The Vatican: Rome of the Popes

By Saul Schwartz

The Vatican is the smallest country in the world with approximately 1000 permanent residents on 44 ha, or 108 acres surrounded by Rome. Vatican City was established as an independent country by the 1929 treaty with the Italian government. There are two principle reasons for sightseeing at the Vatican. One is to visit the largest church in the world (St. Peter’s) and the other is to visit the staggering collections of the Vatican Museums. And underneath your feet, a hidden Vatican awaits to be explored.

St. Peter’s Square

Our first view of the Vatican was memorable. St. Peter’s Square is the grand entrance to Vatican City and a spectacular urban showpiece. In December, the square contains a huge Christmas tree and a Nativity scene. We were lucky to see the unveiling of this year’s Nativity scene during our stay.

St Peter’s Square, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is a prime example of Baroque art and architecture in Rome. Constructed over ten years, 1656-1667, the square sits in front of St Peter’s Basilica and is dominated by a 40 meter tall Egyptian obelisk, as well as an original fountain by Carlo Maderno. The Square’s magnificent curving pair of colonnades are lined with two rows of marble pillars and 140 statues perched on top depicting important religious saints.

Guarding the Vatican’s border crossing and within Vatican City, we saw the mercenary guards from Switzerland; The Pontifical Swiss Guard. Their colorful dress uniforms are blue, red, orange and yellow with a distinctly renaissance appearance. Contrary to popular belief, the uniforms weren’t designed by Michelangelo, though. Apparently, they just dressed a little more ..colourful back then.

The Vatican Museums

By booking a tour through the Omnia Pass, we bypassed a lengthy line for the museums and we were accompanied by an exceptional English language guide. After reserving the time for fast track entry online through the Omnia pass, we booked the guide at the Omnia office in St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican Museums are considered among the most important museums in the world. The museums have a strict dress code. These museums house great artistic masterpieces which were commissioned and protected by the Popes. Because the museums are immense, our tour guide focused on highlights. In the Octagonal Courtyard, among the most famous statues you can see the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön sculpted group and Perseus with the head of Medusa by Antonio Canova.

If you love history and geography, along the itinerary leading to the Sistine Chapel, you will find the Gallery of Maps, one of the brightest and most fascinating environments within the Vatican Museums. The gallery is named after the series of maps commissioned by Pope Gregorius XIII painted on the walls by Egnazio Danti. Italy is seen as divided in two by the Apennine Mountains; on one side are the regions standing on the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian coasts and, on the other side, the regions standing on the Adriatic coast. The views of the main Italian ports of the sixteenth century complete the series of geographical maps.

The Sistine Chapel

Our route through the museum included a visit to the place where the Conclave elects the new Pope; the Sistine Chapel. The stunning Sistine Chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV who called on the services of the most illustrious painters of the time. In 1508, Michelangelo began to paint the wonderful ceiling which is now considered the masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance and the most famous element of the museums. Michelangelo invented a form of scaffolding that allowed him to paint on the ceiling standing upright, over a four year period. In the nine central panels are represented scenes from the Book of Genesis. At the corners, scenes from the Book of Kings are represented. In the spaces between the rib vaults, you can catch sight of the five Sibyls and the seven Prophets, and to end with, in the corner plumes there are some Salvation Episodes from the Old Testament. In addition, murals by Sandro Botticelli run along the length of the walls.

In 1533, Pope Clement VII called upon Michelangelo, this time to commission him to carry out the Last Judgement, positioned on the wall over the altar. The whole fresco is structured in a way that all the action happens around the figure of Christ.

In the Chapel, no pictures are allowed and we were only permitted to stay for a few minutes due to the crowds. With respect for the sanctity of the location, visitors are requested to observe absolute silence during their visit to the Chapel.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Built on the tomb of St. Peter, the Basilica was erected around the year 320 by Emperor Constantine. St. Peter’s is Rome’s biggest and most famous church. The Popes of the Renaissance made use of the greatest artists of the time, such as Michelangelo. St Peter’s Basilica doesn’t have a single painting in it at all. All the “art” is sculptures, architecture and mosaics.

Access to the Dome provided us with spectacular views of Vatican City and Rome, as day turned into night. In addition, we had a tremendous view of the church’s interior as we climbed to the top. As the tallest dome in the world, measuring 136,57 metres in height, it was designed by some of the greatest artists of all time. The original designs were by Donato Bramante, in 1506, and were modelled on the Pantheon in its style and structure. It then took inspiration from Florence’s Cathedral, before Michelangelo took all previous plans into consideration and created what we see now, with Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana actually finishing the building over 90 years later.

As the holy epicentre of the Roman Catholic faith, St. Peter’s is vital to the history and culture of Rome. Even to this day it is a place of global pilgrimage. With its impressive dome, gilt and marble interior, St. Peter’s is a wonder to behold, not only for its symbolism but for its art and architecture, too.

Vatican Necropolis

Underneath St. Peter’s Basilica you can visit the tombs of former popes and dignitaries. There are more than 100 extant tombs distributed in and beneath the Basilica, but the most important is the one beneath it all: The tomb on which the Basilica is said to have been built. The Tomb of St. Peter himself.

Because the present Basilica from 1626 sits on top of an even older Basilica from the 4th century, there are several layers of history to explore. In 1940 the Vatican started excavating the ground underneath the Basilica which revealed parts of a Necropolis dating to Roman times. It makes sense that St. Peter was buried in an ordinary burial ground outside the then Roman city walls, a necropolis with many other mausoleums and tombs.

This preserved Necropolis lies between 5 and 12 metres under the Basilica and it truly a “City of the Dead”. You walk in an ancient maze and witness the fundamental structure of the present Basilica as well as many old Roman tombs. The guided tour ends at the heart of the Basilica: the supposed grave of Apostle Peter.

It’s an extremely interesting tour, if you are just the least curious about history or archeology. Because of the limited space and limits regarding conservation, there is also a limit on number of visitors and you have to book a tour well in advance. And endure that photography is not allowed.

More info

To learn more about ancient Roman history, you might like to walk In the Footsteps of the Romans – Rome or check out Three World War II Sites in Rome. Or if you want to experience Rome without breaking your buck, how about following in Robert Langdon’s footsteps through Rome in our self-guided walking tour Among Angels and Demons in Rome, or visit The Most Beautiful Libraries of Rome.

About Saul Schwartz

Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.

He has visited Berlin for one weekcruised on the Romantic Danube, wrote a 1-week city guide for London, roamed the ancient architecture of Rome and much more! Check out all Saul’s contributions.  

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