Encircled by a 2-mile border with Italy, Vatican City is an independent city-state that covers just over 100 acres, making it one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park. Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. The Vatican mints its own euros, prints its own stamps, issues passports and license plates, operates media outlets and has its own flag and anthem. The Bramante staircase was built in 1505 to a design by Donato Bramante. The staircase was built to allow Pope Julius II to enter his private residence while still in his carriage, since walking up the several flights in heavy papal vestments would have been onerous.
Tapestries, based on drawings by Raphael’s pupils and woven in Flanders, represent the life of Christ. They were commissioned by Clement VII in the 1500’s. It would take 9 years to finish just one tapestry. They are made out of the most precious materials like gold thread, silk, silver thread and wool.
A Roman necropolis stood on Vatican Hill in pagan times. When a great fire leveled much of Rome in A.D. 64, Emperor Nero, seeking to shift blame from himself, accused the Christians of starting the blaze. He executed them by burning them at the stake, tearing them apart with wild beasts and crucifying them. Among those crucified was St. Peter—disciple of Jesus Christ, leader of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome—who was supposedly buried in a shallow grave on Vatican Hill. By the fourth century and official recognition of the Christian religion in Rome, Emperor Constantine began construction of the original basilica atop the ancient burial ground with what was believed to be the tomb of St. Peter at its center. Construction of the present basilica, which would replace Old St. Peter’s Basilica, began in the 1500s and was designed principally by Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini. St. Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and one of the largest churches in the world.
Roman Emperor Caligula built a small circus in his mother’s gardens at the base of Vatican Hill where charioteers trained and where Nero is thought to have martyred the Christians. To crown the center of the amphitheater, Caligula had his forces transport from Egypt a pylon that had originally stood in Heliopolis. The obelisk, made of a single piece of red granite weighing more than 350 tons, was erected for an Egyptian pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago. In 1586 it was moved to its present location in St. Peter’s Square, where it does double duty as a giant sundial.
The Swiss Guard has been protecting the pontiff since 1506. All recruits must be Catholic, unmarried males with Swiss citizenship, between the ages of 19 and 30, and be at least 5 ft 8.5 inches in height. The Swiss Guard’s role in Vatican City is strictly to protect the safety of the pope and is the world’s smallest standing army. In 1277, a half-mile-long elevated covered passageway, the Passetto di Borgo, was constructed to link the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for popes, most notably in 1527 when it likely saved the life of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. As the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V rampaged through the city and murdered priests and nuns, the Swiss Guard held back the enemy long enough to allow Clement to safely reach the Castel Sant’Angelo, although 147 of the pope’s forces lost their lives in the battle.