The Vatican Guard protects this sacred land.
(Photo By: Xiquinhosilva)
Your Guide to Vatican City
Despite the age of its treasures, Vatican City itself is not that old. Tucked inside Rome, and protected by walls and the Vatican Guard, Vatican City is home to the Pope and many of the Catholic Church’s highest clergymen. Vatican City became an internationally recognized independent state in 1929, when Pope Pius XI and King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy entered into the Lateran Treaty. The Treaty was actually signed by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri and future tyrannical leader Prime Minister Benito Mussolini on behalf of their rulers. The treaty made the 110-acre of Catholic treasure a landlocked sovereign city-state, and 840 people make Vatican City the smallest country in the world today.
Inside Vatican City
Inside Vatican City, visitors will find art and architecture dating back to Ancient times. What started as a chance find, has turned into one of the premiere art collections in the world. The Popes love their art, and Vatican City demonstrates that in breathtaking splendor and glory. In 1506, Pope Julius II got his hands on one of the greatest sculptures of all time: Laocoon and His Sons. The Pope enlisted Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to verify the statue’s authenticity, and then placed the depiction of Laocoon, a Trojan priest, and his sons being consumed by sea serpents into what is now the Vatican Museums. Catholicism’s obsession with fine art began, and now we have the treasures of Vatican City to enjoy ourselves, all thanks to Pope Julius II and the help of a few slightly influential artistic figures of the Renaissance period! What is there to see? I’m going to tell you!
As you enter into Vatican City, you’ll see one of the most famous squares and basilicas in the world today. The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter and its outer lying Saint Peter’s Square is an architectural feat of Renaissance and Baroque proportions, and the declared burial site of Saint Peter himself. At the same time Pope Julius II commissioned Laocoon and His Sons, work began on this world-famous basilica and continued until 1626. Yep! Saint Peter’s Basilica and Square took 120 years to build, and it’s no wonder why; outside the basilica, Roman columns of ancient proportions adorn the area, and the basilica and square were decorated by artists such as Bernini, Bramante, Maderno, and Michelangelo.
After you’ve stood in Saint Peter’s Square, simply taking the area in, and then marveled at Saint Peter’s Basilica, you have to move forward to a place I’ve been blogging about repeatedly: the Vatican Museums! The Vatican Museums are the number one museum in all of Italy. More people visit the Vatican Museums than any other Italian museum. In fact, the Vatican Museums consistently place within the top 10 museums in the world annually. There’s a good reason for that. Remember Pope Julius II? He began at tradition that, to this day, continues; Popes throughout history have contributed to the Vatican Museum’s expansive art collection year after year. There is so much to see there, I’m going to break it down for you.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is another “most famous” landmark in the world. Michelangelo’s beloved painted ceiling, featuring The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgment, decorates this blessed sanctuary, as does frescoes depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ. These frescoes were the mastery of Renaissance artists Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Cosimo Roselli. The Pope resides within the glorious and blessed walls of The Sistine Chapel, and it is also home to the Papal Conclave – the place where they pick the new Pope upon the passing or retirement of the old one. Trust me! No trip to Vatican City is complete without spending as much time as humanly possible in The Sistine Chapel.
Alongside Michelangelo, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino is another noteworthy Italian Renaissance painter and architect. Simply known as Raphael – maybe he started the one-name trend that so many celebrities use today – the Vatican Museums house numerous works by this legendary artist. In fact, he has four rooms within the museum’s walls known as Raphael’s Rooms. Pope Julius II made these rooms his home from 1503 to 1513, as did many of his successors after his reign. You will be amazed at the artistic and architectural wonder held within Raphael’s Rooms as you wander through the Vatican Museum.
Numerous Art Galleries
If you aren’t in sensory overload yet, and believe me, I was, you still have numerous art galleries within the Vatican Museums to visit. The Vatican Museums are home to artwork dating centuries old through contemporary modern art by some of today’s greatest masters. The Collection of Modern and Contemporary Religious Art is Pope John Paul II’s contribution to the beauty held inside the Vatican Museums. Those looking for more classic pieces will be taken into centuries-old works by Caravaggio, da Vinci, Giotto, Lippi, and Perugino in the Pinacoteca Vaticana gallery. If sculpture is your thing, don’t worry, you have plenty of sculpture galleries to peruse as well!
Galleries of Tapestries and Maps
Dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the Vatican Museum’s Gallery of Tapestries and Gallery of Maps offers visitors a unique experience in appreciating some different forms of art. The Gallery of Tapestries houses some of the most detailed and beautiful tapestries the world has seen, with many of the pieces restored, or currently being restored, by nuns every day. The Gallery of Maps is the world’s largest pictorial study in geography. It displays various topographical and historical maps of Italy throughout the centuries, in a room with walls painted by Ignazio Danti of Perugia.
Etruscan and Egyptian Museums
The Vatican Museums aren’t just a place to find world-renowned artwork. They also house architectural treasures of both the Etruscan and Egyptian people. The Etruscan people are a bit of a mystery. This ancient civilization was not documented very well throughout history. You can piece together some of their culture, however, by viewing the collection of bronzes, sarcophagi, and vases inside the Vatican Museum walls; and, although we know a lot about the Ancient Egyptians, you should still take the time to look at a nifty reproduction of the Book of the Dead, the papyruses, and the animal mummies on display in the Egyptian Museum.
The Vatican Gardens
Once you’ve had your fill of architectural and artistic beauty, it’s time to walk outside and wander through the Vatican Gardens. These gardens extend up to Vatican Hill, covering approximately 57 acres of land space. Much like the rest of Vatican City’s historical sites, the Vatican Gardens date back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Here’s the tricky part, however; no tour of Vatican City is complete without a peek at its famous gardens, but they are pretty picky about who gets to visit when. The Vatican Gardens are not open to the public, but you may book a guided tour. Do so in advance, however, because the tours are limited.
This is the end of our guided tour of Vatican City. I hope you that book a trip to see the real thing! It’s truly worth the time to spend in this amazing little walled-off section of the world. Keep in mind when you are there that this is a very sacred place. The grounds are hallowed and blessed. Be respectful of the Vatican City rules and absorb all there is the public is allowed to see in this amazing place without getting into trouble with the Vatican Guard!