The State of the Vatican City covers an area of 440,000 square meters and is the world’s smallest sovereign state. It is under the sovereignty of the Pope who is the head of the Catholic Church as well as Bishop of Rome. The Pope is elected for life by a conclave of cardinals through a secret ballot. The Vatican hosts the Holy See, the highest governmental institution of the Catholic Church. The independence of the Vatican was established with the Italian government by the signing of the Lateran Pacts of 1929. According to state laws, the Pope exercises legislative, executive and judiciary powers within the State of the Vatican. The Pope also represents the State of the Vatican in other countries.
The State of the Vatican has its own flag, gold and white with the crossed keys of St. Peter's and the Papal tiara. It also has its own international radio, prints stamps and has a daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, as well as its own currency (euro with its own design). The Swiss Guard, founded in 1506, is responsible for the safety of the Pope and the State of the Vatican.
Following the recognition of the Christian religion in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine commissioned an impressive church with five naves to house the tomb of St Peter. For its construction, stones from a circus that had previously occupied the site were used - a circus built by the emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
In 846, following the looting by the Arabs, Pope Leo IV had the first walls built around the basilica. From 1309 to 1377, the papal residence was transferred to Avignon because of continuing threats directed at the papacy in Rome at that time. Neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy, the basilica fell into ruin and its reconstruction started with the papal residence returning to Rome. Pope Sixtus IV initiated the work for the new chapel, called the Sistine Chapel (1471-1484). Thanks to the determination of Pope Julius II, 1503-1513, who belonged to one of the most powerful families in Italy, the Basilica of St. Peter was given a grander design, and the whole city experienced a period of urban renewal. Artists such as Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo worked on the decoration. Within the Italian political landscape, the state of the Church exercised a strong influence due to the unlimited power that the popes held. The popes did use art to enhance the prestige and superiority of their government.
St Peter’s Square
Designed by Bernini between 1657 and 1658 under Pope Alexander VII, it is divided into two parts: one in the style of Piazza del Campidoglio, trapezoidal in shape; the second, elliptical and surrounded by a colossal colonnade which according to the Christian tradition embraces the visitor “in the maternal arms of Mother Church”. The square is vast, 240 meters wide and 340 meters long, with a colonnade of 284 columns of 15 meters each, arranged in four rows. Note also the 140 sculptures of saints, 3.20 meters in height each. The flight of stairs, also by Bernini, called Scala Regia, is a true work of art that leads to the upper floors of the palace of the Vatican. On both sides of the elliptical part of the square are two fountains, one by Bernini and one by Maderna. In the centre stands an impressive obelisk, known as “the silent witness” as it is thought to have stood witness to the crucifixion of St Peter.
St. Peter’s Basilica
After 18 centuries of architectural work during which changes in styles have marked the various historical periods, the basilica has two main styles: Renaissance and Baroque.
The construction of the building that you can see today was started in 1506. Bramante’s original design was based on a Greek cross plan inscribed in a square and surmounted by five domes. Bramante died in 1514 and his successors, Raphael, Fra Gioconda of Verona and Giuliano da Sangallo changed the original plans of the building, but the work then came to a halt and Pope Paul III put Michelangelo in charge of the work. He reverted to Bramante’s idea of a Greek cross plan. The original design had serious structural problems that Michelangelo had to solve. Michelangelo's greatest contribution is the huge dome and the tomb of St Peter, which seems suspended in the air. Following Michelangelo’s death, in 1606, Pope Paul V ordered the return to a Latin cross plan and the work was completed according to the final design of Fontana and Della Porta. The dome, with a diameter of 42.5 meters and a height of 132 meters, is one of the most complex architectural works in the world.
The facade is by the architect Carlo Maderno and dates from 1612.
Inside the Basilica:
Enter the basilica through the central door, dating from 1455, which represents the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul. On the right, the Holy Door, in bronze is by Vico Consorti, 1950. The church is 187 meters long and 58 meters wide. Inside, the basilica holds a space that seems endless, with decorations, mosaics, stucco and baroque sculptures and statues, such as the Baldacchino, by Bernini, 20 meters high, with graceful figures of cherubs in bronze, and Altar della Cattedra, also by Bernini. The central nave has huge, fluted and cabled pilasters with niches, which hold 39 statues of saints who founded various religious orders.
The Pieta represents the moment from Christ’s Passion, after the Descent from the Cross in the presence of the Virgin Mary. The Pieta is located in the right aisle of the basilica. It is the first of a number of works on the same theme by Michelangelo, and one of his most traditional (1499) with the Virgin supporting Jesus on her lap. Michelangelo completed the Pieta at the age of 24. Below the structure of the basilica is the tomb of St. Peter's where, according to tradition, are the remains of the saint.
Worth a visit is the Historical Artistic Museum with the Treasury of Saint Peter and the Vatican Grottoes where you can see the chapels and the tombs of the kings, queens and popes from the 10th century onwards.
The construction of a series of buildings began in the Vatican after the period of residence of the Pope in Avignon, from 1400 onwards. The Apostolic Palace is a collection of buildings that includes the Papal Apartments, some of the Catholic Church government offices, several chapels, the Vatican Museum and the Vatican Library. In total there are about 1,000 rooms, the most famous of which is the Sistine Chapel with its renowned ceiling frescoes painted by Michelangelo (restored between 1980-1990) and Raphael Rooms.
The Vatican Museum is the largest museum complex in the world. There you will find: the Pinacoteca (Art Gallery), the Pio-Clementino Museum, the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
In one of the rooms, which were the apartment of Pope Julius II, and called Stanza della Segnatura, you can see the famous fresco by Raphael “The School of Athens” (1508-1511), which deals with the theme of the relationship between Plato’s philosophy and Christianity. In his portrait of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Raphael wanted to pay tribute to Michelangelo.
The chapel takes its name from the Pope who designed the building, Pope Sixtus IV (1475-1481). The chapel includes the work of several artists who painted the frescoes on the walls. Initially, when Michelangelo was commissioned to decorate the chapel, it was only supposed to include the figures of the twelve apostles. But Michelangelo decided to change the design and began the work in 1508. It took him 4 years to complete the frescoes in the chapel.
The topics include scenes from the Old Testament and the Book of Genesis. The most important scenes represent the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the story of Noah. Other figures painted on the shields are taken from the Old and the New Testament.
The artist began by painting the first small rectangle over the entrance, which represents The Drunkenness of Noah. The scenes are painted in chronological order, so that the Separation of light from darkness is located nearest the high altar, like the Creation of Adam. The magnificent fresco of the Last Judgment, (13.70 x 12.20 meters) is on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel, and represents the event described in the Gospel according to St Matthew, when Christ returns for the second time on earth to separate the good from the bad and send them to heaven or to hell. In the centre are represented Charon with his boat, the Martyrs, the Angels and the Resurrected.
Pio Clementino Museum
Gallery of Geographical Maps
Gallery of the Candelabra
Apartment of Pius V
Gregorian Profane Museum
This mausoleum was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian. The building stands in all its majesty with a diameter of 64 meters and a height of 21 meters. The square base is made of cement whilst the round tower above is constructed from blocks of tuff, travertine and peperino. The outside walls are of marble-faced travertine. It was built as a military defence for the Vatican and was used at times as the residence of the popes. Since 1925, it has been the site of the National Museum where you can see the prisons, the Sala Paolina, the Camera di Perseo, the loggia of Julius II, etc. A bridge, known as Ponte Sant’Angelo, leads to Castel Sant'Angelo. You can see Baroque sculptures by Bernini on the bridge.
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