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Rome Travel Guide

  • Photo: Luciano Mortula / Shutterstock

The Vatican

Climbing the steps to St. Peter's Basilica feels monumental, like a journey that has reached its climactic end. Swiss Guards stand at attention, spears at their sides, as you pass through the gates. Suddenly, all is cool and dark... and you are dwarfed by a gargantuan hall and its magnificence. Above is a ceiling so high it

must lead to heaven itself. Great, shining marble figures of saints frozen mid-whirl loom from niches and corners. And at the end, a throne, for an unseen king whose greatness (it is implied) must mirror the greatness of his palace. For this basilica is a palace, the dazzling center of power for a king and a place of supplication for his subjects. Whether his kingdom is earthly or otherwise may be in the eye of the beholder.

For good Catholics and sinners alike, the Vatican is an exercise in spirituality, requiring patience but delivering joy. Some come here to savor a heavenly Michelangelo fresco—others to find their soul. But what all visitors share, for a few hours, is an awe-inspiring landscape that offers a famous sight for every taste. Rooms decorated by Raphael, antique sculptures like the Apollo Belvedere, famous paintings by Giotto and Bellini, and, perhaps most of all, the Sistine Chapel: for the lover of beauty, few places are as historically important as this epitome of faith and grandeur.

The story of this area’s importance dates back to the 1st century, when St. Peter, known (albeit retroactively) as the first pope, was buried here. The first basilica in his honor rose in this spot under Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, some 250 years later. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, however, that the papacy decided to make this area not only a major spiritual center, but the spot from which they would wield temporal power, as well. Today, it’s difficult not to be reminded of that worldly power when you glimpse the massive walls surrounding Vatican City—a sign that you’re entering an independent, sovereign state, established by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 between the Holy See and Mussolini’s government.

Vatican City covers 108 acres on a hill west of the Tiber and is separated from the city on all sides, except at Piazza di San Pietro, by high walls. Within the walls, about 1,000 people are permanent residents. The Vatican has its own daily newspaper (L'Osservatore Romano), issues its own stamps, mints its own coins, and has its own postal system (one run, people say thankfully, by the Swiss). Within its territory are administrative and foreign offices, a pharmacy, banks, an astronomical observatory, a print shop, a mosaic school and art restoration institute, a tiny train station, a supermarket, a small department store, and several gas stations. The sovereign of this little state is the pope, Francis, elected in March 2013 after his predecessor, Benedict XVI, stepped down (the first time a pope has given up office since 1415). His main role is as spiritual leader to the world's Catholic community.

Today, there are two principal reasons for sightseeing at the Vatican. One is to visit the Basilica di San Pietro, the most overwhelming architectural achievement of the Renaissance; the other is to visit the Vatican Museums, which contain collections of staggering richness and diversity. Here at the Vatican great artists are honored almost as much as any holy power: the paintings, frescoes, sculptures, and buildings are as much monuments to their genius as to the Catholic Church.The story goes that Bernini's Barberini patron, Pope Urban VIII, had no qualms about stripping the bronze from the Pantheon to provide Bernini with the material to create the gigantic bronze baldacchino over St. Peter's main altar. (In fact, Bernini already had the bronze he needed; the Pantheon bronze instead went to cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo.) Regardless of the bronze’s final destination, the Romans reacted with the famous quip: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini ("What the barbarians didn't do, the Barberini did").For many, a visit to the Vatican is one of the top reasons to visit Rome, and it is a vast and majestic place, jam-packed with things to see, so it's best to plan ahead. Borgo and Prati are the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the Vatican and it's worth noting that while the Vatican might be a priority, these neighborhoods are not the best places to choose a hotel as they're quite far from other top sights in the city.

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