Attached to Rome is the smallest country in the world – the Vatican.
Vatican City is the centre of modern Christianity and the official home of the Pope, but as a non-Christian I was more interested in the history and the decadence of this microstate than the actual reason for its existence. The Vatican has been made wealthy over the centuries by its followers. This was especially so during Europe’s Middle Ages, when vast donations were made by kings and queens and nobility alike in order to secure the favour and the approval of the Pope himself. All influential marriages and most political campaigns needed the approval and the blessing of the pope for their commencement. When the pope refused to grant England’s infamous King Henry VIII with one of his many divorces, Henry decided to break away from the catholic church and create his own church. In this way, Henry could do whatever he pleased without seeking the approval of the pope. His church became known as the Anglican church and had King Henry as its head. King Henry makes a lot more sense when you realized that he made himself God in his own religion.
Although Henry had effectively started the protestant movement, which would come to result in a steep decline in catholic followers, the Vatican still received much support elsewhere in the world. When deeply loyal and catholic Spain started conquering the New World, they brought their religious beliefs with them, for which there remains evidence today in the high percentage of Catholics that still exist in Latin America.
In its peak, the Papal States (754-1870) covered the Italian regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria, Romagna, and the eastern part of Emilia. In 1859, this amounted to about 41,440 km2 in territory. The Papal States are not to be confused with the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), which was ironically neither holy nor Roman in its creation. There was a noted relationship between the two, but it was at many times strained and is often disputed.
In 1870, Italy invaded. Pope Pius IX lost all of his ruling powers and was often referred to as “the prisoner in the Vatican”. The papal residences in the Vatican became those of King Victor Emmanuel II after he made Rome his capital. The “Roman question” was resolved in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty, signed by Benito Mussolini, which established Vatican City as an independent state once more.
Today, the Vatican is tiny. At only 0.44km2, it is the smallest independent country in the world. It does not give out birth certificates and has no permanent citizens. The Pope and his cardinals all become citizens at the start of their tenure at the Vatican, but should they resign, retire, or otherwise cease to work there (as the last Pope, Benedict XVI, did in 2013) they give up their Vatican passport. As such, no one is ever officially “Vaticanese”. We are all just temporary visitors.
The “border” into the Vatican is open. I suppose the logic is that if you can get into Italy, you are safe enough for the Vatican. Vatican City is landlocked by Italy on all sides and does not have its own airport, so the only way in or out is through Rome.
There are large Roman pillars that line the curved courtyard of St. Peter’s Square. Once you pass under these, you are effectively in a new country.
There is very little grass at the Vatican – all the public areas are cobbled. Only the pope’s private gardens and residence has a grassy park filled with trees and gardens. Entry into this part of the city is controlled by some rather flamboyantly dressed guards, but you can see part of the gardens through the windows in the Vatican Museums.
These guards also watch over the entrance into the inner complex. This is the where the Vatican’s border control really is. There are body scanners and passport checks by black coated officials just like at an airport anywhere else in the Europe. After the black coats agree that you aren’t a threat to the Vatican, you can pass by these colourful guards on your way into the complex. Like the famous guards of Buckingham palace, they do not move and will not smile. They often hold pikes that they tilt forward, effectively blocking doorways the public is not to access.
They may look a little like medieval jesters in their official livery, but these guards are not a joke. They are Swiss guards and are highly trained. Aside from their notable pikes, they are skilled with swords, halberds, Glock pistols, machine pistols and sub machine guns. Simply put, you don’t want to be making fun of their Renaissance stockings.
The main pull to get into the Vatican is to see St. Peter’s Basilica. Gilded in gold, covered in decorations by Michelangelo and Raphael, this cathedral puts world famous greats like Paris’ Notre Dame to shame. There is not a square inch of this place that does not constantly remind you of the vast wealth and power the catholic church once held over Europe and the western world.
I took many photos of the same ceilings, the same dome, and the same chapels, and yet each photo was each different. There is so much detail that one cannot capture it all in a single 4″x6″ frame.
As a history student, the Vatican fascinated me just the same as the Catholics around me, but in different ways. Although I was not stirred by the martyred saints nor compelled to convert based on the stories of the Bible, I was drawn to the less obvious factors, the more subtle tones of Vatican City. It was old, ornate, and secretly alluding to its power and influence that does still exist today, all around the world. Pope Francis’ recent receptions in Latin America prove that although Catholicism is on the decline in Europe and North America, the rest of the world remains quite enthralled by it. The stir that one elderly religious man can create is something that partly confuses me yet also amuses me. I suppose it is true then when it comes to the Vatican – big things do come in small packages.