Located in the heart of Rome, The Vatican has been the center of Christian worship for nearly two millenia. Built on top of the burial site of St. Peter, The Vatican is the seat of The Roman Catholic Church and a pilgrimmage spot for millions of faithful each year.
I visited The Vatican for the first time this past January (2023) and it was a life changing experience – from The Sistine Chapel Art to St. Peter’s Basilica – words cannot fully describe the beauty and spiritual wonder this place evokes.
I thought it would be helpful to start our Vatican ‘virtual pilgrimmage’ with fun facts and history about this spiritual capital of Christendom.
First things first…
- The Vatican City is its own independent state and country. It is the smallest country in the world:
- At 109 acres it is only 1/8th the size of Central Park in NYC
- It is surrounded by Rome (Italy) for 2 miles
- In addition to it’s administrative offices and being home to The Pope and other church officials, The Vatican is also one of the largest museums in the world.
- The Vatican Museums include 9 miles of pieces of art, artifacts and Christian history over 1400 rooms
- The Vatican Museums include 54 Galleries/Museums dedicated to everything from Egyptian and Etruscan Art to Renaissance Art, as well as Christian History and beyond.
- The museums are housed in the former Vatican palaces and include works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and more
- Pope Julius II was the first to create The Vatican Museums in the 16th century
- The Museums include 70,000 works of art including:
- Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome
- Raphael’s Transfiguration, School of Athens and more
- Caravaggio’s Disposition
- Reni’s Crucifixion of St. Peter
- The Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo and other artists)
- Today The Vatican City shines as a ‘City on a Hill’ with it’s heavenly dome as St. Peter’s Square welcomes the faithful, but at the time of St. Peter’s Crucifixion on June 29, 59 A.D., The Vatican was an necropolis and somewhat sketchy area of town.
- During the 1st century AD/CE in Rome, the population had swelled to over 1 million citizens in Rome. For health reasons it was forbidden to bury anyone within the city walls (except for Caesar himself) due to the fear of disease and water contamination. Therefore catacombs and necropolises were built to bury the dead.
- Peter, who was crucified upside down, as to show humility. He was buried in The Vatican Necropolis. It was essentially a paupers plot as he was seen by the state as a criminal for preaching Christianity. Early Christians venerated and marked the site. The Vatican became known as the burial site of St. Peter.
- The area of St. Peter’s Square is an ancient chariot-racing track built during the reign of Caligula and Nero (30s-50s AD)
- The Egyptian Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square was brought back by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD from Egypt. The Romans were obsessed with Egypt and have more Egyptian obelisks in Rome than in Egypt now (as they stole them in conquest)
- In 313, when Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in The Roman Empire, he built the first St. Peter’s Basilica on the site of the Necropolis and St. Peter’s tomb.
- This Basilica was replaced with a larger St. Peter’s Basilica during the time of Julius II and after. The original design for the current St. Peter’s was from Michelangelo, but it was completed by Baroque master Bernini in the 17th-century
- The majority of the interior of St. Peter’s is mosaics or sculpture
- Popes did not live in The Vatican until the 14th-century
- The Sistine Chapel is where the Papal Conclave meets to elect a new pope.
- The Swiss Guard and their unique uniforms have guarded The Vatican since 1506
- The Swiss Guard was a victim of Spanish King Charles V forces as they Sacked Rome in 1527. 147 of the 180 Swiss Guard Soldiers were massacred by Charles V’s forces. (Charles did not condone this but, alas he didn’t stop it either)
- When the Sack of Rome occurred Pope Clement VII fled through a secret passage to nearby fortress Castel Sant’Angelo. The secret passage is known as the Passetto
- When you use an ATM in the Vatican it has instructions in Latin and other languages. Latin is the official language of The Catholic Church
- 6 million visitors on average tour The Vatican Museums
- There are no native born citizens at The Vatican – with a birth rate of 0% all Vatican citizens are given citizenship as adults – usually as Cardinals or as a Pope or administrative staff.
- There is a baptismal font in St. Peters – once a year, The Pope baptizes the children of staff members (non citizens) in a special service.
Tips for visiting The Vatican:
- Book ahead with a professional tour guide! The Vatican is huge and can be overwhelming. Booking with an authorized Vatican tour guide you’ll be able to skip the line and see the major sites in a stress free way.
- If you are an art and history lover you may need a few days to see everything.
- My only regret was our tour was only half a day and I could not stay longer. I missed The Raphael Rooms and Art Museum, which was important to me. I realized that when booking a tour, make sure you have flexibility to go at your own pace after the guide completes their tour or you come back multiple days.
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American Nomad is written by travel lover and history enthusiast, Adele L. Thanks for reading!