral is, in fact, very much a place of worship, though there is no doubt its many architects and patrons intended it to astonish the faithful with the worldly power as much as the spiritual piety of the Catholic popes. A tour of the Vatican should be divided into two parts: first, the piazza and Church, then the museums.

Bernini's spectacular, colonnaded Piazza S. Pietro is, according to one's perspective, either the welcoming embrace or the grasping claws of the Mother Church. The Via della Conciliazone, put through in 1937 to com­memorate the reconciliation between Musso­lini and Pope Pius XI, changed the original impact of the space. Before this thoroughfare provided a monumental approach to St. Peter's, the pilgrim arrived by way of a series of smaller streets, winding through the old Borgo, to arrive, finally, in this enormous enclosed open space, with the biggest church in the world at one end, and an enormous, Egyptian obelisk in the center.

Just about every important Renaissance and Baroque architect from Bramante on had a hand in the design of St. Peter's. The idea for rebuilding the original 4th Century basilica was as old as the mid-5th Century, but not until Julius II became Pope did a complete reconstruction get under way. He hired Bramante, who over the years was suc­ceeded by Raphael, Baldassare Peruzzi, Michelangelo (usually credited with the dome), Giacomo della Porta and Bernini.

The hugeness of the interior is offset by its proportions: thus the cherubic putti are actually six feet tall, as are the mosaic letters of the frieze that runs around the church. Michelangelo's Pieta is located here as well. At the end of the nave is the bronze statue of St. Peter, its toe worn away by the kisses of generations of pilgrims.

Over the high altar, which is directly above the tomb of St. Peter, rises Bernini's garrish bronze Baldacchino, thought by many to look like the canopy of an imperial bed. Pope Urban VIIIth stripped the bronze for it from the portico of the Pantheon. But Bernini outdid himself in the design for the Cathedra Petri (chair of St. Peter), in the apse. Four gilt bronze figures of the church fathers hold up the chair. Above, light streams through the golden glass of a window crowned by a dove (symbol of the holy ghost).

The chair itself bears a relief of Christ's command to Peter to "feed his sheep."Thus the position of the Pope is explained and bolstered by Christ's words, and the teachings of the church fathers, and blessed by the Holy Ghost. Further confirmation of the Pope's sacred trust is inscribed in the dome. Christ's words contain the most important pun in Christendom: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven."

The Musei e Gallerie del Vaticano merit a lifetime of visits. But for those who have only a few hours, a few sights must not be missed. The Museo Pio-Clementino contains the Popes' collection of antiquities. Be sure to visit the Belvedere Courtyard, home of the celebrated and cerebral Apollo Belvedere and the contrastingly, writhing, muscle-bound sensual Laocoon.

The Vatican Pinacoteca contains superb paintings in­cluding Raphael's Madonna ofFoligno and Transfiguration. There are also entire rooms painted by the masters. The Stanze di Raffaello, commissioned by Julius II. comprise three rooms painted by Raphael: Stanza dell' Incendio di Borgo; Stanza della Segnatura; Stanza di Eliodoro. Downstairs, delicate and colorful frescoes by Pinturric-chio decorate the Appartamento Borgia. But the triumph of fresco painting, not only of the Vatican Palace but of the entire world, is the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel). On the walls are paintings by Botticelli Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio; on the ceiling and behind the altar, of course, by Michelangelo.

No repro­duction can ever do justice to the interplay of painting and architecture, to the drama of the whole chapel, alive with color and human emotion. "All the world hastened to behold this marvel and was overwhelmed, speechless with astonishment," Vasari wrote. The aston­ishment is no less today than it was in the Renaissance, and now the panels are slowly being cleaned, revealing once more their bright colors.

The Area of Vatican City
The Vatican City area enjoys a unique history dating even from pre-Christian times. In imperial Roman days, the lower part of what is now Vatican City was an unhealthy bog, famous among caesars and consuls for its vinegary wine and as a good place to catch a nasty fever or an oversized snake. In the 1st Century AD, the dowager empress Agrippina ordered the Vatican valley drained of its marshes, to be etched instead with tranquil imperial gardens. The notorious emperors Caligula and Nero conceived a less quiet use for this area; under their reigns the raucous spectacle of the circus, Roman style, became a regular event at the spot where now stands St. Peter's Piazza. Chariot racing and executions — including that of St. Peter himself — were the norm where today God's representative on earth performs a weekly mass.

The Lateran Treaty of 1929, concluded between Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini, established the present territorial limits of the Vatican. The city is roughly trapezoidal in shape, bounded by medieval walls on all sides except on the corner, where the opening of St. Peter's Piazza marks the border with Rome and the rest of Italy. Roughly even areas of flat pavement, buildings and, to the northwest, sloping hills and gardens make up the topography of the tiny nation.

Of the six openings to the Vatican, only three are for public use: the Piazza, the Arco delle Campane (south of St. Peter's Basilica), and the entrance to the Vatican Museums. Pius XI had a special Vatican Railway station built in the early 1930s, a facility through which no paying passenger has ever travelled and of which even popes have availed themselves infrequently. A heliport has been laid down on a spot where British diplomats, restricted to the confines of the city, whiled the days away during World War Two.

Aside from an impressive array of palaces and office buildings, there is also a Vatican prison, a supermarket, and the printing press which churns out the daily L'Osservatore Romano and is capable of handling linguistic scripts ranging from Coptic to Ecclesiastical Georgian to Tamil. In short, the Vatican is much more than an oversized museum.

Subjects of the Holy See
As with other states, the Vatican has those it protects as citizens. Anyone wishing to immigrate, however, had better not hold his breath, for to hold a Vatican passport is to be a member of one of the world's more exclusive clubs. About 400 individuals enjoy Vatican citizenship, all of whom either live or work permanently in the city or are abroad on diplomatic mission for the Catholic Church. The privilege hinges on a continuous direct relationship with the Holy See. When ties are severed, the privilege is lost.

There is one person for whom severance ordinarily comes only with death. He carries passport no. 1 (although he is unlikely ever to have to use it); he rules absolutely over Vatican City and he holds ultimate authority within the Catholic Church. He is, of course, the Pope himself. Within the Vatican and Catholic hierarchies, his power is unchallenged. A glance at his official titles, as listed in the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican directory, sheds any doubt of this supremacy: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metro­politan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.

His role is perhaps best characterized by the root of the word "Pope" itself. In Greek "pappas" meant simply "father"—in this case the spiritual father of all mankind. And although the papacy's claim to universality has undoubtedly eroded in the two millennia since St. Peter assumed the mantle as a heavenly representative on earth, the Pope's image remains decidedly paternal, ordinarily demonstrated by a benevolent concern for the advancement of humanity, occasionally by more stern warnings against theological or spiritual deviation. John Paul II, elected in 1978, the year of three popes, has done much to restore this sense of papal prestige and energy. The path of 262 predecessors has not always been so virtuous. In briefly considering the history of the

papacy, it is important to remember that the papacy's powers and significance were for many centuries more temporal than spiritual. The pope until modern times was a mighty piece on the chessboard of European politics; and just as there have been good and bad kings, there have been good and bad popes. Such immensely centralized authority cannot consistently elude the grasp of ill-motivated men. With that in mind, some facts: the shortest reign of a pope was that of Stephen II, who died four days after his election in March 752.

At the other extreme, the 19th Century's Pius IX, famous for his practical jokes and his love of billiards (he had a table installed at the Vatican Palace), headed up the Holy See for 32 years. The youngest pope on record, John XI, was a wise 16 when he took the helm in 931; the oldest, Gregory IX, managed to survive 14 years past his election in 1227 at the age of eighty-six. While the great majority have been of either Roman or Italian extraction, Spain, Greece, Syria, France and Germany have all been represented in the seat of St. Peter; there was at least one of African birth (Miltiades, 311-314), one hailing from England (Hadrian IV, 1154-1159).

John Paul II is himself the first Pole to lead the Catholic Church. At least 14 popes abdicated or were deposed from office (Benedict IX in the 11th Century was elected and then deposed three times). Some 10 have had their reigns end in violent death, including a record three in a row in the grizzly days of the early 10th Century. Popes have been arrested, imprisoned, and otherwise humiliated by various disrespectful lay leaders, and many have never ruled from Rome at all.

Some 80 popes have been canonized by the church, most recently Pius X (1903-1914). Many others are unlikely ever to climb out of the inferno. The decidedly unchristian Stephan VII (896-897) exhumed the body of his predecessor, Formosus (891-896), re­dressed it in papal vestments, and put it on trial on charges of usurping the throne and of being guilty of ambition, among other offenses. In what has become known as the Synod of the Corpse, Formosus was predictably convicted on all counts, his body stripped, dismembered, and thrown into the waters of the Tiber. The prosecutor got his just deserve, however, as a Roman mob rose up and strangled Stephan.

Perhaps more notorious, if less gruesome, is the case of Alexander VI (1492-1503), the famed Borgia pope. Even before the Spaniard won election to the throne, gained by means of powerful family connections, Alexander had developed a rather unsavory reputation as a womanizer and profligate. He flaunted a dalliance with the lovely Vanozza de' Cataneis. A party he hosted in 1460 in Siena provoked an angry rebuke from Pius II: "We leave it to you to judge if it is becoming in one of your position to toy with girls, to pelt them with fruits ... and, neglecting study, to spend the whole day in every kind of pleasure."

Alexander improved little during his tenure as Holy Primate, casting papal favors in the direction of his mistresses and ten illegitimate children. One son, Cesare Borgia, was made a cardinal even though he had never been ordained. Other progeny openly fiddled in the mire of Italian court escapades. The family's only saving grace, in fact, seems to have been one of Alexander's great-grandsons, Fran­cisco, who became head of the Jesuit order and went on to an honor his ancestor would never have — sainthood.

For all the high primates remembered for unseemly deeds, there are, of course, many more of undoubted virtue. St. Peter himself, crucified upside down by the Emperor Nero in AD 64, was only the first in a long line of those reigns characterized by distinguished leader­ship. Take, for instance, St. Gregory the Great (590-604), who emptied the Vatican treasuries to feed thousands of starving refugees from the Lombard wars. Or St. Leo IX (1049-1055), who brought the church out of a steep decline by cleaning up rampant corruption, including the common practice of trading in holy offices, among the clerical ranks. Or the more recent example of John XXIII (1958-1963), who transformed the papacy into a more caring and humane institution through the simple gift of a warm personality. "We are not on earth to guard a museum," he once said of the Church, "but to cultivate a garden."

Pope John also throttled the Vatican's tendency towards pomposity: where the L'Osservatore Romano used to write, "Following is the allocution by his Holiness as we have gathered his words from his lips," John ordered a simple "the Pope said.” John Paul II, an eminently pastoral pope who has successfully availed himself of advances in communications, will one day join those leaders who have done credit to the Church and to humanity.

Picking the Pontiff

The process of electing a new pope is as fascinating as it is unusual. The papacy is the world's only elective monarchy. The Sacred College of Cardinals, a largely titular body of 120 bishops and archbishops appointed by the pope, assumes full responsibility for the selection, convening for a conclave from points the world over soon after death tolls in the Vatican Palace. The electors are sealed into the Sistine Chapel — sorry, no cameras or tape recorders allowed — and are not permitted to leave until their task is done and a new successor to St. Peter has been chosen. Voting can proceed by any of three methods: by acclamation, whereby divine inspiration provokes the cardinals all to shout the same name at the same time; by scrutiny, in which four ballots are cast daily until one candidate has captured a two-thirds majority plus one; or, at last resort, by compromise, entrusting a small group of perhaps two dozen to hammer out a resolution.

All modern popes have been selected by the second method. Although most conclaves have seen to their duty with relative dispatch (John Paul II prevailed after two days; his predecessor, the short-lived John Paul I, after only one), outside authorities have occasion­ally hurried the cardinals along with little incentives. After the death of Innocent III (1216), local magnate Matteo Rosso Orsini forced the electors to enjoy the company of the dead pope's corpse. Gregory X (1271-1276) ordained that cardinals should be reduced after five days to a diet of bread and water.

Paper ballots are burned after each tally, and onlookers eagerly await the smoking puffs from the chapel's small chimney, for this provides the outside world with the only clue as to how the election is progressing. With every inconclusive vote, the smoke remains dark; white plumes denote a winner. (Electors are provided with special chemicals labelled bianco and nero to render the signal more clear.) The cardinal dean announces to the faithful, "Habemus Papam," and the newly chosen soon after appears in one of three robes (sized small, medium and large) kept on hand for the occasion. The coronation takes place on the following day in St. Peter's Basilica.

Although popes have absolute legislative, executive, judicial and doctrinal authority over both Vatican City and the church as a whole (they were declared infallible in matters relating to faith by the First Vatican Council in 1870), the immensity of their responsibilities obviously necessitates substantial assistance.

Governance of the Vatican itself is handled by the Pontifical Commission for the state of Vatican City, which consists of seven cardi­nals, and a lay official, who directs the city-state's administrative affairs. But it is the task of shepherding the spiritual department of more than 800 million Catholics worldwide, and of managing a global religious bureau­cracy composed of 4,000 bishops, 400,000 pri­ests, and at least 1 million nuns, that occupies the great majority of those who work within the Vatican walls. This highly organized body of institutional supervisors, known collectively as the Roman Curia, directs everything from the Church's diplomatic and missionary affairs to the interpretation of Catholic marriage law.

Of the 4,000 or so employed in Vatican City, most operate within the Curia. This Vatican civil service was once considered plump with sinecures. As one story goes, an eminent Ital­ian visited Pius IX to speak of concern for his maturing son. "Holiness,” the suppliant began, "he is now grown up, he doesn't want to work, he spends his whole time idling and he wastes time with horses and carriages." The Pope serenely replied "We have understood. You consider him suitable for employment in Our service." Although this traditional bureau­cratic flab has been markedly pared in recent times, the tightening could go further still. The position of Secretary of Briefs to Princes and of Italian Letters, for instance, is responsible primarily for adapting the dead language of Rome for such new words as "telephone" and "airport." A standard lampoon of the govern­ment's extravagance has it that the city's "SCV" license plates stand not for "Stato della Citta del Vaticano" but rather for "Se Cristo Vedesse" ("if Christ could see").

While chipping away at waste, the Curia has also largely turned from elevating lay officials within its ranks. As late as 1860, the Vatican and Church governments employed almost 200 laymen for every priest; today, the propor­tion is reversed. Most prominent among the remaining non-initiates are the Swiss Guards, who are exclusively charged with protecting the Holy See. This corps of 120 men, all Catholic, all Swiss, all brightly garbed in blue, red and yellow uniforms allegedly designed by Michelangelo himself, may seem no more than an ornamental regiment destined only to lure the shutter of many a tourist's camera. In fact, the Guards have a history of very real military bravery dating back to the early 16th Century, and today perform a function for the pope much like that which the United States Secret Service performs for American presidents.

More than just a masterpiece
And so the Vatican is distinguished by much more than the artistic masterpieces it is so for­tunate to shelter. Blessing the Catholic Church with an independent sovereignty upon which to stand, it assures that institution a unique and enduring position among the world's many religions. Blessing the papacy with all the privileges that come with the leadership of a state, it assures the continued respect and deference of other national leaders before the person of the pope. His powers and those of the church would undoubtedly survive without the advantage of Vatican City. Backed by the tradition of the ages, however, the foothold will not likely be lost, and perhaps it is best that a body of the spirit maintains this small perch against the onslaught of governments answer­ing to less thoughtful authorities.

More Travel Guides

> Countries in Europe






Article Contributors
Anonymous user updated 10 years ago

Some rights reserved ©.
The travel guide article on this page is subject to copyright restrictions.

Forgot your password?

member image
United States