The Vatican is one of the most visited heritage sites in the world. Its stunning architecture, collection of priceless artefacts and the significance it holds in Christian traditions, attract millions of visitors every year from all around the world.
But what do we know about the history of the Vatican? How did a region so small, that was once a part of Rome come to be an independent city-state? How did it become a symbol of Christianity, a papal residence and the seat of Catholicism?
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The history of the Vatican begins in ancient Rome on the western banks of the Tiber River. The area consisted of a small, mostly uninhabited hill known as the Ager Vaticanus. It included the area between the Vatican hill, Janiculum hill and Monte Mario and down to the Aventine hill. Owing to its proximity to the Etruscan city of Veii and the flooding that took place in the area due to the Tiber, it was not the most desirable area in Rome to live.
During the 1st c. AD, Agrippina the Elder had the gardens drained and gardens built in the area. When the ownership of the gardens passed to her son Caligula after her death, he had a circus built in the area where chariot races would take place. The obelisk that we see today in St. Peter’s square was brought by Caligula from Egypt to decorate his circus. Nero completed the construction in the circus and it came to be known as the Circus of Nero.
The Beginning of the Christian Phase in the History of the Vatican
During the ancient Roman period, the area of the Vatican was located outside the city’s walls and thus, it was an area where several burials took place. When Saint Peter was martyred in the Circus of Nero, his body was also interred in the same area in a simple tomb, supposedly below the modern-day Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The Christian phase in the history of the Vatican begins with Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor. When Constantine legitimized Christianity and began his building program, he did so outside the Roman walls. He then had the Constantinian basilica built over the site of Saint Peter’s tomb in 318 AD and it took 40 years to complete. Also known as the ‘Old St. Peter’s Basilica’ after the construction of the modern basilica on the site in the 16th century, it became a major pilgrim site in Rome.
The Papal States and Italian Unification
The Vatican as we know it today as a Papal residence didn’t come into being until the later end of the 19th century. For around a thousand years the Popes resided within the Lateran palace and from 1583 lived in the Quirinal Palace. With Rome as their seat, they governed several regions that spread across the Italian peninsula and came to be known as the Papal States.
The history of the Vatican took an important turn after the unification of Italy by the Italian king. During this period, the rule of the popes over Italian territories was called into question and many of the church properties were confiscated, including the Quirinal Palace which was turned into the royal palace.
However, the king made no attempt to interfere with the Holy See within the Vatican and the conflict between the Italian state and the church led the Popes to take up residence within the Vatican walls. The conflict was finally resolved in 1929 under the Lateran Treaty according to which Italy decided to recognize the Vatican City as an independent state. Under the treaty, the Vatican includes 109 hectares of land that are governed by the Pope.
The Present Day
The complex history of the Vatican has led it to become the smallest independent country in the world whose sovereign head is the Pope, who has absolute powers over this independent state. The Vatican has hundreds of inhabitants, and while most are priests and nuns, the inhabitants also include people that are employed in various administerial jobs and a contingent of Swiss guards that protect the Pope.
The Vatican also has its own banking system, telephone system, newspaper, radio station, gardens and observatory. It doesn’t have taxes and the Vatican’s economy is completely dependent on donations.
The Vatican is now visited by millions of people every year who wish to enjoy the stunning works of art held within its walls. The museums inside display some of the most priceless and well-preserved works of art that can be found in the world.
The Famous Artworks in the Vatican
One of the most famous treasures to have existed in the history of the Vatican is the Sistine Chapel. The stunning ceiling was painted by Michelangelo over a period of four years, beginning from 1508. The intricate painting that contains over 300 figures and bright, mesmerizing colors is truly one of the most magnificent works of art that can be found around the world.
Another famous part of the Vatican includes the Raphael Rooms. Painted by Raphael in 1508 when he was merely 25 years old, he continued work well into his old age and two of the rooms had to be completed by his assistants.
The fact that Raphael spent a lifetime painting the rooms speaks volumes about the intricacy of the frescos and amount of work and attention to detail that went into creating these artistic masterpieces.
The Vatican Museums also house several important ancient artworks. One of the most famous is that of Laocoön and his sons which is said to have decorated the palace of Titus. The collection also includes other famous collections of antiquity such as the Apollo Belvedere, a colossal bronze statue of Hercules, the colossal statue of Braschi Antinous, a colossal statue of Queen Tuya dating to the reign of King Ramses II, among many others.
Book a tour with Walks Inside Rome
At Walks Inside Rome, we provide a wide range of exciting and educational tours, several of them exploring the wonders of the Vatican. The expertise of our guides in the history and archaeology of Rome provides you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the city’s culture, making your time in Rome unforgettable!
You can book the tours directly online or by contacting us via email. We can’t wait to hear from you so we can customize your Vatican experience and explore the Eternal City together!