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|—Terry Sanderson, president of the UK National Secular Society|
The Vatican, officially called the Vatican City State (Italian: Stato della Città del Vaticano, Latin: Status Civitatis Vaticanae), is the world's smallest sovereign state both in territory and in population, measuring 1.05 kilometers (0.6 mi) long and 0.85 kilometers (0.5 mi) wide, and holding a permanent population of roughly 1,000 people. Its tourist population tends to be much higher. This tiny size and large tourist appeal are attributable to the fact that it is a small exclave within the city of Rome, Italy's capital. The Vatican is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and is currently the world's only Christian theocracy. It's also one of six absolute monarchies and the only elected one. Latin is the official language. Nota bene.
While "the Vatican" refers to the secular holdings of the Pope, the Pope's church jurisdiction is known as the Holy See (Latin: Sancta Sedes), or the See of Rome. These terms shouldn't be used interchangeably, despite the Pope heading up both entities, because the Holy See is the name for the entire central administration of the Catholic Church and is considered (by those in the know) to be unconstrained by geography. While the Vatican City is a country, the Holy See conducts foreign relations on its behalf. The Holy See is also an observer with voting rights at the United Nations, where it tends to use its power to obstruct agendas related to global health (meaning "stuff related to abortion").
During and after the Middle Ages, the Pope was a powerful sovereign ruler of a secular domain, directly controlling a region of central Italy called the Papal States. This period saw the papacy hold massive amounts of wealth (extracted via church taxes from the various realms of western Europe), which grandiose Bishops of Rome spent to fund extravagant architectural and artistic ventures around and about their palaces in the Vatican. The Church's heyday eventually ended, though, and after Napoleon's efforts to simplify the political map, Italian nationalism dreamed up the demand for a united Italian peninsula. To this end, in 1870, the Kingdom of Italy invaded the Papal States and annexed the city of Rome. While Italy didn't do anything to interfere with the Pope's affairs inside the Vatican compound, the Pope and his successors refused to accept the destruction of their so-called "temporal power" and used every means at their disposal to undermine the Italian state. They described themselves as "prisoners in the Vatican". This standoff, called the "Roman Question", was only resolved in 1929 when the fascist leader Benito Mussolini negotiated the Lateran Treaty, granting full independence to the Vatican City and giving the Church certain influence in Italy's government.
The Vatican City attracts many
pilgrims tourists due to its rich cultural, historical, and artistic heritage. Notable attractions include religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums.
Government and politics
The Holy See is the government of the Catholic Church, and as such, its authority technically extends to wherever there are Catholics. "Holy See" comes from the Latin term Sancta Sedes, which means "Holy Chair." Technically, the Holy See is just the Pope, as the Pope wields absolute authority over the Church. In practice, though, that power must be wielded through the Roman Curia, a complex array of bureaus that executes the will of the Holy Father.
Notable bureaus of the Curia include:
- The Secretariat of State, headed by a Cardinal, is responsible for political and diplomatic affairs.
- The Secretariat for the Economy holds authority over the Holy See's finances and revenues.
- The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgates and intellectually defends Catholic doctrine. It is the successor to the Roman Inquisition. In centuries past, it was aggressive in imposing theological purity on the members of the Church, ordering dissidents into silence and reviewing all church publications for potential censorship.
- The Congregation for the Oriental Churches manages relations with the eastern Christian churches like the Eastern Orthodox branches and the Maronites of Lebanon.
- The Congregation for the Causes of Saints oversees the process of canonizing people into sainthood.
- The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples manages the Church's missionary efforts and helps organize local clergy. It also gets to select bishop candidates, making it even more powerful.
- The Congregation for the Clergy is responsible for the formation, ministry, and life of priests and deacons.
- The Congregation for Catholic Education oversees ecclesiastical universities and schools.
- The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary can absolve excommunications and issue indulgences.
The Holy See isn't a state by any standards, but it is recognized by almost the entire world as having international standing and being subject to international laws. It is either a member or a permanent observer state in the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Arab League, and the African Union. It also participated in the discussions that formed the International Criminal Court and signed on to the Geneva Conventions.
While the Holy See has many international relations, most of its embassies are located in the city of Rome due to limited space. The United States embassy to the Holy See, for instance, is located in the same building as its embassy to Italy. Perhaps its most fraught relationship is with the People's Republic of China, as the Holy See recognizes Taiwan as China's legitimate government and thus has no official relationship with the People's Republic. That being said, there are still diplomatic arrangements to be struck between them since the Holy See is concerned about the fate of China's underground Catholic population.
Administered by the Holy See, the Pontifical Swiss Guard acts as the ceremonial and actual bodyguards of the Pope. They also protect the Vatican City, acting as its unofficial military force. Recruits must be unmarried Roman Catholic men with citizenship in Switzerland, between 19 and 30 years of age, and at least 5 feet 8 inches tall. They also need a professional diploma or high school degree and complete basic training in the Swiss military. They wear distinctive Renaissance-inspired uniforms during ceremonies, but make no mistake, they're also trained and armed with modern weapons and counter-terrorism tactics. They got a lot more serious after the attempted assassination of John Paul II.
The Swiss Guard dates back to 1506 when Swiss mercenaries were renowned as the best in Europe. They ensured their eternal reputation as self-sacrificing and tough soldiers in 1527, when 189 Swiss Guards stood against thousands of rogue mercenaries attacking Rome, being horribly slaughtered but saving the life of Pope Clement VII.
Homosexual and other 'lobbies'
“”The problem is lobbying for this [homosexual] orientation, or lobbies of greed, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the most serious problem for me.
|— (Pope Francis speaking in 2013)|
A Masonic lobby or a gay lobby is more accurately termed a secret society as that is how Italians use the word lobby. In Italy, the gay lobby means an informal network of gays and others. They help each other get promotions and, for example, threaten to expose the secrets of any member who steps out of line. The lobby may not promote gay interests and may even prefer the status quo with its need for secrecy. Not all members of the gay lobby are even gay. Some have corrupt links with gays without being gay themselves.
Along with his responsibilities as the Holy See, the Pope is also the head of state and government for the Vatican City. In practice, though, he delegates almost all of these responsibilities to the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican State. This council, composed of cardinals the Pope appoints, votes on and passes laws concerning the Vatican City. The Pope or the Pope's Secretary of State must approve these laws.
The Vatican City also has a president who is the council's leader and holds most of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the Vatican City. His administration, called the Governate, consists of various bureaus and offices appointed by the Pope. The Governate runs a police force, which guards the Vatican borders and does other police tasks.
Under his official title as Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, the Pope is considered Europe's last absolute monarch. His powers within the Vatican City are basically unlimited but, in practice, are constrained by church traditions and the tiny population of the Vatican City. It's not so great to be 'da king.
The Vatican has the world's smallest population, making for some interesting demographic statistics. For instance, did you know that Vatican City has the world's highest wine consumption per capita, averaging 74 liters per year? Disappointingly, this isn't for the potentially amusing reason that the clergy is getting smashed every night. It's actually because of ceremonial communion wine drinking. The Vatican City also has a citizen gender ratio that is very skewed in favor of men. If one cares to calculate the "Popes per km2" statistic, you come up with the amusing total of "technically greater than two" since the Vatican City is less than half a square kilometer in area. Wikipedia also notes that the Vatican has a fairly well-developed transportation infrastructure, but that said infrastructure is almost entirely walkways and hallways.
The Vatican has no birthright citizenship whatsoever, with citizenship only being conferred by appointment to a job within the city. Citizenship is also extended to immediate family members of these people. Most Vatican citizens tend to be either clergy or Swiss Guards. Journalist Magdalena Wolińska-Riedi married a Swiss Guard and lived with him as a fellow citizen in the city, gaining the very unique nationality of "Polish-Vatican". She is one of the very few women to hold Vatican citizenship.
These citizenship standards make Vatican City very multicultural, being a city-state run by a guy from Argentina that holds people from all over Europe and the world, especially from Switzerland. Vatican citizens can be issued the very rare Vatican passport.
For the most part, Vatican City has no international relations. Foreign policy is conducted through the Holy See, meaning that Vatican City doesn't do much internationally. The Vatican doesn't even host embassies, as the embassies of the Holy See are placed in Rome.
The Vatican City is determinedly neutral, with its defense being provided for by the Holy See's Swiss Guard and presumably by the armed forces of Italy. The Vatican has listed its entirety in the International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection, meaning that launching an armed attack anywhere in the Vatican City would be a war crime. As with all war crimes, though, how much that matters depends on the strength of the belligerent.
They do hold membership in a handful of international organizations by necessity. These include the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (gotta keep the phones up), the Eutelsat (gotta keep the internet on), and the Universal Postal Union (gotta keep the mail coming). The Vatican is also a member of Interpol.
Due to the number of tourists visiting the Vatican and its small permanent population of 800 or so, its crime rate has the bizarre attribute of being 133% of its population. The crime there tends to be minor tourist-targeting shit like pickpocketing, purse-snatching, or even shoplifting from the Vatican's stores (that'll land you in Hell). The density of tourists means that the Vatican has sky-high crime rates compared to neighboring Italy and the rest of Europe.
Criminal punishment is awkward for the Vatican City. It doesn't have jury trials since there's no fair way to do that in a country with such a tiny population. Criminals get sentences handed down by judges after a trial, usually based on Italian criminal codes (when those aren't too liberal). The accused have the right to a public defender. The Vatican has a small jail, but it's mainly used as storage space and only holds people in pre-trial detention. Instead, anyone sentenced to prison is sent to an Italian prison, where their living costs are paid for by the Vatican as a courtesy.
The Vatican Bank
The Vatican is shockingly non-transparent when it comes to its finances. Its assets are held under the Institute for the Works of Religion title, commonly known as the "Vatican Bank", which was established by a papal decree of Pope Pius XII in June 1942. The institution aims to funnel the Vatican's cash into the wider Church's religious and charitable efforts.
Unfortunately, since its inception, the Vatican Bank has been a hotbed of corruption, with numerous resignations, scandals, and even investigations launched by the Italian government. Perhaps the most significant beneficiaries are ultrarich Italian politicians and business people who like to use the Vatican Bank as a tax evasion scheme for stashing cash. However, only Vatican residents are supposed to have accounts. Perhaps only to be expected from an institution run by politically-connected but otherwise unqualified clergy. The worst Vatican scandal came in the 1980s when mafia kingpin Michele Sindona used the Vatican Bank to launder money and dodge taxes. When Sindona went down, so did $56 million from the Vatican. The bank was also involved in the collapse of Franklin National Bank in 1974 and then lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the fraudulent bankruptcy of Banco Ambrosiano. The bank has only recently started cleaning up its act, with repeated corruption probes launched by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Assets and revenue
Apart from that tangled web of intrigue, the Vatican's assets are generally unknown but certainly ample. In 1965, bankers estimated the Vatican's assets to be between $10 billion and $15 billion based on the fact that the Vatican held Italian stockholdings worth $1.6 billion, some 15% of the Italian market. The weird part is that the "Vatican" is two separate entities managing and making revenue. The Holy See, referring to the Church's central administration, makes revenue separately from the Vatican City, which refers to the actual country sitting within Rome. It's a confusing arrangement, which is part of why some weird shit goes down there.
The Holy See generates revenue through the Peter’s Pence, the 8th-century term for donations from faithful Catholics worldwide. The Holy See also uses its wealth to invest in stocks and bonds, hoping to further develop its assets. Too bad for them, though, that it tends to run a huge deficit. In 2018, the Holy See reported a budget deficit of €70 million, raising some fears of a default. The root of this loss is the sheer burden of running the massive Catholic Church, which tends not to be offset even by reaching into the Vatican Bank's coffers.
The Vatican City, meanwhile, is much more profitable. In 2014, it reported a surplus of €63.5 million, thanks mainly to tourism and other ventures related to its assets. The Vatican infamously rented out the Sistine Chapel to Porsche to hold a private charity party in 2014, making a tidy sum. The Vatican City also supports itself by selling books, stamps, coins, medals, and tourist souvenirs and charging fees for admission to museums and cultural sites. The Vatican City's Eurozone arrangement allows it to issue limited numbers of its own euro coins, naturally in high demand from collectors.
Landmarks and holy sites
St. Peter's Basilica
The centerpiece of the Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica, in its current form, was commissioned in 1506 and then constructed over decades by various Italian architects. The Renaissance-era building was costly and continues to serve as a monument to the luxury and wealth of the Church. Despite its importance, the basilica isn't the heart of the Vatican. It is neither the seat of the Pope nor is it even a cathedral. It's basically there to look nice and hold other cool locations and objects. Oh, and it also marks the alleged death site of the apostle St. Peter, where he was tortured on an inverted cross. We're sure that's nice to think about.
As you might expect from the Catholic Church, the basilica has a strict dress code. Shorts, above-the-knee skirts, or bare shoulders are not allowed in. Hats also need to be off because the Church is run by your stubbornly old-fashioned professor.
Chair of St. Peter
One of the centerpieces of the basilica interior is a massive relic purported to be Peter's original seat in his role as the first bishop of Rome. It currently sits on an opulent altar for visitors to gaze at, although popes used to sit on it in the past. Pieces of the chair were cut away for other relics, and the rest has been sealed under various layers of ornamentation. The wood that remains is heavily decayed.
The relic is subject to much celebration by the Catholic Church due to its representation of the Pope's authority. The annual Feast of the Chair of Peter is traditionally celebrated on 18 January. Pope Benedict XVI described the chair as "a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity."
On the altar of the relic, its importance is further highlighted with a gilded depiction of St. Peter receiving the keys to the Church from Jesus. In total, the whole area serves as the Catholic Church's grandiose monument to itself.
Beneath the basilica is a vast graveyard that dates back to the Roman Empire, allegedly containing the remains of the family of Julius Caesar. Excavations there have been going on since the 1940s, sponsored by the Vatican. Alongside the space's historical significance, the Church considers it one of the holiest places in the world because this is where St. Peter was supposed to have been tortured to death and then buried. Again, real pleasant story.
Separate from the Necropolis, the Vatican Grottoes is yet another vast underground graveyard below St. Peter’s Basilica. A lot of dead people here, we tell ya. It holds the remains of numerous notable Catholics, including 91 popes, a fistful of cardinals, Queen Christina of Sweden, some of the Stuarts of England/Scotland, and other secular rulers. John Paul II also had a tomb there until he was beatified and moved onto the main floor of St. Peter's. The Grottoes is a very popular site for tourists who value the space for its religious or historical significance.
St. Peter's Square
In front of the basilica is the keyhole-shaped plaza where tourists and faithful Catholics tend to gather. It's framed by a large colonnade artistically designed to draw the viewer's eye towards the basilica's great dome. Its architecture was inspired and influenced by the Counter-Reformation, as the colonnade is meant to represent the Church's spread arms welcoming people back from the Protestant Reformation. The colonnade also holds 140 statues of saints.
At the center stands the Vatican Obelisk, originally looted from Ancient Egypt by Roman Emperor Caligula in 37 CE. It remained in Rome until 1585 when Pope Sixtus V decided to have it moved to St. Peter's Square because he needed something to tie the space together.
Large public events held by the Holy See are usually performed in front of the square since it's the largest gathering area they have. It's not unusual for events like canonization to be attended by millions of people. The Pope will also typically hold weekly events in the square for admiring tourists. Unless it's raining, in which case he does his thing inside the basilica. Can't have the Holy Father getting wet.
“”Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.
|—Pope Leo X (1475-1521).|
The Apostolic Palace is the official residence of the Pope, featuring its own array of historical art and artifacts. It is located to the side of St. Peter's Basilica, and part of the Palace now belongs to the Vatican Museums due to the amount of cool shit in there.
The papal apartments are an incredibly luxurious suite of rooms to keep popes living in comfort. It contains more than a dozen rooms, including staff quarters, a terrace, and extensive views over the city of Rome. Ascetical theology? What's that?
The current Pope, Francis, decided that the apartments were just too much for his austere lifestyle and instead chose to remain in the Vatican City's much more modest guest rooms. However, he still uses the apartment window to address the public in St. Peter's Square on certain occasions.
Steeped in scandal, the Borgia dynasty represents one of the most infamous chapters of Vatican history for their great control over the papal elections and alleged corruption and sexual immorality. While their nasty reputation has since been disputed by some historians, there's no doubt that their successors hated them.
Still, the Borgias are notable for their great sponsorship of the arts during the Renaissance. Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alessandro VI, decided to make his mark on the Apostolic Palace by commissioning the painter Pinturicchio to decorate a new set of papal apartments in 1492. The frescoes he painted covered a variety of subjects, but most of them ultimately worked around to exalt the Borgia family and the Pope himself. Interestingly, a recently uncovered fresco in the Borgia rooms seems to be the earliest known European depiction of Native Americans, having been painted just two years after the voyage of Christopher Columbus. This makes perfect sense, though, since the Borgia family was from Spain.
A lot of bad shit went down in the Borgia rooms during the bloody history of the early modern papacy. The second husband of Lucrezia Borgia, Alfonso of Aragon, was murdered in the rooms. One of the Borgia popes also died horribly in the rooms while wars and schemes were plotted there. After the downfall of the Borgias, the apartments were eventually sealed up by future popes.
Containing some of the most essential pieces from the Italian Renaissance, the Raphael Rooms are a series of reception areas in the Palace that were painted by the aforementioned Italian prodigy. They have a fairly political history, as they were commissioned by Pope Julius II to serve as the new papal apartment rooms in the hopes of overshadowing the unpopular Borgia apartments on the lower floor. One of the most famous frescoes is The School of Athens, an instantly recognizable depiction of ancient history's most famous philosophers like Plato, Socrates, and Euclid. Seriously, you've almost certainly seen it somewhere in a book or on the internet.
Each of the four rooms has a significant theme. The first is themed around the life of Roman Emperor Constantine, the second shows persecution against Christians in ancient times, the third shows the beginning of the Renaissance, and the fourth shows some political highlights of the papacy like the crowning of Charlemagne. The fourth ended up being the favorite, as it resonated with the bloodthirsty and ambitious popes of the early modern era.
The porn bathroom
Speaking of Raphael, there's also a bathroom full of porn in the Pope's residence. A small room on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, the infamous Stufetta del cardinal Bibbiena, is a papal bathroom festooned with pornographic frescoes painted in 1516 by Raphael or someone inspired by him. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from Roman mythology, which makes their scandalous nature make a lot more sense.
Cardinal Bibbiena was a fan of the classical arts, and the bathroom frescoes recount scenes from the life of the goddess Venus which the cardinal would have enjoyed while lounging in his, get this, hot tub. Understandably, future Catholic bigwigs weren't too impressed with the space. Over the following centuries, the bathroom was defaced, whitewashed, and even turned into a kitchen before being rediscovered in the 19th century. Even after that, access remains very restricted since the bathroom is now part of the Pope's private residence (and the Vatican still doesn't want people looking too closely at the porn).
Probably the most famous attraction in the entire damn Vatican is the Sistine Chapel, which had its interior decorated by various Renaissance painters, including Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Pinturicchio. Its exterior looks like drab shit, but the interior contains the most important works of art from the Italian Renaissance. Most famous are the frescoes that adorn the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512, a presumably uncomfortable task. The Creation of Adam, one of the frescoes on the ceiling, has two of perhaps the most famous depictions of the Christian God, one of which features prominently in Rationalwiki's article on God. Michelangelo had a hard time with his work, and he vented by inserting images of his critics into The Last Judgement, which depicts sinners being cast into Hell. Nice one.
The Renaissance-era depictions of naked men didn't sit well with future popes, and Michelangelo's works were censored with underwear to soothe the delicate sensibilities of the time. The alterations largely remained during the restoration in the 1980s, as they are now considered a part of the building's history. Some frescoes have also been subject to modern speculation, like the idea that God rides an intentionally-hidden human brain in The Creation of Adam.
Alongside its status as a vital tourist moneymaker for the Vatican, the Chapel also serves the Holy See by being the location where the College of Cardinals assembles to pick a new pope. The Chapel has a special chimney through which either white or black smoke is blasted to alert the public to the voting status.
As a massively powerful and wealthy institution across Europe, the Catholic Church has unsurprisingly amassed a vast collection of art and treasure. Many are now on display in the Vatican Museums, a building complex connected to the Apostolic Palace. Certain attractions within the Palace, including the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms, are under the Museum's watch and are part of the visitor path. Collections include the Pinacoteca art gallery, Pio Clementino Museum of statuary, and the Gregorian Egyptian Museum.
The Vatican's main art collection, the Pinacoteca, used to be housed in the Borgia rooms before being moved into the museums. The collection boasts 460 paintings, including absolute masterpieces by prominent artists like Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, il Perugino, and Caravaggio. Much of the collection was "appropriated" by Napoleon Bonaparte under the Treaty of Tolentino (1797), but the pieces were eventually returned after the dictator's downfall.
The Pio Clementino Museum houses pieces dating back to the Roman Empire, perhaps most famously the Augustus of Prima Porta statue depicting Augustus Caesar commissioned in the 1st century CE. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. Napoleon also seized this collection and hauled it off to Paris before eventually being returned.
Finally, the Gregorian Egyptian Museum houses numerous artifacts from Ancient Egypt sourced through the Roman Empire's conquest of the region and the much later resurgence in European interest in Egyptology. As an exhibition on Egyptology, the Vatican museum holds the mandatory display of fucked-up looking mummies. No collection on Egypt is complete without at least one.
In short, the Vatican Museums have some cool shit.
The Vatican Apostolic Library is one of the oldest libraries in the world, holding some 1.1 million printed works. Unfortunately, it's only a research library, and visitors must have documented academic qualifications and research needs. Luckily, an ongoing project has been steadily digitizing the collection, meaning that much of it is now available online. Due to the sheer amount of material to process, the project will continue until at least 2041.
The Vatican's collection was initially modest, but Pope Nicholas V greatly enlarged it by making off with the remaining collection from Constantinople after that city's conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Like the museums, the library is far more than a religious interest, as there are some priceless historical artifacts. Like apparently everything that wasn't nailed down in Rome, the Vatican Library was temporarily carted off to Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte before being returned. Can't have shit in
The Secret Archives that weren't
Proponents of some unconventional ideas (e.g., that there is a lost continent formerly populated by lemurs or that Latin is derived from Romanian) claim that there is proof for their theories inside the Vatican Secret Archives, which are being hidden by the Vatican. Such hypotheses are, however, undercut by the fact that the archives were opened up to scholars (though not the public) in 1881, with over a thousand researchers visiting them every year. The word "Secret" is a mistranslation of the word secretum, a more accurate rendering of which would be "personal" or "private", as it refers to the Popes' personal letters. Papal papers written after 1939 are withheld from scholars, but these documents are unlikely to have any relevance to the proposed unconventional theories.
In 2019, Pope Francis renamed the Vatican Secret Archives, terming them the "Vatican Apostolic Archives". Notable (and juicy) pieces in the archives include letters about King Henry VIII's requests to divorce Catherine of Aragon and the original acts of the 1633 trial of astronomer Galileo by the Roman Inquisition. In the same year, the Vatican also opened the records of Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958), potentially promising to shed much light on his responses to and activities during World War II and the Holocaust. Pius' papacy and the general attitude of the Church during that period is, uh, controversial.
Taking up more than two-thirds of the Vatican City, the Gardens exist to provide a nice little sanctuary to cheer up the Pope. The gardens contain historic fountains, summer houses, the papal helipad, and a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Unsurprisingly, there is also a shitload of images and statues of the Virgin Mary, some of which are considered holy sites by countries like France and Mexico. The Palace of the Governate, the seat of the Vatican City's administration, takes up some space just behind the basilica.
Those inclined to snark also refer to the gardens as "the Pope's Playground". On the plus side, much of the area is open to tourists and is usually not crowded. So maybe the gardens can be your playground too (as long as you keep your activities wholesome and Christian).
Domus Sanctae Marthae
The Domus Sanctae Marthae, Latin for "St. Martha's House," is a fairly spartan guest hotel for clergy who visit the Vatican for official church business. It was completed in 1996, and its construction was controversial with Roman citizens because it blocked some people's views of St. Peter's Basilica. So that kinda sucks for them. This is where the College of Cardinals stays during their selection of the new Pope. Nowadays, though, it's mostly notable that the current pontiff, Pope Francis, shunned the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace and chose to live here instead. The apartments are supposed to be comfortable, but not very nice.
“”When they say the wall’s immoral, well then you got to do something about the Vatican, because the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all.
|—Donald Trump. (The Vatican, it should be noted, does not have the "biggest wall of them all").|
Built in response to a massive Muslim pirate attack in 846 CE, the Vatican Walls encircle most of the little country’s territory. Given the turbulent and bloody politics of the Middle Ages, the walls weathered multiple great attacks, most notably the Sack of Rome in 1527. Rome was also a city steeped in political violence. After imminent threats receded, though, the Vatican opened itself up again. The walls stuck around mainly as a symbol of the pontifical power. They basically exist just to look cool.
Despite the presence of the walls, the Vatican City is no fortress. Visitors can simply walk into St. Peter's Square with no passport required and only a white painted line showing that a border even exists. Three of the six gates through the Vatican walls are also open to the public.
The walls were sucked into a political controversy when Pope Francis made comments critical of Donald Trump's proposed Great Wall of America, and conservatives promptly pounced on the Vatican walls as an example of hypocrisy. The more informed pointed out that the wall doesn't wrap around the entire city and that visitors can walk right in.
Notable extraterritorial properties
Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty, the Holy See also owns a lot of shit throughout the city of Rome and elsewhere in Italy. Although on Italian soil, these properties have many immunities and privileges comparable to foreign embassies.
Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
Despite being outside of the Vatican City, the Archbasilica is perhaps the most crucial property of the Holy See. Given by Roman Emperor Constantine I to the Bishop of Rome, this building is the seat of the Diocese of Rome and is thus the true seat of the papacy. It is also known as the Basilica of St. Giovanni. The building's bronze doors originally belonged to the Curia Julia, better known as the Senate House of the Roman Empire. During World War II, the archbasilica's clergy used their legal privileges to get away with sheltering Jews.
The northern entrance of the Archbasilica also holds the oldest Egyptian obelisk in Rome, which originally stood in the temple complex of Karnak. It holds many first-class relics, including the table which Catholics believe hosted the Last Supper. Some popes also have their tombs there.
Near the Archbasilica are the Holy Stairs, which you might point to as proof that Catholics will make anything into a relic. Believed to have been taken from Jerusalem by St. Helena, these stairs were allegedly scaled by Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate. They attract Catholic pilgrims who carefully climb the steps on their knees and occasionally kiss places where indicators claim that Christ's blood fell. That's pretty gross.
Luckily for the stairs, they are encased in wood to protect against wear-and-tear, although some pilgrims with EX-rank luck got to see the bare marble during a 2019 restoration. It also helps that visitors are not allowed to climb the stairs on foot to avoid desecrating them with dirty shoes.
At the top of the Holy Stairs, the Sancta Sanctorum was the private chapel of the Pope for the entire history of the papacy until it was opened to the public after the papacy's temporary move to Avignon, France. It holds a reliquary box that allegedly contains relics from 13 saints, while the box itself is supposed to represent the Ark of the Covenant. Assuming you believe Ethiopia, the real Ark is there. Regardless, the Church freely admits that they don't have it. The chapel also holds an icon that the Church says was miraculously painted by an angel. The chapel's inscription, along with its name, claims that it's the holiest place in the world, although many places contest that title.
Palace of Castel Gandolfo
The Pope's summer residence for 400 years, the castle was acquired by the papacy when the Italian Savelli family could not pay their debts. And you know what happens when ya don't pay youse debts to Italians, dontcha? After seizing the castle, the various popes of the Church had it renovated and turned into a sweet-ass vacation pad for the summers.
After many centuries, Pope Francis again refused his traditional rights and instead opened the Palace to visitors, allowing the once-exclusive rooms to be viewed by us peasants. Like some other Holy See properties, the castle was used during WWII to hide Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Pope John Paul II also made his mark on the Palace by having a swimming pool built there.
Basilica of the Holy House
Located in Loreto, Italy, this basilica holds what Catholics believe is the original house of the Virgin Mary, where she was born and asked by the Archangel Gabriel to become the Mother of God. But wait, how could Mary's house be in Italy, of all places? Easy. Angels picked it up and flew it over. If you treat that story skeptically, you're a godless heathen and not alone. According to some Catholics, a more recent version of the story holds that the Angeli family looted the house during the Crusades, having the entire structure carted off to Italy. This version of events makes much more sense, benefiting from the fact that the Crusaders were real and were also known to shamelessly steal shit from the Holy Land.
In 1496, the Church built a basilica around the house, and in 1507 a marble enclosure was added around the house to keep it safe from damage. It is, unsurprisingly, a hot attraction for Christian pilgrims and has been for centuries. Catholics believe the Virgin Mary still works miracles for those who pray at the house.
There are also regular processions where sick and disabled people receive blessings and graces in the presence of the Virgin Mary's house. We here at RationalWiki might receive some flak for saying that you should probably get medical attention for your problems instead.
- DigiVatLib, the digitization project of the Vatican Library. Digitized works are available to be viewed through this link.
- 360° tour of the Sistine Chapel.
- 360° tour of the central main floor of St. Peter's Basilica.
- 360° tour of the Raphael Rooms.
- 360° tour of the Pio Clementino Museum.
- 360° tour of the Vatican Museum's collection of Classical Roman statuary.
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