The world’s smallest sovereign state (a mere 0.44 sq km), the Vatican sits atop the low-lying Vatican hill just a few hundred metres west of the River Tiber. Centred on the domed bulk of St Peter’s Basilica and Piazza San Pietro, it is the capital of the Catholic world, a spiritual superpower whose law is gospel to the world’s one billion Catholics. On a more temporal level, it’s one of Rome’s most visited areas and you’ll almost certainly have to queue to get into St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
Established under the terms of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the State of the Vatican City is the modern vestige of the Papal States. For more than a thousand years, the Papal States encompassed Rome and much of central Italy, but when Italy was unified in 1861 and Rome fell to Italian troops in 1870, Pope Pius IX was forced to give up the last of his territorial possessions. Relations between Italy and the landless papacy remained strained until Mussolini and Pope Pius XI agreed to form the Vatican State in 1929.
Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty, the Holy See was also given extraterritorial authority over a further 28 sites in and around Rome, including the basilicas of San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo fuori le Mura; the catacombs, and the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
As an independent state, the Vatican has its own postal service, currency, newspaper, radio station and army. The flamboyantly dressed Swiss Guards were founded in 1506 by Julius II to defend the Papal States against invading armies and are still today responsible for the pope’s personal security.
The Vatican’s current look is the culmination of more than 1000 years of chipping and chopping. The Leonine walls date to 846, when Pope Leo IV had them put up after a series of Saracen raids, while the Vatican palace, now home to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, was originally constructed by Pope Eugenius III in the 12th century. Subsequent popes extended, fortified and decorated it according to their political and artistic whims. The original 4th-century St Peter’s Basilica was almost entirely rebuilt in the 16th century by a phalanx of Renaissance greats – Bramante, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo. Later Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno added further contributions. Outside, Piazza San Pietro was designed by the baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The easiest way to get to the Vatican is to take metro line A to Ottaviano-San Pietro. Otherwise buses 40 and 64 run to the Vatican from Stazione Termini.
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