13 Fascinating Facts About the Vatican – History and Life in the Holy See

One of the most popular landmarks in Rome, the Holy See is always surrounded by an aura of mystery. Here are some of the fascinating and interesting facts about the Vatican and curious bits of history behind it.

Interesting Vatican City Facts and the History Behind its Walls

1. It’s actually a young state

The Vatican City as we know it, as an independent state inside the capital of unified Italy, is not that old.

In fact, it was established on February 11th, 1929 through the signing of the Lateran Treaties between the then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and the then Holy See Chief Pope Pius XI.

2. It’s the world’s smallest state

Located on the right bank of the Tiber River, it covers an area of 44 hectares (0,44 sq. km), making it the world’s smallest country. This is approximately the area of 60 soccer fields. The citizens are less than 900.

3. It is an absolute monarchy

st. peter's square
The facade of St. Peter’s Basilica

Even though a tiny state, the Vatican has its own currency, police, prison, and laws. The Pope is the absolute monarch and Chief of the state and holds legislative, executive and judiciary power.

The Vatican citizens hold Vatican passports and around half of them doesn’t live in the Vatican but abroad for duty, usually diplomats.

Pretty much every country has two embassies in Rome, one to Italy and one to the Vatican State, adding the parking perpetual issue as many spaces are designated for diplomats.

READ MORE: To know what to see and do, check out our detailed guide to the Vatican City.

4. Even though a young state, its history is very ancient

Although the modern Vatican City State as we know it was established in 1929, the history of the Vatican is way older and more complex than we might think. The first 1,000 years of existence of the Vatican are very obscure and the historic findings relating to this period are at times uncertain.

Before the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, officially set in the year 476 AD, the history of Christianity is one of persecution. At least until AD 313, when Roman Emperor Constantine ruled religious tolerance and freedom with the Edict of Milan.

5. It wasn’t the first official residence of the Popes

The same emperor Constantine started an era of building important places for the Christian religion. In the 4th-century, he built the Lateran Basilica, but it’s only from the 6th century that documented sources testify the place as the official papal residence. Before that, popes often lived in the catacombs mainly out of the urban area.

6. Popes gradually took control of Rome

The Popes only gradually started taking control of buildings inside the city. One of the main events was the transformation of the Pantheon from a pagan temple devoted to all gods to Christian worship place in AD 609.

Another milestone of early Christianity in Rome is when pope John VII moved his residence to the Palatine Hill among the ruins of the ancient imperial palaces to be under the protection of the Byzantine Duke (representative of the Eastern Roman Empire) but also to start seizing places symbol of power.

After the fall of Ravenna as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in AD 750, things started to change for the papal quest for power. Popes moved to the Lateran Basilica making it look majestic and apt to symbolize that from now on the ruling of the city was in their hands.

READ MORE: To skip the lines and for a deeper understanding of its art and history, check out our guide to the best tours to the Vatican.

7. The Popes lived in many different places in and out of Rome

santa maria maggiore basilica
Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in the Esquilino neighborhood in Rome

Before settling in the actual Vatican, popes moved a lot in different places around Rome. Some of their residences were on the Aventine Hill (Santa Sabina Basilica), Santa Maria Maggiore basilica in the Esquilino Hill, the Quirinale, where now is Italy’s President, that was started by Gregory XIII and expanded by Sisto V.

They also lived outside Rome in cities like Assisi, Ferentino, Anagni, Tivoli, Orvieto, Perugia and Viterbo. Up to Avignon, in southern France, from 1309 to 1377, where they moved as Rome became unsafe due to dangerous and often bloody clashes between noble families, namely the Caetani and the Colonna.

8. The Vatican was mainly the place for religious celebration

Popes Niccol√≤ V and Alessandro VI (the infamous Rodrigo Borgia) were the ones who started to settle for a longer time in the Vatican premises and began to embellish and build more parts, apartments, and wings. Officials and representatives of the Roman Curia were sent and operated in the city’s many districts, especially Trevi area.

Gradually, the Quirinale Palace became the seat of the pope-king, where he would fulfill his functions of chief of the state, including governing a kingdom, defending their border and keeping relations with the rest of the kingdoms in Europe and Italy, while the Vatican was for the pope bishop where religious celebrations would take place.

9. The Swiss Guards have been protecting the Pope since 1506

swiss guards vatican
Swiss Guards in the Vatican City

The Swiss Guards were first hired by Pope Julius III in 1506 because of their strength, noble sentiments, and the legendary loyalty, all features that made them invincible.

Back in the day, the Swiss Cantons were very poor and the best and easiest way to make money was to migrate and become mercenaries for foreign states. This is how the Cantons played an important role in European politics.

In 1512, Pope Julius II gave them the title of “protectors of the freedom of the Church”.

Today, the Swiss Guards working as the armed forces of the Vatican are the only operative body left as foreign armies were declared illegal by the other European states.

READ MORE: Want to know more about the Vatican? Check out our article on some interesting facts about St. Peter’s Basilica!

10. Italian unification was the end of the pope’s secular power

The incorporation of Rome into unified Italy put an end to the secular role of the pope as ruler of a kingdom to all effects and purposes and limited his powers as the spiritual guide of the Christendom.

11. The Vatican is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

vatican museums
Arts in the Vatican Museums

The Vatican has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for many reasons. As UNESCO itself puts it, it “attests to a great history and a formidable spiritual venture.”

Among the interesting Vatican City facts is that it’s the only UNESCO site to include a whole sovereign country.

With a history spanning over 2000 years and hosting some of the most important sites for Christians, it’s a main pilgrimage destination and has played a pivotal role in the Italian and European history and political development in the centuries.

Alongside its historical and political relevance, the Vatican is of extremely important artistic value. Only the Vatican Museums display seven centuries of artwork collected by the popes through donations or their own commissions.

12. Pope John XXI went down in history as an alchemist

There are rumors and rumors. Some of the most disturbing for the Church and one of the quirky facts about the Vatican is that the only Portuguese pope, John XXI, was a passionate alchemist.

He lived in the Popes’ Palace of Viterbo and there he died in 1277 after only eight months of pontificate when the roof of his apartments collapsed. While the Church maintains the official reason for an accident, there are rumors that he died during one of his alchemy experiments.

13. It was common for popes to father children

That’s right, there are several popes who have fathered several children. In the past, in fact, it was pretty common for popes to have their own mistress, one or more than one.

Probably the most famous in this sense is Alexander VI, known as Pope Borgia. He fathered three sons and one daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, with his lover Vannozza Cattanei, when he was still a cardinal, albeit very powerful. After his relationship with Vannozza, he started an affair with the beautiful Giulia Farnese from Rome, affair that carried on also after he became pope. With Giulia Farnese he also had at least one child.

But he was not the only one. Other popes who had children were cardinal Alessandro Farnese, later Pope Paul III, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, future Pope Julius II, and Pope Paul III among others.

READ MORE: Want to stay in the area? Check out our guide to the best hotels near the Vatican City.

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