Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, is its own country– the smallest in the world. Completely surrounded by Italy, with a border of just two miles, it is the only sovereign nation that is NOT part of the U.N. Its area is a mere .44 sq km, just over 100 acres. It is also the only UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses an entire country.
Vatican City has its own mint, a postal system (including stamps), passports, license plates, media, flag, anthem, and radio station. It also has a national football (soccer) team.
Many Italians prefer the Vatican postal service, as it tends to be faster than Italian post.
There is no official language; languages spoken regularly include Latin, Italian, English, French, German, Spanish. There is 100% literacy. It is the only country where ATMs offer Latin as a choice of language.
The Vatican has no taxes. All revenue comes in through museum admissions, sales of postage stamps and souvenirs, and donations. Italian citizens are given the option of paying 8% of their yearly taxes to Vatican City instead of the Italian government.
Over half of the citizens of the country do not live there; they are clergy sent as diplomats to other countries. The population (around 1,000) does not change much, and one does not gain citizenship by birth. Citizenship in Vatican City is by appointment only.
Vatican City is rich in history. In Nero’s time, the area was used as a grave for Christians who were killed in massive quantities. One of the notables believed to be buried there is St Peter, the Apostle. Because of this, Constantine ordered a basilica constructed in 320 AD, which was centered over the grave believed to be St. Peter’s. (This is why it is named St. Peter’s Basilica.) In the 1500s, the newer basilica was begun; construction was completed 120 years later, with the decoration work (including a sculpture of the masonry, painting, and mosaic work) continuing for another 200 years. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world.
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was designed by Michelangelo. It reaches 400 feet (122 meters) at the top and is 138 feet (42 meters) in diameter. There is a cupola at the top, which can be reached by climbing 551 steps, that offers a breathtaking view of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling is commonly known to have been painted by Michelangelo, was designed by Giovanni deiDolci. Decorations were provided by, along with Michelangelo, Pier Matteo d’Amelia, Raphael, and others. Recently, 7,000 LED lights were added to illuminate the painting without causing deterioration.
St. Peter’s Square, located before the basilica, was made to allow the greatest possible quantity of people a view of the Pope giving his blessing. The colonnade that surrounds the area contains 140 statues of saints. These two areas were designed and built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini as commissioned by Pope Alexander VII. The construction was completed in 1667.
The obelisk in St. Peter’s Square originally resided in Egypt, in Heliopolis. This pylon, made of red granite, weighs over 350 tons. It was made for an Egyptian Pharaoh over 3,000 years ago. Caligula brought it to Vatican City in 1586. It is installed in such a way that, after stones were set into place in 1817 to mark the places, it also functions as a huge sundial.
The Popes did not actually live in Vatican City until the 14th century. Before that, they lived at the Lateran Palace, which is on the other side of Rome. For a short time, from 1309-1377, the dwelling-place was in Avignon, France, and seven French popes ruled from there. When they moved back to Rome in 1377, they found the Lateran Palace had burned, so they moved into Vatican City. They found it in a state of severe disrepair. Wolves were digging in the cemetery for bones, and they found cows wandering in the basilica.
The Pope resides in a building known as the Apostolic Palace. It is also known as the Palace of Sixtus V. It has over 1,400 rooms, more than 12,500 windows, almost 1,000 flights of stairs, and 20 courtyards. Along with the Papal Apartments, the building also houses government offices, both private and public chapels, museums, and the Vatican library. The Borgia Apartment is now used to display artwork.
Its government is an absolute monarchy (ruled by the Pope), but it is not hereditary. The Pope is elected. Before 1870, there was the additional Papal States that were under the rule of the Pope; after reunification in 1870, the secular government of Italy seized the other states. A “cold war” broke out, in which the Pope refused to acknowledge any authority on the part of the Italian government. The popes did not leave the city for almost 60 years. Pope Piux IX said that he was a “prisoner of the Vatican.” When Italian troops were present in St. Peter’s Square, no appearances were made, nor any blessings from the balcony.
The Lateran Pacts, signed in 1929 by Mussolini (the head of Italian government) on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III, allowed the Vatican to exist as its own sovereign state. Compensation of $92 million (the equivalent today would be over $1 billion) was given to the City for the loss of the Papal States.
There is a secret passageway that links Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress on the Tiber River. This was made in 1277 to be an escape route for the Pope and was used by Clement VII in 1527, as well as at other times.
The Vatican Observatory, directed by Father Jose Funes, also has a second location, due to the increase in light pollution in Rome. This location is in Tucson, Arizona, on Mount Graham. The Observatory has an official stance on life on other planets, which is that it is possible. The director stated in a public statement in 2006 that any life that may be found is doubtless God’s creations.
The Vatican has Christian and art museums within the city covering over 9 miles (14.5 km) – a total of 54 galleries (which includes the Sistine Chapel). It is said that if a person spends just one minute looking at each exhibit, it would take four years to see all of them.
There are six entrances to Vatican City, but only three of them are accessible to the public: the Piazza, Arco delleCampane, and the Museums and Galleries entrance.
The Swiss Guard has been the protectors of the Pope since 1506. They were originally hired by Pope Julius II, as mercenaries. They comprise the world’s smallest standing army. Though their duties are now ceremonial, the soldiers are thoroughly trained and are skilled marksmen. There are 110 soldiers and 6 officers that make up the army. Their unique, colorful uniforms make them easily distinguishable among the population and tourists. In order to join the Swiss Guard, some qualifications must be met. A candidate must be Catholic, unmarried, male, between 19 and 30 years old, a Swiss citizen, have completed Swiss Army basic training, and be at least 5’8.5” (1.74m) tall.
Despite this visible military force, the crime rate in Vatican City is proportionately much higher than neighboring Italy, and 90% of crimes committed are unsolved, largely because escape across the border to Italy is mere meters away. Most of the crime consists of petty thieveries, such as purse snatchers and pickpockets, though some fraud and forgery occur occasionally. Having no prison system of its own, sentenced criminals are imprisoned in Italy at the Vatican’s expense.
There is a Papal Audience held every Wednesday morning, in several languages. This tradition is continued with the 266th Pope, Francis. The Bishop of Rome has his own Twitter account and Vatican City is active on social media, with an official website and a YouTube channel as well.