The Vatican

The Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world with the largest church in the world.

The church and the country are dominated by a huge dome,
designed by Michaelangelo in the sixteenth century.
It is as impressive from the inside as from the outside.

The whole of the interior is equally impressive, completed by Bernini in the seventeenth century in the opulent baroque style.

Bernini also designed the facade to Saint Peter's basilica.
His decision not to include tall towers on each side was very controversial.

It was Bernini's idea, too, to create the huge open plaza in front of the church,
at the center of which is an ancient Egyptian obelisk that the ancient Romans had
transported to Rome and that was moved to this location and topped with a cross.

Members of the Swiss Guard were keeping their symbolic watch, of course.

It is possible to climb to the top of the dome for interesting views of both the interior and exterior of the church.

The view affords a glimpse of Bernini's plaza in its entirety, with the semi-circular loggias on either side.
The broad avenue leading eastward and away from the plaza was created only in the mid-twentieth century.
It is called the Via della Conciliazione (Way of Reconciliation) and is named for the treaty signed
between Mussolini and the Pope, through which the Vatican state was officially created in exchange
for the Pope's surrendering of his rights over the whole of Rome and the Papal States in central Italy.

In the other direction are the private grounds of the Vatican state with buildings
that house the papal curia (center) and (right) arms of the Vatican library and museum.

In the opposite direction you can see the Tiber River as it snakes through Rome--or at least the leafy trees on its banks.

Beyond Saint Peter's Square and the Via della Conciliazione is the fortress called Castel Sant'Angelo.
It was built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but converted in the Middle Ages
into a castle. Popes sometimes took refuge there, sometimes used it as a prison for heretics.

We walked down the Via della Conciliazione, glancing behind us at the shrinking basilica.

Below left is a model of what the Castel Sant'Angelo looked like when it was first built as a mausoleum.
Below right is what it looks like now, surrounded by a square outer wall and topped with a small dwelling
of the Renaissance era where the popes built themselves quarters for their periods of residence there.

There is not much in the interior, apart from a few displays of historical military costumes for the
papal armies of the past--but there are nice views from its top to the surrounding sights of Rome,
like Saint Peter's Basilica (below left) or the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (below right).

We began our full day at the Vatican with a tour of the museum.
It is approached by walking around the fortress walls that once protected the Popes.
(With our tickets purchased in advance online we were able to avoid the long line and march right in!)

Inside is a maze of galleries and courtyards packed full of art treatures.

The art treasures there were astounding. Here are a few examples of them (from oldest to most recent):

Prehistoric pots and kettles from ancient peoples of the Italian peninsula.

An ancient Egyptian mummy-shaped sarcophagus, and an ancient Assyrian sculpture of men drowning.

Archaic Greek art: a sculpted horse and funeral crowns made of gold leaf.

Classical Greek vases.

Ancient Roman sculpture (often mass-produced from Greek models), from left to right: Artemis the Many-Breasted (the form of the goddess Artemis as she was
worshipped at Ephesus), Antinous (the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian), and Abundantia (the Roman goddess of plenty--note the horn of plenty she holds).

Other ancient Roman sculpture: the famous Laocoon (who together with his sons is being attacked by a giant serpent) and a personification of the
Nile River, for some reason crawling with children (note the sphinx beside his left arm and the crocodile being held by the children at his feet).

Yet more ancient Roman sculpture (there was a lot of it!): a huge room lined with shelves holding
the sorts of busts that wealthy Romans liked to have made of themselves and their ancestors.

Colorful bits of ancient Roman mosaic.

A late Roman military monument.

An early Christian funeral sarcophagus of two men buried together.

Other bits of early Christian funeral sculpture.

Russian icons.

A magnificent baroque gallery with sculpted and painted ceiling.

The famous Map Gallery, its walls lined with large sixteenth-century frescoes showing various Italian cities (Venice in the middle).

The former Papal Apartments and the Sistine Chapel end the tour. Michaelangelo was given the task of decorating the Sistine Chapel, as is very well known,
but the Renaissance artist Raphael was decorating the Papal Apartments at the same time. Raphael was said to have been so impressed by Michaelangelo's
work that he went back to one of the frescoes he had just finished, of the men who had contributed most to humanity, with Plato and Aristotle standing
at the center and framed by the arch behind them, and added in Michaelangelo's image, seated next to the block of stone at the bottom of the stairs.


Click here if you'd like to see the photos from our 2005 trip to the Vatican.

Close this page and click on another small image on the map to see other photos from our 2011 trip.