Vatican City
Vatican City
(Photo: AP Wide World)

Vatican City

Vatican City, the world's smallest independent country, is located within the city of Rome. It is ruled by the pope, who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Many pilgrims and tourists come to Vatican City each year. They visit St. Peter's Basilica (church), attend the pope's weekly general audiences and celebrations, and receive his blessing. They also visit the Vatican Museums, which house some of the world's finest works of art.

Approximately 780 people live in Vatican City. Most are employees of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church.

Vatican City stands on Vatican Hill, in the northwestern part of Rome. It is bounded on the southeast by St. Peter's Square. The rest of the boundary is formed by the walls of the Vatican Palace and the landscaped gardens. The gardens make up half of Vatican City's total area of 109 acres (44 hectares).

A number of buildings outside Vatican City are also part of its territory. These include several churches in Rome and the papal summer palace, Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome.

The buildings within Vatican City include the world's largest church, St. Peter's Basilica. Excavations have shown that the high altar of the church is exactly over what is thought to be the tomb of Saint Peter. The present church building was begun in 1507 and was completed in the 1600's. Its architects included Michelangelo, who designed its great dome. St. Peter's contains many works of art. Among them is Michelangelo's famous sculpture the Pietá. The bronze canopy over the high altar was designed by sculptor Giovanni Bernini.

St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square
(Photo: AP Wide World)

One of the Vatican's greatest attractions is the Sistine Chapel, which was built next to St. Peter's by Pope Sixtus IV in the 1400's. On the chapel ceiling are nine scenes painted by Michelangelo that tell the story of man's creation and earliest history, according to the Bible. Many consider this the greatest single work of art created by one person. Michelangelo also painted the Last Judgment on the chapel's western wall, which shows Christ's final judgment of humanity.

The Vatican Palace consists of buildings that are grouped around courtyards and include the pope's apartments. Church administrative offices are also located in some of these buildings. Connected to the palace are museums that contain priceless collections of art from ancient and modern times. The walls of one series of rooms are decorated with frescoes (paintings on the wall plaster) by Raphael.

The Vatican Library has important collections of manuscripts, printed books, and archives from all periods. Scholars from around the world visit the library to consult its materials.

Vatican City also has a railroad station within its walls, although the trains that stop there are used primarily for freight. A helicopter pad in the gardens of the Vatican allows the pope to come and go without disrupting traffic in Rome.

Vatican City has its own flag and even its own license plates. Vatican stamps and Vatican coins (with the same value as the Italian money) are in circulation as well. The Vatican has its own press, and it publishes a daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. It also has a radio station, bank, post office, supermarket, clothes store, medical service, and pharmacy.

The papacy has ambassadors (apostolic nuncios, permanent observers, and apostolic delegates) in many of the world's capitals, and for many years it also had an army. But since 1970 the pope's only military body has been the 100-member Swiss Guard, whose colorful uniforms were said to have been designed by Michelangelo. A 200-member security force helps protect the pope when he appears in public. This force also polices Vatican City.


During the time of the Roman Empire, Vatican Hill was the site of public gardens and an amphitheater, or circus. It is believed that Saint Peter was crucified on the hill and buried nearby. In the AD 300's, a church was built over the traditional site of Saint Peter's tomb, which was in a common burial ground. Vatican City gradually grew up around this church.

From the 600's on, the pope was the civil ruler of Rome and the nearby area. The area he ruled grew to include a wide band of territory, called the Papal States, that stretched across central Italy.

Until the 1300's, the popes lived mainly in Rome at the Lateran Palace. After 1309, they lived in Avignon, France. The Vatican became the chief papal residence when the papal court returned from France in 1377. Many of the Vatican's most notable buildings and works of art were completed in the 1400's and 1500's, during the height of the Italian Renaissance.

During the 1800's, Italy's separate states were unified into one nation and the pope lost control over the Papal States. In 1870, the armies of the newly established Italian nation entered Rome. The new government took over much of the property that had belonged to the popes. But it allowed the pope to remain independent within the Vatican territory (now Vatican City).

The popes believed that Italy was in unlawful possession of their city. In protest, they refused to leave the Vatican to go into Rome until 1929. In that year, the Lateran Treaty was made between Pope Pius XI and the Kingdom of Italy. Under this treaty, Italy recognized the independence of the Vatican, but required it to be neutral in disputes between countries. In return, Italy was given undisputed ownership of Rome and the former Papal States.

After the Lateran Treaty, the independence of the Vatican was recognized by all nations. And as a result of the treaty, the pope had none of the burden of civil power in the modern world.

Reviewed by Kate Marcelin-Rice
L'Osservatore Romano