Since the Lateran Treaty, signed in February 1929, the Vatican has been a sovereign state. It is the smallest country in the world, at only 0.44 km2 and home to about 1,000 people. Despite its miniscule size, the Vatican area contains the largest Catholic church in the world, with the tallest dome in the world, as well as on of the largest collections of art in one of the biggest museums in the world. It also has its own post office, a dairy with cows that provide all the milk requirements for the state and radio station, which broadcasts in over 20 languages.

Vatican hill was not one of the seven hills of Ancient Rome. It is across the river Tiber from the original Roman city and as such was considered a suburban area. The east side of the hill, facing the river, was originally used as a burial site by the ancient Romans, and the remains of this necropolis can still be found beneath the present basilica. On the south side of the hill, running east-west was the Circus of Gaius and Nero. It was here that St. Peter was martyred in AD 61 by being crucified upside down, his body was later taken to be buried at the nearest burial site, which was the necropolis on Vatican hill. Sometime around AD 200 an altar was built at the site and in AD 324, after having made Christianity not only legal but also the official religion of Rome, Constantine ordered that a basilica be built on the location of Peter’s tomb. As the popes are considered the successors of St. Peter it is no wonder that they have made the area around St. Peter’s Basilica their home. However, this is a relatively new concept, as for almost the first 1000 years of the papacy, until 1309, the popes lived at the 1st church built by Constantine, and what is still considered today to be the Cathedral of Rome, The Lateran. After the return from Avignon in 1377, the popes decided to reinforce their claim to power by resettling in Rome at the throne of Peter, and from then on the Vatican has been the official papal residence.

Needless to say, due to the presence of the tomb of Peter, the most important church in Christendom, and later the home of the popes, the Vatican area has always been a primary pilgrimage site in Rome. Traditionally, pilgrims would enter Rome through the gates at Piazza del Popolo and make their way to the Bridge of the Angels to cross the river Tiber to the Castel Sant’Angelo and from there make their way to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Photo by CIarán Durkan

Photo by Ciarán Durkan

Castel Sant'Angelo takes it’s name from the miraculous vision that Pope Gregory the Great had of the archangel Michael on this site in AD 590. Originally the circular structure was the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, completed in 139 AD, and later, from the late 14th century to the mid 16th century was converted into a prison and fortress for the papacy. The upper stories were refurbished from 1542-9 AD with highly decorative rooms, the most beautiful of which was created by Perin del Vaga and Pellegrino Tibaldi for Pope Paul III. The fortress is now open to the public and allows the visitor to walk up the helicoidal ramp of the Ancient Roman central structure to see the Chamber of the Urns where the ashes of Hadrian and his family were kept as well as visit the upper Mediaeval and Renaissance rooms, some of which still contain original fresco and plaster stucco decorations. The upper floors of the castle also contain a museum with military memorabilia and mediaeval firearms, a café, and the roof terrace has some spectacular views of Rome.

During the 1450 Jubilee the Bridge of the Angels was the location of a tragic accident, when a donkey stampeded and in the ensuing panic an estimated 200 people were trampled to death. Since then the bridge has been widened, the version you see today was decorated with 10 statues depicting angels designed by the baroque artist Bernini. Dante, who had supposedly visited Rome for the 1300 Jubilee, used the image of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims filing across the narrow bridge in a two way traffic system as a way of expressing the countless souls milling about in hell, while Charles Dickens mentions the Bridge of the Angels in his travelogue Pictures from Italy, 1846, saying that he was not particularly impressed by the “libellous” statuary.

Photo by Flickr user: Jimmy Harris

Photo by Flickr user: Jimmy Harris

Today the visitor will turn left once they have crossed the bridge and see the sweeping avenue of via della Conciliazione which terminates in a dramatic view of St. Peter’s Basilica. However, this is only a recent addition to the Roman streetscape, and the wide avenue was only created in 1929. Originally access to St. Peter’s Square was through a number of narrow streets that traversed the Borgo area, which had changed little in about 1,500 years. The central area between St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo was raised to the ground to make way for the news street, and dramatically altered the approach to the Vatican, for better or worse. Moving suddenly from the dark, confined, mediaeval maze of the Borgo into the magnificent, open expanse of St. Peter’s Square must have been even more breathtaking and awe-inspiring than the view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica framed by the buildings either side of Via della Conciliazione today.

Today, the remains of the ancient Borgo area can still be seen either side of the central avenue, and a stroll down the narrow Borgo Pio to the north will call to mind the mediaeval character of the area. It is also a great place to eat or have a drink at one of the many cafes, bars, and restaurants. Also on this side of St. Peter’s square you will be able to see an 800 meter-long stretch of the old defense walls, parts of which were built in the 6th century to link up with the Aurelian walls, but what we see today was built mainly by Pope Nicolas III in 1277. The wall runs from the north of St. Peter’s square all the way to the Castel Sant’Angelo and was created to contains a hidden passage, known as the passetto, that gave the popes a way of fleeing from the Vatican complex unseen and enabled them to take refuge in the stronghold of the castle.

Photo by Flickr user: Bruno

Photo by Flickr user: Bruno

To the south of via della Conciliazione is the large complex known as Santo Spirito in Sassia. The Borgo got its name from the German word burg, meaning town and since the 8th century has been a place where pilgrims could come and seek refuge in the many hostels, hospices and hotels in the area. The Saxon King, Ine of Wessex was the first to establish the charitable institution for Saxon pilgrims in AD 725, and the name of the church in sassia means “in Saxony”. His Saxon ‘school’ was the first of many foreign communities set up in the area to help pilgrims. The church dates from the 12th century, with later additions and restorations in the Early and High Renaissance. It also grew to include the Foundling’s Hospital, which was build in 1198 and was the first such hospital in the world. In 1994 it was granted the title of “Sanctuary of Divine Mercy and was included as one of the 7 Pilgrim churches where indulgences might be granted by Saint Pope John Paul II for the 2000 Jubilee.

St. Peter’s Square is certainly grand, the vast scale of this urban space can accommodate approximately a quarter of a million people. In it’s current manifestation it was laid out by Bernini between 1656 and 1667, and is made up of a narrow central space immediately in front of the church, which extends into an elliptical colonnade, each of the outer columns is topped by a pope, saint or martyr. It has been said that the colonnades represent the all-embracing arms of the church, extending to hug the people as they gather in the square. However nice this thought may be it was not the original intention, as Bernini had originally planned a third central ‘arm’ which would enclose the square, creating a complete ellipse and cutting off St. Peter’s Basilica from the rest of Rome.

The central obelisk is 4,000 years old and is one of over a dozen dotted around Rome that were originally spoils of war taken by the Ancient Romans from Egypt after it had been conquered in the 1st Century AD. The obelisk was erected in St. Peter’s square in 1586, overseen by Domenico Fontana and contemporary reports suggest it took 900 men, over 70 horses and 47 winches to move it from its location to the side of the St. Peter’s Basilica and re-erect it. In the upper corridors of the Vatican Museum, moving towards to exit, after the Sistine chapel and the old Library area there are lunette frescoes above the doorways which give a 16th century glimpse of what St. Peter’s Basilica and the old square looked like before the Baroque reconstruction, one of which shows the complicated affair of erecting the 25.5-meter high, 326-ton obelisk in the center of the square.

The obelisk was originally located on the spina or central spine of Caligula and Nero’s circus, north-west of its current location. It is known as “the Witness” as this circus was the location of many martyrdoms, including St. Peter’s in the early Christian period and legend has it that the obelisk was the only one to stay standing in mediaeval Rome because it was the last witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter. The choice of a pagan monument in such a prime position in front of the most important Catholic church in the world has puzzled many. In fact, the obelisk was exorcised when it was moved into its current location, and topped with relics of the cross: interestingly, there are still inscriptions that describe 2 formulae for exorcism on the east and west sides of the base. It remains the 2nd tallest standing Egyptian obelisk in the world today and was positioned very carefully in the center of the square so that it acts as a sundial, telling time, marking the solstices and the signs indicated in the paving stones surround the monolith indicate when the sun is in each sign of the zodiac.

Photo by Ciarán Durkan

Photo by Ciarán Durkan

The fountains in the square are from the 17th century, the first of which was designed by Carlo Maderno on the north side of the piazza and 50 years later Bernini completed the design with a similar fountain to the south. Bernini, who designed the colonnade and the statuary that decorates the square, was one of the most prolific artists of the 17th century but he did have a reputation for the pastiche, and was criticized for focusing more on decoration than on structure and form, as a good architect should. At St. Peter’s square he may have been trying to still those criticisms as he was very careful to plan the colonnade so that it created an optical illusion that still marvels visitors today. The colonnade is 4 columns deep, but each column placement and the dimensions of the entire square were so carefully planned that if you stand on one of the two points either side of the Obelisk the forest of columns seems to disappear, making the colonnade look as if it is only one column deep. This ‘center’ is marked with a circular flagstone set into the paving of the square.

The Apostolic Palace is located north-east of St. Peter’s Basilica. The present structure was begun by Pope Sixtus V in 1589 and completed by successive popes. It contains the official residence of the reigning pope, government offices, the administrative offices of the Holy See, the Vatican Library, and the Renaissance parts of the palace that today make up the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. Traditionally, the pope lived in a suite of rooms on the third floor of Sixtus V’s palace, which can be seen on the furthest corner of the series of building towering over the colonnade on the north side of the square. The present incumbent, Pope Francis, decided to break from tradition and moved into a guest house inside the grounds of Vatican city, which he finds less formal and easier for him to “live in community to others”.

Content by Ciarán Durkan