Vatican City

We are in the world’s smallest country, the world’s largest church and the superpower of the Catholic Church.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatican City has been an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome for not quite 100 years. In February 1929 Benito Mussolini, on behalf of the Italian King, signed the Lateran Treaty with a Cardinal Secretary of State, on behalf of the Pope, officially creating the tiny independent state of Vatican City and ending a 60-year stalemate where Pope’s had refused to leave the Vatican or acknowledge the authority of the Kingdom of Italy. This teensy country is only 110 acres or 44 hectares, has a current population of a mere 1,000 people and is the only existing example of a country within a city.

Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy with the Pope at its head and he delegates executive authority to the President of the government, to govern Vatican City. Like most other countries, the Vatican mints its own euros, prints its own stamps, issues passports and license plates, operates media outlets and has its own flag and anthem.

The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope.  There have been a total of 266 Popes beginning with the Apostle, Saint Peter and including the current Pope, Frances I. 196 Pope’s have been elected from Italy, 15 from France, 11 from Greece, 5 each from Germany + Syria, 3 each from Africa + Spain, 2 each from Portugal + West Bank and 1 from Croatia, Israel, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom and Pope Francis I is from Argentina.

Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano

Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican or simply St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world. Not only is it one of the most famous churches, it is also believed to have been built upon the burial site of Christ’s Apostle, Saint Peter.

After St. Peter’s death a shrine at his grave was built to honor him. In 318 a Church was built on the site and it stood until the beginning of the 16th century. By 1505 the old church was torn down and building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica began the following year.  It would take 120 years to complete the project and an incredible 21 different Pope’s would reign before the new St. Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626.

We learned that the tall obelisk that is in front to the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square was originally taken from Egypt by Caligula’s forces. The obelisk is made of a single piece of red granite weighing more than 350 tons, and had been erected in the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis for a pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago. The obelisk also acts as a giant sundial in the St. Peter’s Square.

St. Peter’s Basilica has design elements from a number of earlier prominent architects but when Michelangelo was convinced to take on the project, he was given unconditional artistic freedom. His contributions are the most prominent, making him the primary designer and it was only his plans that were continued without significant changes after his death. The dome, for example, Michelangelo’s legacy, was completed after his death and remains the tallest of its kind in the world today.

Michelangelo’s extensive work for the Vatican on both the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgement, above the altar, years prior to being asked to work on the St Peter’s Basilica, highly commended and prepared him to design and create one of the most celebrated Renaissance churches in the world. This comment was found in one of Michelangelo’s notebooks: “I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle.”

The inside of St. Peter’s Basilica has more than 100 papal tombs and dozens and dozens of statues of former Pope’s. St. Peter’s Basilica honors and pays tribute to the contributions and history of many of the previous 265 Catholic Pope’s. The Bishops of Rome, the Pope’s, are considered to be the successors of St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome.

One other church we visited in Rome, the “Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls”, highlights some papal history as well. Up along the very top of each wall in the resplendent St. Paul’s Basilica is a painting of every Pope. A spotlight cheerfully lights up the painting of the current Pope Francis I.

Mosaics adorn more than 100,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) in St. Peter’s Basilica. They completely cover the dome with scenes of Christ and the Apostles. With the intention of making sure works endure over time, beginning in the 17th century nearly every altarpiece and painting in St. Peter’s has been replaced with a perfect mosaic replica. A technique was used to remove the reflection of the mosaics making each mosaic replica indistinguishable from the original painting.

Michelangelo was only 25 years old when he carved his first masterpiece, the magnificent sculpture, Pietà. Pietà is also the only sculpture he ever signed.

Sadly, in 1972, a man claiming to be Christ attacked the statue. Using a hammer he broke off part of Mary’s arm, knocked off a part of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids before he was finally subdued. Luckily all have been repaired, but today, similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s, Mona Lisa, at the Louvre, this glorious sculpture is now protected behind a crystal case.

The central nave is 295′ long x 85′ wide x 148′ high (in meters, 90 x 26 x 45). Here is where the colossal Baldacchino or Baldachin of St. Peter’s stands. The Baldachin is a, nearly 100′ high (30 meters), baroque-style ciborium, (canopy, baldachin or tabernacle) that marks the site of Saint Peter’s sepulcher. Gian Lorenzo Bernini created this stunning bronze architectural element between 1624 and 1633.

The Chair of Saint Peter also known as the Throne of Saint Peter, is a wooden throne relic that tradition claims the Apostle Saint Peter used. The relic is enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing also designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1647 and 1653.

Musei Vaticani

Pope’s, it is said, have been collecting huge quantities of art for several centuries and in 2006 the Vatican museums celebrated their 500th anniversary. There are 20,000 works on display in the Vatican museums but the immense collection is said to number closer to 70,000. It is the 5th largest museum in the world and has 54 galleries, although they are not all are open to the public.

The very first piece purchased was an ancient marble sculpture called Laocoön and His Sons. In January 1506 the large statue was discovered in a vineyard near one of our absolute favorite Roman churches, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Within a month the Pope had purchased it and put it on public display at the Vatican. The stories to accompany ancients monuments are fascinating and Laocoön is no different.

In Virgil’s book, Aeneid, he writes about the Trojan horse. We all remember the story of when the Greeks leave a giant wooden horse outside the gates of Troy. Laocoön, a Trojan priest, had warned the Trojans not to bring in the horse so two Greek gods sent a couple of sea serpents to kill the priest. Once the priest was dead the Trojans rolled in the horse and the Greeks who’d been hiding within the horse jumped out and destroyed Troy. The statue depicts Laocoön and his sons fighting the losing battle with the serpents.

One man Aeneas heeded the priest’s warning and fled Troy. He is important to Rome because Aeneas was a forefather of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Some of our highlights of the Vatican museums were the incredible art of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, we absolutely loved the 4 outstanding Raphael Rooms painted by Raphael and his workshop,  then there were paintings by Bellini, Titian and Caravaggio, and a smaller collection of modern Religious Art from artists Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Jacob Lawrence and Salvador Dalí. We came across a beautiful gilded bronze statue of Hercules. The statue was found in 1864 beneath yet another courtyard in Rome. It was lying horizontally in a trench and covered by a slab of travertine with a message carved on it saying the statue had been struck by lightning and, following Roman custom, had been granted a ritual burial. The statue has been dated between the 1st and 3rd century A.D.

The bronze statue of Hercules is on the far right

The Gallery of the Statues was impressive, our header photo, as was the interesting Hall of Animals or the ‘Stone Zoo’.

There were rooms filled with Etruscan pieces and artifacts from ancient Egypt. We enjoyed examining the 16th century large maps of Italy painted on the walls as we walked through the long Gallery of Maps. As we prepared to end our day, there was one final art piece to captivate us. It was the elegant Bramante Staircase, a double spiral staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932 that you must walk down to exit the museums.

The Sistine Chapel

Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel repaired and rebuilt between 1473 and 1481, and the chapel was renamed the Sistine chapel or in latin: Sacellum Sixtinum, after him. In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV engaged a handful of extremely talented Renaissance painters including Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and others to create a series of stunning frescoes depicting the Life of Moses on one wall and the Life of Christ on the opposite wall. These are the truly magnificent paintings that line the walls in the Sistine Chapel still today. The first mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated shortly after the paintings were completed in 1483 and the first conclave held in the Sistine Chapel was in 1492.

The Sistine Chapel is located inside the Apostolic or Papal Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City. It is known worldwide and especially for these two key reasons:

1) The Sistine Chapel is used as the site of the papal conclave, wherein a new pope is elected. During a conclave, a chimney is temporarily installed in the roof of the chapel, from which smoke arises as a signal. If white smoke appears, a new Pope has been elected. If black smoke appears, the election was not successful and the Cardinals must continue working in seclusion until one Cardinal receives a majority of at least ⅔ of the vote.

2) Michelangelo Buonarroti painted incredibly detailed and brightly colored frescoes into the ceiling with scenes from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament telling the story of man. He was originally asked to paint only 12 figures, the Apostles. Michelangelo declined because he felt he was a sculptor, not a painter. However eventually the Pope convinced Michelangelo and gave him free reign to paint biblical scenes of his own choice.  When the work was finished, Michelangelo had painted more than 300 figures.

In order to paint the high ceiling, Michelangelo had to create and build his own scaffolding. He did not work laying down as once thought, but instead worked standing upright. We walked out with a sore neck from looking up after spending only an hour inside the chapel. Can’t imagine how his neck felt.  A fresco painting is painted on fresh or damp plaster and as the plaster dries it sets the paint into the plaster, making very little room for error. Michelangelo painted the ceiling between 1508 and 1512. Twenty three years later he was commissioned by a second Pope to once again return to the Sistine Chapel to paint. It took him 6 years this time, between 1535 and 1541 to paint The Last Judgment, which foretells the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment. He was 67 years old when he finished.

Today Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel is considered one of the world greatest treasures and for more than 500 years visitors have been flocking to see his work.

No photos allowed inside the Sistine Chapel so this is a photo of some signage outside.

The Swiss Guards

Often called “the world’s smallest army”, the Holy See maintains a small force of Swiss soldiers (100-150) that have been providing security for the papal residence and the Pope since 1506. The Swiss Guard wear brightly colored photogenic uniforms of red, dark blue, and yellow with white collars and black berets. The guards typically carry pikes and swords, but they are also completely trained and capable of using any current weaponry. To qualify as a Swiss Guard, recruits must be unmarried Roman Catholic males with Swiss citizenship, between 19 and 30 years old, and be at least 5 feet 8 inches (1.74 meters) tall. They must also have a professional diploma or high school degree. They have been extensively trained and are highly skilled marksmen.

An amazing country that everyone should visit at least once. We have learned so very, very much during our time here. A completely unexpected surprise we learned is that the Vatican has its own Observatory located a few miles outside the city of Rome and that it also owns a telescope called the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona in the United States. Glad to know the Vatican keeps an eye focused towards heaven not only spiritually but also physically. 😉

Vatican City may be the smallest country in the world, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for by providing us all an opportunity to learn about our shared religious and cultural heritages.

Blessings from these visitatori vaticani,

Ted and Julia

View the St. Peter’s Basilica photo gallery here

View the Vatican Museums photo gallery here

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