Situated on the Vatican hill on the right bank of the river Tiber to the west of the city. Surface area: 0.5km2 + territory of Lateran church, Cancelleria and Castelgandolfo summer residence. Circa 1500 inhabitants of which approx 50% have Vatican passport and tax exemption. Own postal service, mint, radio Radio Maria and newspaper Osservatore Romano.
This is a difficult subject to which we can hardly do any justice given that “The Vatican” embodies a whole state, 2000 years of power and endless involvement in the development of the western world.
The Vatican hill, across the river from what was Rome’s original urban area was populated as part of a need to control both banks of the river for defence purposes. In ancient times it’s real claim to fame was Caligula’s and later Nero’s circus. This happened to make it the site of a multitude of Christian martyrdoms and crucifixions. It is the reputed site of St. Peter’s (and his wife’s) martyrdom. As a consequence of this St. Peter’s basilica was constructed on top of the circus during the latter part of the empire, some two or three hundred years after the saint’s death.
Approximately a millennium later the basilica had been reworked several times over and eventually redesigned into the “St. Peter’s” we now know and love. Michaelangelo played his part in the redesign and construction as did a number of other important architects. The vast resources which went into its construction also did its bit to generate displeasure and add fuel to the schism and Protestant Reformation. It was at this time that the Vatican became the official Papal residence rather than the Lateran.
It is suggested that the ancient Roman Pantheon had much to do with the inspiration behind the design of the façade and interestingly, both buildings sported world-record breaking domes, but these are only the most obvious of the parallels. More interesting similarities are to be found in their use for propaganda: both of these buildings performed the function of home or site where a single ruler-person had a private and supreme hot-line to the heavens. The domes presumably act as a metaphor of such heavens.
The Vatican has undoubtedly been a highly significant centre of political power which in many ways shaped European history. One of the earliest of these defining moments was on Christmas day of the year 800 when Pope Leo Xth took it upon himself to crown Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This act had far reaching effects in defining the Pope as a necessary intermediary to putting a wax seal of divine authority on the temporal power of kings and emperors. Interestingly, the event was also the dawn of Papal power on earth as Charlemagne donated vast lands in central Italy to the Vatican. These were subsequently justified through history as being part of Emperor Constantine‘s will and inheritance (nowadays largely shown to be a bit of a tall story). Napoleon avoided the same mistake by taking the crown and placing it on his own head. Not surprisingly Napoleon’s lack of respect was the beginning of the end for Papal temporal power.
The Vatican as a State: Papal power first came to the fore as a result of the Roman emperor’s departure from Rome and the shift of political power to the new capital at Constantinople (Istanbul). Given Rome had been largely abandoned the clergy constituted the only remaining bureaucracy capable of somehow managing and governing the city. Interestingly at this time the “Pontifex Maximus” was still the emperor (now thousands of miles away from Rome) and it wasn’t until some time later that the Pope took over “absolute” power and the P.M. title itself.
Papal power grew through time except the odd hic-cup here and there. The disarray of the Dark Ages left the church to become the sole champion of international peace and learning, with Rome at its centre. The 17th Century and the Enlightenment was in a sense the downward turning point: economic prosperity, learning and “culture” shifted northwards and out of the strict grasp and control of the church which nonetheless maintained a focus on artistic embellishment of the city. The Napoleonic invasion was a prelude to the weakening position of the Pope’s grasp of power on earth, made definitive with the taking of Rome by Garibaldi’s forces as Italy was reunited. The Pope retreated to the Vatican in disgust as all else was confiscated. Something was clawed back and the Vatican declared a state in its own right by Mussolini’s government which was anxious to regain some of that divine approval.
A sense of all this embedded history can be gained from the major sites of the Vatican state. The most important of these include the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Castel St. Angelo fortress which was once Emperor Hadrian‘s tomb and later converted to fortress and fearsome torture chambers and dungeons. Last but not least, St. Peter’s basilica, including the wonderful panoramic view across Rome from the top of the dome.