Posts Tagged With: Sarcophagus of St Helena

Microstates! The State of Vatican City

So, we’re finally getting around to publishing posts from the “Tiniest 5 for the Big 5-0” road trip last year. We have an inordinately high level of interest in the microstates, which, although ridiculous, was nonetheless explained in our initial post on the trip planning.

Last July’s Magical Microstate Tour began with what we’re sure is the most visited tiny territory of them all – Vatican City, located within the city of Rome:

For what it’s worth, we weren’t particularly excited about Vatican City because it’s the least exotic and most known of the microstates. Our expectations in this regard were pretty much met – interesting, but certainly not fascinating.

State Synopsis

History: Starting in the 700s and continuing until the 19th century, the pope controlled a hell of a lot more than the postage stamp that Vatican City currently occupies. Although the popes began collecting properties before the 8th century, the millennium-long history of the Papal States really began with the Donation of Pepin. In the 750s, the Lombards had overrun the last remnants of the Roman Empire in Italy around Ravenna, and were demanding the submission of Rome and tribute from the Papacy. Pope Stephen II sent envoys to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks (as well as father of Charlemagne and founder of the Carolingian Empire) requesting his support in resisting the Lombards. In return for an official coronation by Pope Stephen, Pepin and his Frankish army forced the Lombard king to cede their recent Italian conquests. Pepin then conferred upon the pope these territories in 756:

The Papal States in the early 1800s, prior to Italian unification.

For more than a millennium, the Papal States occupied this chunk of Italy – waxing and waning over time, but always substantial. However, during Italian unification efforts in the 19th century, the Papal States were annexed and integrated into the secular state of Italy, leaving only the Holy See within the Vatican walls. The popes did not recognize the Italian king’s right to rule in Rome, and they refused to leave the Vatican compound in resistance of any move to integrate Vatican City.

Why it still exists: The impasse was resolved in 1929, when the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy was signed by Benito Mussolini, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III, and by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri for Pope Pius XI. The treaty, which became effective on June 7,1929, established the independent State of Vatican City and reaffirmed the special status of Catholicism in Italy.

Absolute size: 0.17 square miles

Relative size: Vatican City is the smallest of the five European microstates and is smaller than the City of Alexandria, at 15 square miles. Moreover, “Vatican City is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. However, formally it is not sovereign, with sovereignty being held by the Holy See.”*

Scale model of Vatican City near the entry point:

Population: 600

Capital: Yeah, it’s Vatican City, so there you go.

Government: Vatican City is an absolute elective monarchy ruled by the pope. The location we visited officially is both the State of Vatican City and The Holy See. (an entity distinct from the Holy See). The government is a rare example of a non-hereditary monarchy. (Speaking of which, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, read in part during the road trip, is a wildly entertaining overview of the politics and personalities of the papacy, particularly in the early middle ages when the pope were pawns of powerful families or corrupt themselves. We’ll let Wikipedia summarize the relationship between Vatican City and the Holy See: The Holy See is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, the episcopal see of the Pope, and an independent sovereign entity. As an independent sovereign entity, holding the Vatican City enclave in Rome as sovereign territory, it maintains diplomatic relations with other states.

Note that we would be remiss in not recognizing that the Popes did not always lead from their enclave in Rome – seven Popes (or anti-Popes, depending on with whom you were aligned) ruled from Avignon in the 14th century (which happens to have been the start and finish of our first bike trip in Europe . . .).

Tiny nation trivia: “At several times during the Vatican’s history, popes escaped through a secret passageway. In 1277, a half-mile-long elevated covered passageway, the Passetto di Borgo, was constructed to link the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for popes, most notably in 1527 when it likely saved the life of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. As the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V rampaged through the city and murdered priests and nuns, the Swiss Guard held back the enemy long enough to allow Clement to safely reach the Castel Sant’Angelo, although 147 of the pope’s forces lost their lives in the battle.”

In the Vatican Gardens with St. Peter’s in the background:

Vatican stuff (most of the information comes from the Vatican Museum’s website:

“This monumental red porphyry sarcophagus is believed to have held the remains of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who died around 335 A.D. The coffin is carved with military scenes with Roman soldiers on horseback and barbarian prisoners. This very military decoration, not really suitable for a female burial, has led scholars to suppose that the sarcophagus was originally made for a male member of the Imperial family, such as Helena’s husband, Constantius Chlorus or, more probably, Constantine himself.”

Gallery of Maps with works commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the late 16th century. Very cool snapshots in time, with respect to the relative size and importance of Renaissance cities to one another, as well as the extent of urbanization in Europe and awareness of non-European locales.

On to the Sistine Chapel, which we really did not expect to be as small and rectangular as it is. Lisa arranged for a private tour for us, and our tour guide (who was really good) took us aside before we entered the chapel to provide us with a detailed lesson on the history of the chapel and of the individual artworks. You’re supposed to be reverent and quiet while in the chapel, so there’s no speaking. Our guide used her iPad to provide insight into the individual panels.

The whole “reverent and quiet” rule would be ignored by the packed assembly of tourists, so every 2 minutes or so, one of the guards would intone in a booming voice: “SILENCIO!” Everyone would then become quiet again. Until the rule was ignored after a bit, prompting another outburst from the guards. This resulted in a sinusoidal pattern of noise – very quiet immediately after the dire warning, then a swiftly rising crescendo of noise, peaking until the guard bellowed yet another “SILENCIO!” Then quiet, then noisy, then “SILENCIO!” then repeat. Good stuff.

We were prohibited from taking pictures as well (although we tried surreptitiously, with abysmal results . . .):

In lieu of purloined pics from us, you can take a virtual tour here, on the Vatican Museum’s website. (Note that this virtual tour will not convey the signature, sinusoidal sound effect described above . . .).

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michelangelo’s Pietà – now behind glass. In 1972 “a mentally disturbed geologist, the Hungarian-born Australian Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!” With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.”

Back outside, in St. Peter’s Square

“The Swiss Guard, recognizable by its armor and colorful Renaissance-era uniforms, has been protecting the pontiff since 1506. That’s when Pope Julius II, following in the footsteps of many European courts of the time, hired one of the Swiss mercenary forces for his personal protection. The Swiss Guard’s role in Vatican City is strictly to protect the safety of the pope. Although the world’s smallest standing army appears to be strictly ceremonial, its soldiers are extensively trained and highly skilled marksmen. And, yes, the force is entirely comprised of Swiss citizens.”

“Roman Emperor Caligula built a small circus in his mother’s gardens at the base of Vatican Hill where charioteers trained and where Nero is thought to have martyred the Christians. To crown the center of the amphitheater, Caligula had his forces transport from Egypt a pylon that had originally stood in Heliopolis. The obelisk, made of a single piece of red granite weighing more than 350 tons, was erected for an Egyptian pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago. In 1586 it was moved to its present location in St. Peter’s Square, where it does double duty as a giant sundial.”

Microstate 1 of 5 complete!

At the border (literally) of Vatican City

The Castel Sant’Angelo noted in the trivia above, spotted on the way back through Rome from Vatican City (the structure began as the Mausoleum of Hadrian):

Around Rome, mostly retracing steps taken during our brief visit before biking in Tuscany back in 2004.

Unbelievably cool retreat on the rooftop of our villa hotel to chill out for a bit late in the day:

End of the day on the way to dinner in Rome:

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