Vatican City HeaderFlying Flag of the Vatican City

Vatican City - Andrew - 2001

Map showing the position of the Vatican City  Map of the Vatican City with flag


The Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the World. It was established in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty, although it has been the seat of the Pope for many many centuries.

The Vatican City consists of St. Peter's, Piazza San Pietro, the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Gardens. It has its own post office, train station and radio broadcaster. Not to mention its own "police force"; the famous Swiss Guards with their costumes designed by Michaelangelo, who also painted the astonishing Sistine Chapel which is part of the Museum.

The smallest country in the World with the largest church in the World and the highest number of priceless works of art to its size. It's quite a place!


Vatican City - Andrew - 2001

I think it was the first time I'd ever walked into another country. I left the Castel St. Angelo in Rome and walked along the via della Conciliazione which was driven through a number of ancient buildings by Mussolini's facist government. However, despite that destruction you can see the point - it provides a magnificent approach to St. Peter's, framed by the palatial buildings along each side of the via.

St. Peter's from the via della Conciliazione

When you reach the end of the via della Conciliazione you step onto Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square) and enter the borders of the Vatican City - the smallest country in the world, which contains the largest church and one of the biggest museums!

The Piazza (which is not square anymore than the majority of Rome's "squares" are!) is a perfect circle of colonades - or rather two perfect semi-circles - designed by Bernini (but frequently attributed incorrectly to Michaelangelo) and erected between 1656 and 1667. At its centre is an obelisk, transported from Alexandria in Egypt. As I was visiting just before Christmas the obelisk was largely obscured by the preparations for the life-size nativity scene that is constructed here each year, although it wasn't finished and looked a bit like a building site.

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City

I lingered a while in the Piazza, taking some photos and enjoying the uncrowded atmosphere which I guess is an advantage of not visiting in the summer when I can imagine the whole of the Vatican heaving with masses of tourists.

My plan was to visit St. Peter's and go up the Dome in the morning, and then to look around the Museum and Sistine Chapel in the afternoon, so I headed up to the security men guarding the entrance to St. Peter's - sadly not Swiss Guards but merely policemen. It took a while to get through the search, but then I began the final approach to St. Peter's.

At first the church seems not much bigger than a number of other Cathedrals, but as you approach you begin to get a real idea of the scale involved. The Dome long since disappears behind the facade and then you find yourself staring up at massive columns.

Interior of the Dome - St. Peter'sA church has stood here since around 64 AD when Saint Peter was martyred and buried on the site. This grew in size over the centuries, astonishingly by 1452 St. Peter's was falling down and Pope Nicholas V decided to start rebuilding work. This halted when he died in 1455 and further work was not undertaken until 1506 when Bramante was instructed to begin work. His plan involved tearing down the old church completely, which was done but work on the replacement was agonisingly slow and it wasn't until Pope Paul III employed Michaelangelo in 1547 that work began in earnest.

Michaelangelo's masterpiece was, of course, the great Dome - still the tallest in the world (it stands to 448 ft (136.5 m) in height but wasn't completed in Michaelangelo's lifetime, so he never saw his great work completed. In fact, almost a century after Michaelangelo the facade was still being added, work finishing in 1614.

St. Peters - InteriorOnce inside the scale of St. Peter's really does become apparent, the interior is a vast cavernous area and the people wandering around look like ants lost inside a particularly ornate bucket.

When you reach the centre of the basilica and stare up at the truly beautiful interior of Michaelangelo's Dome you feel dwarfed by the massiveness of everything. Every surface is covered with decoration. The lettering around the rim of the Dome looks tiny, but when you actually climb the Dome you realise it is as tall as you are. The nave is, in fact, 715 ft (218 m) long.

To the right of the entrance is Michaelangelo's Pietà sculpture, created long before he was commissioned for St. Peter's. Unfortunately the statue is now housed behind not particularly clean perspex in a dimly lit side chapel - a leaf could be taken from the Tower of London's books here and the statue could be presented behind optically flat glass as the Crown Jewels are.

The Altar Canopy in St. Peter'sDirectly under the Dome stands what looks like a Baroque rocket ship, it is in fact the Baldacchino - a canopy by Bernini standing over the Pope's Altar.

This awesome wooden structure is on a scale that is hard to comprehend, like everything else about St. Peter's.

After a while you stand around gaping at the massiveness of it all and begin to find it all too much to take in. I went and found a seat and sat for a while watching people wandering around dazed. In some ways it is all too large and all too ornate and there is no way you can hope to see everything or remember every detail. I can recall seeing the sun streaming in through a side window casting a pool of light onto the floor which people passed through seemingly without noticing and wondered just how many people come here, tick it off their list, and then head off to the next place.

Ideally I would have preferred to spend more time in St. Peter's (and perhaps next time I visit Rome I will) but I was working to some kind of timetable and wanted to go up the Dome before afternoon so I could take a break before tackling the Museum.

You have to leave the interior of the Church to go up the Dome, but don't go back through the security cordon. The entrance is down the right hand side of the main facade (looking toward the church). It is through a small and unobtrusive little doorway. You then pay your money to either walk up (for maniacs only!) or use the lift (for sensible and sane people). For once I was amongst the sane and chose the lift.

You pass through a little corridor squashed between two of the most famous churches in the world - St. Peter's on your left, the Sistine Chapel on your right.

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel

The lift takes you up to the main roof level, at the base of the Dome which looks even more massive and awe-inspiring up this close. From here there is an excellent view of the Museum complex which is housed in some of the Vatican's Palace buildings - which are historic structures in themselves, dating from 1377 when Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome from Avignon, through the massive building periods of the mid 1400s and 1500s, the addition of the Sistine Chapel in 1473, decorated by Michaelangelo in 1508-1512, more extensive work carried on in the 19th century and even more in the 20th.

The rest of the journey to the top of the Dome is on foot, and as you walk up inside the Dome the corridor gets smaller and smaller and starts to lean inwards, by the time you get to the end of it you are leaning over at a quite acute angle. And then you are out into the bright light and your breath is taken away by the view.

Piazza San Pietro from the Dome of St. Peter'sFrom here you can really see the beauty of the Piazza San Pietro and one can imagine Bernini climbing the Dome to look down at the construction work below with immense satisfaction, the elegance is so much clearer from here than from the ground and the pure symmetry of the two colonades. It is one of the greatest views in Europe.

You can also see right across the heart of Rome, past the Castel St. Angelo to the Pantheon and beyond to the great white block that is the Victor Emmanuel Monument (the "Wedding Cake" as it is often known). Those with keen eyes can even make out the top of the Colloseum, way off in the distance.

It was quite crowded at the top of the Dome, one can only imagine what it must be like at the height of the tourist season!

If the view from the front of St. Peter's is spectacular, the view from the back is very interesting ... the fact you can see most of a whole country is, in itself, of interest. You are looking down onto the Vatican Gardens (of which there are guided tours in the summer) and also on the Pope's private apartments. Of course, I scanned the gardens for any sign of a man dressed in white - but saw nothing in the way of movement at all. Oh well, I'll have to see the Pope some other time.

The Vatican Gardens from St. Peter's

You can also see the Vatican's radio station from up here. After staying up on the Dome for a while I decided it was time to leave - I had a large museum still to explore. You descend the Dome by a different set of stairs and emerge onto the opposite side of the main roof area. Once more you start to get an idea of scale when you realise there is a shop on St. Peter's roof - not just a little kiosk either - but a full blown shop! (Which can be seen in the photo below, just to the right of the main Dome - that whole building is the shop.)

The Dome from the roof

My parents had told me about the scale of the statues that stand along the top of the facade of St. Peter's so I wandered down to the front to have a look at them. Sadly you can't walk along behind them, but can get a view through the bars along the frontage.

Statues along the top of St. Peter's

After a trawl around the shop it was over to a different lift for the trip back down - which interestingly came down inside St. Peter's.

Swiss GuardI saw my only Swiss Guard as I left St. Peter's, sadly he was wearing a heavy winter cloak so I didn't get to see his costume in all it's stripey glory - Michaelangelo actually designed the costume himself. I was expecting the guard to be like those in London who you can do what you like to and they won't react, but he smiled and nodded as I took the photo.

My guidebooks all told me that the Vatican Museums were open all day. However, when I tried to find my way to the entrance I was told by a guide that they closed at 2:00 pm. It was 1:30. Thus my plan to visit a country in a day was scuppered and I knew I would have to come back and visit the Museums tomorrow.

So I wandered back into Italy (i.e. crossed the road outside Piazza San Pietro!) and headed off to the Spanish Steps.  See Italy pages.

The following morning I headed straight for the Vatican in an attempt to beat the crowds to the Museum entrance. This I largely did, although there was already a small queue. The entrance to the Museum is right around the other side of the Vatican to St. Peter's, which was quite a surprise as the guidebooks didn't seem to show this very clearly, so I got to walk around the fortified walls of the Vatican City which are really quite massive, a surprise as there is very rarely any mention of the place being so heavily fortified.

The entrance to the Museum is through what would have been one of the gates in the fortifications. Immediately inside you are searched and pay your money (not expensive at all) and you walk up past a disappointing shop and to a junction - in one direction is are the Museums and in the other the newest part of the Vatican, the Pinacoteca or Gallery. I decided to head for the antiquities first.

The Pinecone Courtyard, Vatican Museum

Surprisingly the first thing of note was not a statue or similar ancient relic but part of the buildings themselves. It is so easy to forget that the Vatican Museums are housed in some of the best preserved Renaissance buildings in the world. I stepped from the cool inside into the warm courtyard known as the "Cortile della Pigna" (Pine Courtyard) which was constructed in the late 15th century and gets its name from the massive bronze pine cone which stands in an alcove at one end. This may date back to ancient Roman times (although no one source seems to agree with another) whatever the case it is a massive and spectacular piece of sculpture, now matched by the weird shattered globe sculpture which is one of the few modern pieces in the Museums and was catching the sun impressively when I was there.

Back inside and you start to hit the Museum proper. Immediately inside the buildings behind the pine cone is the Egyptian and Assyrian collection which contains not only genuine ancient Egyptian pieces but also the copies that Hadrian adorned his villa with. Upstairs and you reach the Etruscan and pre-Roman collections with some magnificent pieces, indeed this is the best collection of Etruscan materials anywhere in the world.

Interior of the Vatican Museum

This leads directly on to the Gallery of Maps - a series of massive 16th century maps of Rome and the surrounding areas. It is fascinating seeing places like Dubrovnik mentioned and mapped out on these maps, not to mention spotting structures such as the Colloseum on the maps of Rome.

When you reach the end of the Gallery of Maps you are met with another choice - the Raphael Rooms or the Sistine Chapel.

I could restrain myself no longer - by far the biggest attraction in the whole Museum complex is the Sistine Chapel - or more particularly the paintings on the ceilings and walls.

These were begun not by Michaelangelo - who gets the credit for the whole lot - but by Perugino who was employed by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475 to decorate the interior of his private chapel (hence the name Sistine). Perugino in his turn employed Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli and Signorelli between 1481 and 1483 to decorate the walls.

In 1508 Michaelangelo was employed by Pope Julius II to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel and he created the most famous and, arguably, the greatest single piece of art in history. The central panels showed the events of the book of Genesis from the Creation to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the story of Noah. Around the outside are Ancestors of Christ, Old Testament Prophets and Sibyls with some Old Testament scenes in the four corners.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The last piece in the jigsaw of the Sistine Chapel was also by Michaelangelo and it takes up the whole of one end wall. The Last Judgment is a massive fresco packed with details and realism (some of it quite gruesome as it includes people being skinned alive!). This was commissioned by Pope Paul III and was completed in 1541 (seven years after it was started). If anything this is even more breathtaking than the ceiling and I sat for ages taking in all the details. Michaelangelo even included a self-portrait; in the skin held by St. Batholomew (his own skin as this was how he was martyred). This end wall of the Sistine Chapel is slanted inwards to stop dust settling on the fresco!

The more you sit and look at the paintings in the Sistine Chapel the more wonderful details you see. I am not a great expert on art, but this is breathtaking stuff and worth the price of entrance to the Museums on its own. Naturally, no photographs are allowed, but a good number of postcards are available. The recent restoration of the paintings has brought out the colours in vivid detail and now they are probably more vibrant and exciting than anytime since Michaelangelo added his last brushstrokes to The Last Judgment.

Incredibly - or perhaps not - people were sitting next to me getting it all completely wrong, telling each other that Moses was on the central panel of the ceiling and that the end wall featured Dante's Inferno. I am no art snob, but for heaven's sake people read your guidebooks.

The School of Athens by Raphael in the Raphael Rooms, Vatican Museum

Retracing my steps back up the stairs I headed now for the Raphael rooms, a series of four rooms decorated for Pope Julius II. The work was begun in 1508 and Raphael himself died (in 1520) before the completion of the whole project. The frescoes in these rooms rival anything anywhere else in the world. At present two have been rennovated and cleaned and two are still buried under the acumulated muck of five centuries - the different is startling. The picture to the left is The School of Athens, painted by Raphael in 1511 and including portraits of many of his contemporaries including Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante and that man Michaelangelo again.

Leaving the Raphael Rooms I headed back into the main parts of the Museum. As I headed down towards the Map Gallery once more I wandered into a small side room which featured wonderful mini-mosaics. Apparently in the Renaissance period it was quite fashionable to do this. The method is cutting tiny sticks of coloured materials into small sections and then arranging these "on end" so to speak to form the pictures. Despite all the other treasures in the Museum I found this room the most fascinating. When I came home and tried to look it up in all my guidebooks I found nothing - not a mention and I can't even find the name of the technique.

Another interior of the Vatican Museum

Back out amongst the statuary again, I came upon the "Round Room" - a room whose interior was very clearly based on the interior of the Pantheon (which I had yet to visit at this stage), leading off from here I was right in the heart of the Ancient Greek and Roman materials which form the bulk of the Vatican Museums. There are some marvellous works in here, but by the time I'd reached the end my interest in ancient statues was beginning to wane a little I have to admit.

The Room of Animals perked my interest back up a little, there are some very weird animals sculpted here ... I mean, horses - yes, lions - yes, but you probably wouldn't have expected the Ancient Romans to go around making sculptures of hippos and tortoises!

Then I was suddenly back at the main entrance by the shop and I realised I had covered most of the Museum area. So I crossed the hall and headed into the Pinacoteca - the Vatican Art Gallery.

Detail of Raphael's Transfiguration, Vatican GalleryAs you might expect the bulk of this Gallery is religious art which starts off with a large number of early flat iconic artwork (which has never been my scene at all), but once you hit the Renaissance the art really takes off culminating in Raphael's final work, Transfiguration, which shows Christ appearing in a vision to three of the Apostles. The work was not quite finished and for a long time was the headstone over the artist's grave. Today it occupies the largest room in the Gallery alongside several other works by Raphael. It is a wonderful piece of artwork, positively glowing in the dim-lit room. Then you pass into the modern section with works by Picasso, Henry Moore and a number of the "usual suspects" as far as modern art goes.

The Vatican Gallery is probably better appreciated by those with a taste for religious art work, but it is worth a look for Transfiguration alone.

The Spiral Exit Ramp of the Vatican Museum - a work of art in itself!

And then it was time to leave the Vatican Museum - but even doing this you cannot escape works of art and beauty. The massive spiral ramp which leads from the Museum is a work of art in itself and was built by Giuseppe Momo in 1932.

Having walked down this ramp I left the Vatican Museums and crossed the road out of the Vatican City and back into Rome.

It may be the smallest country in the world - but Wow! What a Country!!

See also Italy.

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Back to Western Europe

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