Let’s go back to Rome. There’s so much to see and do in Rome, and you can’t easily cover it all in a single article. In my previous Rome article, I covered the major landmarks in central Rome, located on the east bank of the Tiber River. Now we’ll talk about the west bank. The Vatican is located here.
Tiber River & Castel Sant’Angelo
From our apartment near the Piazza Navona, it was an easy 10-minute walk west to the Tiber River. Legend has it that Rome was founded on the banks of this river. Walking along the tree-lined riverfront is very pleasant. It provides a peaceful respite from all the tourist-filled landmarks and piazzas. Rome has built some beautiful bridges than span the Tiber. The one pictured below (as well as in the photo at the top of this article) is the Ponte Sant’Angelo.
As you cross the Ponte Sant’Angelo, you come to the immense Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle was actually originally built as the tomb for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family. It was upgraded to a castle in the 14th Century by the Popes. They even built a tunnel from St. Peter’s Basilica to the castle, so people could seek refuge there (kinda like in the book/movie “Angels and Demons” haha).
The Vatican is the main attraction on the west bank of the Tiber. Vatican City is a city-state – a sovereign nation independent of Italy. It’s a tiny country. Its lands are fully contained within the city walls, and under 1000 people officially live there. The Holy See, the “government” of the Roman Catholic Church, operates from the Vatican (but it is technically independent from the Vatican City state). The Vatican is a theocracy. The Pope is its monarch, a head-of-state just like the American President or the British Prime Minister. The only other people in the world who also have this dual role of religious leader and head of state are the leaders of Islamic states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan; as well as the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Although the Vatican is the seat of a 2000 year old religion and is filled with a wealth of relics and history, Vatican City is ironically a young nation. It was founded only in 1929. 48 of the U.S. States (except Alaska and Hawaii) are older than Vatican City. For many centuries, the Papal States was a much larger nation, occupying much of central Italy, from which the Holy See ruled. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula was divided into several nations, including the Papal States (and this division was in flux all the time). In the 1800’s, Italy went through a reunification phase. I don’t know much about this history, but here’s what I have read. The various nations of the Italian peninsula (Venice, Piedmont, Lombardy, Sicily, Naples, etc.) fought outside conquerors (like the Spanish and the Austrians), as well as each other. After a few wars, the emerging consolidated Kingdom of Italy (led by the Piedmonts) eventually declared war on the Papal States, who opposed the unification. In 1870, the Kingdom of Italy besieged Rome for a bit, then it annexed Rome. This ended the Papal States’ millennium-long era of being a sovereign nation. In spite of this huge loss, the Pope and his leadership remained defiant and retreated behind the walls of the Vatican. The Italian government did not want to attack the Vatican itself and did not care to interfere with the operations of the Catholic Church. This stalemate, known in Italian history as the Roman Question, lasted for almost 60 years. It finally ended with a compromise in 1929 – the Lateran Treaty. This treaty established the Vatican City as a sovereign nation for the Popes, and made Roman Catholicism the official religion of Italy.
The focal point of the Vatican is St. Peter’s Square. A large boulevard leads from the Tiber River to this square. St. Peter’s Basilica is located at the top of the square. The Pope conducts large public masses in the square.
As I had mentioned earlier, we were in Rome on the weekend of Pope John Paul II’s Beatification ceremony. This ceremony marks step 3 of 4 in becoming a Saint of the Catholic Church – a BIG deal. As a result, hordes of believers (especially from Poland, where that Pope came from) came to the Vatican for the ceremony. Officials set up large screens, speakers, and crowd control measures everywhere. We escaped from town on the main day of the ceremony (Saturday). But even on Sunday, the Vatican was crowded, because they allowed visitors to view the Pope’s casket in St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica is an immense church of Renaissance architecture. It’s probably the largest all churches in the Christian kingdom, and it’s one of the holiest. Aside from being a huge space for performing religious services, St. Peter’s is also well-known for its crypt. Many Popes are buried there. The crypt’s most famous “resident” is St. Peter himself, the apostle of Jesus who became the first Pope. Unfortunately, there was such a huge line to get in to the basilica, so we did not make it in 🙁 The photos above were from my previous trip to Italy.
Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museum is a ginormous museum that houses the collection of artwork gathered by the Catholic Church over the millenia. It is one of Rome’s top tourist attractions. It is so popular that you usually have to wait an hour or two to get in. I highly recommend buying a tour, which allows you to get in a special tour group entrance. When we went, however, everyone was going to St. Peter’s Square to see the Pope festivities, so there was hardly any line for the museum.
The museum as a great variety of art work. There’s a lot of Roman art, especially sculpture. There’s a lot of Renaissance and Early Modern Italian art – though mostly portraits of stuffy old people or religious scenes. What is really impressive is all the art painted directly painted on the ceilings and walls. Since my last trip, they have also added an entire wing of modern art too. I think we spent 4 or 5 hours at this museum. You can probably spend even more time there!
Museums are often cool not just for their artwork, but also for their architecture. My favorite architectural highlight from the Vatican Museum is its spiral staircase entrance.
At the end of the museum, you are led to its masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. We’ve all probably heard of the wonders of this place. It’s ironic though – when you first walk in, you just notice how small and dark it is. And it’s crowded – hundreds of tourists are always stuffed in here. But when you look up and see every inch of wall covered by Michelangelo’s handiwork, wow, it’s pretty amazing. For some silly reason, they don’t let you take any pictures in here. I’m not sure how this photo got here 🙂