Vatican City Facts

Our expert Vatican City Facts guide will detail everything you will need to know before your Rome Day Tour of Vatican City, from a review of the key historical facts, to the political structure of the Vatican City, to a detailed summary of the major sights to see within Vatican City.  Our Vatican City Facts Guide has it all!

History of Vatican City

Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign state, an area of only 0.17 square miles, or just over 110 acres.  Its population is also the smallest in the world, at only 800.  During the struggle for Italian unification, from 1860 to 1870, what is currently the area of the Vatican City, became part of Italy.   Shortly thereafter, on May 13, 1871, the temporal power of the pope was abrogated and the territory of the papacy was confined to the Vatican and Lateran palaces and the villa of Castel Gandolfo.  However, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize this limitation.  To resolve this issue, on February 11, 1929, the Lateran Treaty was signed between the Vatican and the kingdom of Italy, whereby the Vatican City, as it stands today, was established.  The head of the state (comparable to our President of the United States) is the Pope.  The current head of state/Pope is Pope Francis, who was anointed in 2013.

Vatican City is located entirely within the city limits of Rome, located on a hill west of the Tiber river.  Vatican City is home to some of the world’s most visited historical sights, included the famed St. Peter’s basilica, St. Peter’s square, the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums.  All of these sights are open to the public.


Political System of Vatican City

Vatican City has a very unique political structure, unlike any other structure in the world.  As stated above, the head of state, which is comparable to our President of the United States, is the Pope.  Legislative authority, comparable to our Congress, vests in the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State.  The Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State consists of a body of catholic cardinals appointed directly by the pope every five (5) years.

The Vatican City has separate the powers of government into three different branches, the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch.  If each of these branches sound familiar it is because they are, the United States is separates its government into the exact same three branches of government.

Unlike the President of the United States, the Pope has absolute power in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Vatican City.  As such, the Pope is considered an absolute monarch.  The Pope is the only absolute monarch in Europe.

The Vatican City does not have armed forces of its own, instead it relies on the Italian armed forces for protection.  The Swiss guard provide personal security for the Pope and the exterior of Vatican City.


Vatican City’s Historical Sights

Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are the museums of the Vatican City, and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Vatican Museums are located within Vatican City and world renownd as one of the single greatest composite art collection in the world.  The Roman Catholic Church has built an incredibly immense collection of art, including works of some of the worlds most renowned sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.

Pope Julius II founded and commanded the construction of the Vatican Museums in the early 16th century, about the same time he commanded Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel and the Stanze della Segnatura, by Raphael, are on the typical route through the Vatican Museums. In 2013, they were visited by 5.5 million people, which combined makes it the 5th most visited art museum in the world.

There are 54 galleries, or salas, in total, the Sistine Chapel, notably, being the very last sala within the Museum.


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St. Peter’s Basilica

Considered the holiest site in Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica draws millions of tourist each year.  St. Peter’s Basilica was build on what is believed to be the site where Peter – the apostle who is considered the first pope – was crucified and buried. Located within St. Peter’s basilica is St. Peter’s tomb, located under the main altar.  In addition, many other popes have been buried here.  St. Peter’s basilica was originally built by Constantine in 324, and was rebuilt in the 16th century by Renaissance masters including Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini.

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St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter’s Square was built and designed between 1656 and 1667 by famed Italian architect Bernini.  St. Peter’s Square can be separated into two different areas.   The first has a trapezoid shape, closed off by two convergent arms on each side of the church square.  The second area is oval and is two half circles of a four-row colonnade, because, as Bernini said, “considering that Saint Peter’s is almost the matrix of all the churches, its portico had to give an open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith.”

The measurements of the St. Peter’s Square are massive: it is 320 m deep, its diameter is 240 m and it is surrounded by 284 columns, set out in rows of four, and 88 pilasters. Starting in 1670, Bernini started the construction of 140 statues of saints, 3.20 m high, above the columns.  On either side of the oval are two magnificent fountains built by Bernini (1675) and Maderno (1614). Below, at the foot of the staircase in front of the basilica, the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul seem to welcome visitors.

The Royal Staircase, which links the square to the Vatican Palaces was built between 1662 and 1666, and although it actually measures 60 metres, perspective devices, such as the progressive narrowing of the width and a reduced distance between the columns towards the top, make it look much longer.

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Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was constructed on the foundation of a previous chapel called the Capella Magna. In 1477, Pope Sixtus IV demanded the construction of a much grander chapel, which was then named for him.

The chapel is 40.23 meters long, 13.40 meters wide, and 20.70 meters high (about 132 by 44 by 68 feet).  The dimensions are meant to be exactly those of  Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in A.D. 70.  What makes the Sistine Chapel so amazing is the fact that the chapel’s exterior is basic and uninviting, lending little hint to the amazing decor inside.

Once the exterior of the Sistine Chapel was complete, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the most gifted and celebrated painters to decorate the chapel.   The likes of Botticelli and Rosselli were some of the origial artists commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel.  However, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was left nearly untouched, merely blue ceiling dotted with stars.

In 1503, Pope Julius II decided to make alterations, mainly the ceiling, to the Sistine Chapel.  Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.  It took over five years to convince Michelangelo to take on the project, as Micheangelo thought of himself more of a sculptor.

In 1508 Michelangelo finally began working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Originally, Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling with a geometric ornament, and place the twelve apostles in spandrels around the decoration.  Michelangelo proposed instead to paint the Old Testament scenes now found on the vault, divided by the fictive architecture that he uses to organize the composition.

At the tallest part of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from Genesis, including “The Separation of Light From Darkness” at the altar end of the chapel to “The Drunkenness of Noah” at the other end. The most famous panels are “The Creation of Adam” and “The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from Paradise.” Images of prophets and pagan sibyls surround the panels, and twisting (and originally controversial) male nudes decorate the corners.

He worked for four years. It was so physically taxing that it permanently damaged his eyesight.

More than 20 years later, Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the giant fresco “The Last Judgment” behind the altar. The artist, then in his 60s, painted it from 1536 to 1541.