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The VaticanView Map
Climbing the steps to St. Peter's Basilica feels monumental, like a journey that has reached its climactic end. Harlequin-costumed Swiss Guards stand at attention, curly spears at their sides, dreaming fiercely of their God and His country as you pass through the gates. Suddenly, all is cool, and dark, and you are dwarfed by a gargantuan hall and its magnificence.
Like jewels for giants, colored stones stud the floor and walls; 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, is perhaps in the eye of the beholder.
For good Catholics and sinners alike, the Vatican is an exercise in spirituality, requiring patience but delivering joy. This is a retreat where some people go to savor a heavenly Michelangelo fresco—others come to find their soul. In between these two extremes lies an awe-inspiring landscape that offers a famous sight for every taste. Rooms decorated by Raphael, antique sculptures like the Apollo Belvedere, walls daubed by Fra Angelico, famous paintings by Giotto and Bellini, and chief among revered ne plus ultras, the Sistine Chapel: For the lover of beauty, few places are as historically important as this epitome of faith and grandeur.
What gave all this impetus while the emperors of ancient Rome presided over their declining empire was the emergence of a new force: namely, Christianity; the seat of the popes was established over the tomb of St. Peter, thereby making the Vatican the spiritual core of the Roman Catholic Church. But the massive walls surrounding Vatican City strongly underscore the fact that this is also a temporal power—an independent, sovereign state, established by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 between the Holy See and the Mussolini 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 runs its own postal system. 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, Benedict XVI (elected April 2005). 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 here are as much monuments to their genius as to the Catholic church.
Inside the Basilica—breathtaking both for its sheer size and for its extravagant interior—are artistic masterpieces including Michelangelo's Pietà and Bernini's great bronze baldacchino canopy over the main altar. A robust outdoor walk from the piazza is the entrance to the Vatican Museums; the blisters will be worth it as the endless collections here contain many of the greatest works of Western art, period. The Laocoön, Leonardo's St. Jerome, and Raphael's Transfiguration are just the smallest sample. The Sistine Chapel, accessible through the Museums, is Michelangelo's magnificent artistic legacy and his ceiling is the High Renaissance in excelsis, in more ways than one. Between the Vatican and the once-moated bulk of Castel Sant'Angelo—erstwhile mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian and now an imposing relic of medieval Rome—the pope's covered passageway flanks an enclave of workers and craftspeople, the old Borgo neighborhood, whose workaday charm has begun to succumb to gentrification.
The Vatican at a Glance
Experience The Vatican
- Basilica di San Pietro
- Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel)
- Castel Sant'Angelo
- Giardini Vaticani (Vatican Gardens)
Elsewhere in Rome
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