February 11 – Anniversary of the Foundation of Vatican City

Posted on February 11, 2014

Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the world. This “nation” is so small, it's entirely inside the capital city of another country!

Vatican City is the enclave in which the Pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, lives and works, along with about 900 other full-time residents and around 3,000 workers from outside Vatican City. The Pope is considered the head of state as well as the head of his religion. And this city-state is located entirely inside Rome, Italy.

Swiss Guards Corps
Vatican City has recognized boundaries, people who live there on an ongoing basis, and its own currency (coins) and postage stamps. The Vatican's economic activity consists of fees from admission to museums and sales of items such as publications, stamps, and tourist mementos. It has an internal police force in the Swiss Guards Corps. Two of the most important criteria for being considered an independent country is sovereignty (no other country—not even Italy—has power over the territory of Vatican City) and recognition as a country by other countries.

Vatican City isn't like most other countries because it doesn't have transportation systems, external defense, or utility services. It relies on Italy for all of these things. These agreements—sovereignty and “independence,” BUT dependence on Italy for infrastructure and defense—were created with the Lateran treaty, signed on this date in 1929.

What you see at the Vatican...

The Sistine Chapel
I've been to Rome, so of course I went to Vatican City. (By the way, walking into Vatican City definitely does not feel like crossing a border—no passport check, for example.) One thing I saw was a really, really, really, really, really long line to get into the Sistine Chapel.

Okay, I probably should've waited in that line. But I was only going to be in Rome for two days, so I chose not to spend all those hours in line. 

I missed seeing some amazing tapestries, ceramics, miniatures, and frescoes—and the famous Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I also didn't take a guided tour through the Vatican Gardens.

This is a detail from the ceiling painting.
Instead, I went to Saint Peter's Basilica, which is plenty amazing! This huge church is the largest in Europe (until 1989, the largest in the world): 614 feet long, 145 feet high in the aisle, 435 feet inside Michelangelo's dome. It is considered one of the greatest creations of Rome's Renaissance—and it should be, since it was worked on by pretty much every great architect in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries: Michelangelo (of course), Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Bernini, Maderno, and Antonio Sangallo the Younger.

St. Peter is supposed to be buried there, and many other popes have certainly been buried in the crypt and necropolis. There is a treasury museum inside the church, and there are some great statues. Arguably the most famous statue is Pieta, by Michelangelo: it portrays Mary holding her grown son Jesus after he has been killed.

Two big changes have occurred since Michelangelo, then age 25, finished carving the statue. First, some critics of his time said that such a young sculptor could not have created such a beautiful piece by himself. Michelangelo was angry and returned to the sculpture, where he signed his name by chiseling it into Mary's sash. He never signed any of his other sculptures, before or after. The second change is much more recent: in 1972 a crazy man used a hammer to knock off Mary's nose and fingers. (Did I mention he was crazy? He was screaming, “I am Jesus Christ” as he attacked the statue.) The statue has been repaired, but visitors now have to view it behind bulletproof acrylic glass! (So sad.)

There are millions and bajillions of things to see in St. Peter's, and after seeing all of that, we went out to the Piazza (plaza), where an enormous crowd waited to see Pope John Paul II come to a window and wave and briefly address the crowd in Italian. That was a really crazy scene, with the colorful Swiss Guards and an even more colorful procession with little kids bobbing their heads as they were carried on tall carry-sticks.

Wow! What a spectacle it all made!

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