Smallest Country in the World ~ Vatican ~ Rome Series, Part 4

Measuring just 0.2 square miles (100 acres), the Vatican is the world’s smallest country according to land mass. Completely walled, it is tucked neatly within the city of Rome, with nary a single street address.  Vatican City may be the tiniest of nations but don’t mistake that for lack of power.

Here are some interesting tidbits about this mini empire:

  • It is the center of the Catholic Church, the religious capital for 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
  • Its income is derived from the generosity of world-wide Catholics, along with tourism revenue and postage stamps, which are quite famous.
  • Two of the most important sights housed within its walls are St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, and the Vatican Museums, which house some of the most symbolic art works of the Renaissance.
  • It has its own armed guards (Swiss Guards), train station, post office, radio station, and helipad.
  • The Pope is both religious and secular leader of Vatican City.

A visit to Rome is incomplete without a trip to the Vatican, especially if you came into this world as a Catholic, as I did.  We chose to pay for the “Pristine Sistine Tour” through Walks of Italy, allowing us to get into the Sistine Chapel one hour before the crowds (highly recommended).  This tour is a 3.5 hour guided walk through the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Our tour guide, Francesca, a gifted archeologist, generously gave us five full hours since our small group of 12 was so fascinated with the sights and history lesson being given.

Sistine Chapel

As magnificent as the Sistine Chapel is on the inside, the exterior leans to the nondescript, a small brownish building with a pitched roof topped by an antenna.  A tiny chimney along the roofline is where the white puffs of smoke announce the election of a new pope.

The tiny, nondescript Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica

You are required to practice silence when you enter the Sistine Chapel.  I don’t believe I could have uttered a word had I wanted to.  The moment I gazed upward and looked upon Michelangelo’s ceiling, I fell into a reverent state of awe.  I was looking at the crown jewel of the Renaissance, with only a couple of dozen others in the entire chapel!

When Pope Julius II first asked Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling, he respectfully declined, seeing himself as a sculptor and not a painter.  With much cajoling and a few threats, Michelangelo finally agreed, but only on his terms.  To say that his vision was much grander than that of the pope is an understatement.

Michelangelo laid out the history of the world before the birth of Jesus and spent the next four years (1508-1512) working on scaffolding six stories high, covering the chapel ceiling with frescoes of biblical scenes.  Imagine how physically demanding this must have been, how paint constantly dripping in your eyes could sap your creative juices, how the demands of a pushy pope could drain you.  But the public was blown away when it was revealed.

The centerpiece of Michelangelo’s work, the reaching of God’s and Adam’s hands. Note that Adam’s reach is passive, God’s is strong – the moment of creation.

The subject was universal, although deeply personal for Michelangelo.  It is evocative, at times shocking, and very emotional, perhaps the greatest work of art ever.

Michelangelo returned 23 years later to paint The Last Judgement on the altar wall, a time during which  religious wars had sprung up across Europe and the Catholic Church had stifled free thought.  Michelangelo’s views on the inherent goodness of mankind had changed and his work reflected those thoughts.

In The Last Judgement Christ is not depicted as loving but rather as judgmental, come back to see “who’s been naughty and nice”.  This time when his work was revealed to the public, it caused a shock wave, especially with Church authorities.  Michelangelo rebelled by painting his worst critic into the scene, shown in hell.  He also painted his own face into the painting, giving voice to the belief that he too questioned how he would be judged on his final day.

St Bartholomew sits at Christ’s left foot, holding his flayed skin with the face of Michelangelo, a self-portrait of a self-questioning man.

Note:  Both photos of the Sistine Chapel were obtained online – Wikipedia and pbs.org respectively.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Named to memorialize the first pope and Jesus’ closest disciple, St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world and the main altar is built on the site where St. Peter’s remains are buried.  The original church stood for 1,200 years and the one we see today was begun in 1506, taking 120 years to complete and another 200 to decorate.  Everything here is larger than life, including the statues, and 60,000 Catholic devotees can gather here at one time.

Michelangelo had a hand in designing the magnificent dome, which rises 448 feet from the floor to the top.  Terry and I decided a climb to the top was a must, all 554 steps.  Had I known beforehand that the staircase winds between the outer and inner shells of the dome I may have reconsidered.  It was a bit disconcerting to have the walls angling inward as I climbed the narrow, winding stone steps.  But the views at the top…wow!  This is the only way to catch a glimpse of the beautifully manicured gardens without a guided tour, booked several days in advance.

Vatican's manicured gardens
Vatican’s manicured gardens

The stoic mercenary Swiss Guards guard the Vatican City border crossing and are responsible for the personal safety of the pope.

Vatican Museums

A composite of several museums, the Vatican Museums contain some of the greatest artwork to be found anywhere.  Many of the statues and paintings found in the museums had the private parts of the anatomy draped in cloth or fig leaves when the church decided around 1550 that nudity was obscene.

The tapestry and map room was one of our favorites.  Workmanship dating back to the 1500’s was stunning.  And the Raphael rooms, named for the artist, with beautifully painted ceilings and walls, depict impressive scenes from ancient Rome into the Renaissance.

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Next Up:  One final Rome post (maybe) – a little of this, a little of that

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