The Italian Republic has the unusual honor of having two nations as enclaves, meaning these countries have their entire respective territories completely landlocked by Italy. It stands to reason then, that these enclave nations are among the smallest independent countries in the whole world. One is the Republic of San Marino, centered on Monte Titano in the middle of the Italian peninsula, but close to the Adriatic shore. The other enclave holds the distinction of being the smallest independent country in the world, in that it can be considered an enclave twice over, by virtue of being just as landlocked by the city of Rome, capital of Italy.
And yet this state, Vatican City, packs a mighty clout for its small area, it is after all the seat of the Holy See, the central government for the Catholic Church. And standing as its head of state is the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Church, the Pope. As a result the Vatican is an example of a theocracy, a state where the government is the church itself. This makes the small enclave a vast treasure trove of artworks and writings pertaining to the Christian faith, all contained in a sprawling network of ecclesiastical buildings, basilicas, chapels, palatial residences, museums and the like. And owing to its small land area and being enclosed by protective walls that have stood for centuries, the Vatican is the only nation on Earth with the charming ability to literally lock up its own gates for the night, opening them again in the morning for the daily rush of international tourists and pilgrims.
What would become Vatican City was built on the similarly-named Vatican Hill, due west of the original ancient city of Rome and its seven hills, and just a ways north from the nearby Tiber River. In the time of the Roman Empire it was a favored site for building villas by succeeding emperors, outside the increasing congestion of Rome itself. During the reign of Nero, many Christians were martyred on the site after they were blamed for the great fire in the city that took place in 64 AD.
Among those put to death was Saint Peter, leading apostle of Jesus Christ and traditionally held as the first Pope of the Church. From then there grew a necropolis, or cemetery complex, where the Christians tended to worship in secret until they were accorded protection by later Christian emperors. In honor of Saint Peter, who was buried on Vatican Hill, a basilica was erected on the site, the beginnings of the great complex of structures upon which the Christian Faith would spread.
Following the downfall of the Roman Empire, the Church would go from the Vatican and take control of Rome and a swathe of land called the Papal States, evolving from a purely religious authority to a temporal power as well. This arrangement would last until the unification of the Kingdom of Italy, and in 1929 the Vatican would come into its present form, a microstate within the Italian nation from where the Pope would govern the global Catholic faith.
The main point of access into Vatican City today is the Ponte Sant’Angelo spanning the Tiber, from which connects the Via della Conciliazione roadway which leads into Saint Peter’s Square, the massive plaza in front of the world’s largest church, Saint Peter’s Basilica. On almost every important occasion of the Church one can count on the square to be filled with people, and the Pope would conduct masses outside in these times.
The Basilica is actually the second building to carry the name as the old Basilica built under orders of Emperor Constantine in 318 AD fell into ruin. It is notable having been designed by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance from Michelangelo to Bernini. Visitors are sure to gape at the statues of the saints and the massive dome outside, or the bronze furnishings inside. The twisting bronze columns of the baldacchino stand just over the underground stairway that leads to the tomb of Saint Peter and several other Popes.
To one side north of the Basilica is the Apostolic Palace, residence of the Pope, as well as the Sistine Chapel where the College of Cardinals gather in conclave for Papal elections. The ceiling of the chapel is filled with paintings of religious scenes by Michelangelo, including the famous “Creation of Adam” (touching fingers) and “The Last Judgment.” It is a somber place to emphasize the grave business that is conducted here in between the reigns of Popes.
Having existed in the same place for centuries, the Vatican has been able to preserve much of human history within its walls. Many of their collected relics and artifacts are on display at the Vatican Museum, along with olden-time maps and artworks from Renaissance master Raphael, plus a library with priceless manuscripts.
As a state in and of itself, the Vatican contains within its territory everything the Pope and other religious functionaries would need. It has its own supermarket, pharmacy and printing press. It has a railway station and helicopter landing pad located within its many formal gardens. The Vatican operates its own newspaper, “L’Osservatore Romano” (“The Roman Observer”), radio station and television center. It also has barracks and outposts for the Papal security force, the Swiss Guards. The Vatican Bank mints its own Vatican-faced collectible Euros while its post office issues similar collectible postage stamps. Both are valuable to hobbyists and collectors from all over the world.
It is hard to believe, but within its tiny land area of .44 square kilometers, Vatican City contains so much wonder, history and religious value that visitors rarely ever get to experience everything it has to offer. And for good reason; as seat of the Holy See, the Vatican is the actively beating heart for the Catholic Church and tourism, while welcomed, is regulated so that the duties of the Pope and the rest of the faith’s leadership may not be disrupted. Still, it is able to open up to the world, so that people from all over might see for themselves the treasures of history and religion, and appreciate both all the more. As Jesus Christ said in the Bible, he would build his Church on the Rock, and upon the hill where Saint Peter – his Apostle whose name means “rock” – was buried, those words were fulfilled.