When in Rome, you must visit the Vatican City.
The Vatican holds within it a history lesson on European history, art, and architecture and the relationships of power dating to the time of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27 BC - AD 69) and all Roman, Medieval European and Italian history since that time.
There are volumes written in tour books on the works in the Basilica, the Museum and the Sistine Chapel. But, surprisingly, you must search long and hard to compile the story on the Roman links to the Vatican Hill, and the layout of the Vatican and how it all began. This blog offers some of that history.
After many years in Rome I was somewhat disappointed in the absence of an easily accessible explanation of how the Vatican came to be. There are countless books describing the great artwork and masterpieces in the Basilica, and the Museums, and these are places that you should research abit before you visit, if you intend to get the most out of your trip. Hopefully this contains some explanation to help you on your visit, noting that I claim no scholarly expertise on this subject. I ask your indulgence for any errors and typos that I may have made. Yes, it is complicated.
There are many things to do in the Vatican City besides visiting the Basilica, the Museo and the Sistine Chapel. And most visitors wrongly assume that the Vatican and St Peters were always seat of Papal authority. That did not really happen until the 19th Century. I hope that this provides some history and commonly agreed legend to enhance your visit to the Vatican and Rome in general.
The Vatican offers visits to the scavi, and the Vatican Gardens, which are both exceptional ways to enhance your discovery of this city of great historical significance. The vastness of the collections in the Museo suggest two or three full days for a good visit. As the Vatican is entwined in the history of Europe, if you dont do some homework, there are many items of great historical significance that you will miss, right under your nose or footsteps. An organized tour will help you appreciate much more of the history, but you will be hard pressed to see it all. Castel SantAngelo, the Ponte SantAngelo (built by Hadrian AD 135 and adorned by the Berninis Angels in the late 1600s), and the small streets of the Borgo, the Basilica, the underground excavations (the scavi), the Gardens, the dome and rooftop and St Peters Square, could take many days. You should think out where you want to start, and if you prepare in advance, it will make the trip more interesting.
What follows is a compressed cursory history, to explain the origins of the Vatican and to get you started. By no means does this describe what to do. Knowing where you are when you first get there may help place some perspective to your journeys. (And my version is likely full of errors, that true scholars of Roman and Vatican history will detect in an instant.)
First, Rome is founded on Seven Hills: the Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline, Quirinale, Esquiline, Caelian, and the Viminale Hills. The Palatine Hill claims the greatest historical significance. It is the hill where the city of Rome was formed, the place of Romulus, where the Imperial palaces were built, and was strategically positioned so that Roman Emperors and their courts would have a commanding view over the salt pans, the Roman Forum, and towards the Capitoline. Our word Palace takes as origin the word Palatine. The Capitoline, at the opposite end of the Roman Forum, was the centre of politics and religion of ancient Rome. The Temple of Jupiter (some ruins remain) was a major feature on the Capitoline, and was the most important of temples for Romans, and the state prison, the Mamertine, hollowed out of the hill. Hence, naturally, our common usage of the word Capital, as in Capital city, or Capital Hill. It was the state. On any exploration of ancient Rome (and modern Rome) these two hills, and the other five each warrant time to fully discover. Today the Capitoline and the museum are a must see on any visit to Rome, and are often forgotten.
When on the Palatine, you have a magnificent view of the great Circus Massimo, now an empty field. Across from the Circo is the Aventine Hill, the second most favoured hill to call home (and to this day remains one of the most luxurious neighbourhoods in Rome.) In times of the Roman Empire, a Circo was a great sports field, designed for chariot races (in classic Ben Hur style), horse races and other grand events. Romans enjoyed sports and spectacles like no other society of their time; every great empire celebrates its achievements. When Emperors and great generals returned to Rome in triumph, they marched their troops into awaiting glory under arches that were built and dedicated to their achievements and conquests. The Aventine remains one of the great neighbourhood walks of Rome.
Napoleon, by the way, did the same when he marched into Rome in all his glory, along the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra is in the Roman Forum, the old Roman road that you walk on when you tour the Forum. It is uneven because Napoleon mistakenly believed that the road must have been made of gold or something more than just stone, so he had the old stones ripped up, looking for what treasures must have laid beneath. To his surprise, the Via Sacra was indeed made of simple stone, so, having destroyed the ancient Roman road, his troops tried to replace them. They failed miserably, and today you walk on a very woeful reconstruction effort, perpetrated at the hands of Napoleon. Some parts remain untouched, and you can imagine how wonderful it must have been before Napoleon did his damage. On return to Paris, he built an amazing Arch to commemorate his own triumphs which is a replica of the great Roman Arches, which commemorate Constantine and others.
Heroes of Rome and Emperors were celebrated in style in sports events in the grand places built in their honour. The Circo Massimo was expanded to unsurpassed greatness by Julius Caesar in 50BC. Many of Julius Caesars successors built great circuss or stadias in their own name, and many of these remain just below the surface of many of the great Piazza that we now visit in modern Rome to admire their Renaissance buildings, fountains and sculptures, and most importantly great restaurants. The edge of the Piazza Navona coincides with the line of the foundation outline of Domitians Stadia, for example. (This is all relevant to your Vatican travels, by the way.) There is as much beneath Romes cobbled streets as there is above. Knowing this may makes your travels in Rome far more interesting than before.
But back to the Vatican Hill.
The impact of the Vatican in history occurred late in Roman civilization, and often it was coincidental to the Roman Church. It wasnt choice real estate by any means, especially not at the height of the Roman Empire. The Vatican Hill was on the outskirts of the important parts of Rome, beyond the Seven Hills, and as the ancient city became too populated, too expensive or too exclusive, this area became the one of the suburbs on the outskirts as did the regions on other consular roads, such as Via Nomentana or Via Appia. Roman Emperors Caligula and then Nero needed that expanse of real estate to commemorate their own glory. The great and intellectual Emperor Adriano (Hadrian), who is worthy of a separate trip to Italy, chose the site for his mausoleum. Current day Castel SantAngelo is built upon Hadrians Tomb. Hadrian also built the bridge across the Tiber that still stands today as the Pont SantAngelo. But aristocratic Romans, in ancient Rome, did not live there, except with summer villas. It was plagued with malaria, non Romans lived there, and like the city beyond ancient Rome on the Via Appia and the Via Nomentana, it was used for catacombs, tombs and burial grounds. No one was buried inside Rome. But like all growing cities, good real estate was difficult to find in the Aventine and Palatine, and eventually, large villas were built in the Vatican by many Roman elite. Agrippina the Elder, wife of Germanicus and mother of Emperor Gaius (aka Caligula) built her villa there. Her son, Caligula, would have visited often, and just like his predecessors, he built something to celebrate his greatness.
Caligula built his Circus on the Vatican in the grounds near or owned by his mother. It was known as Circus Gaianus. And in 37 AD, he brought an ancient Egyptian Obelisk to Rome, assumed to date from the 13 century BC, and placed it on the raised median in the centre of his circus. It is one of 8 authentic ancient Egyptian Obelisks in Rome today. The others, although dating to Roman times, were made for Roman, as copies. Other true ancient Egyptian Obelisks include the one that adorns Berninis elephant just behind the Pantheon, and the one that is facing the Pantheon in the Piazza Rotunda. Caligulas reign was short-lived, only 4 years. An absolute madman, he was assassinated.
After the reign of Claudius (who was assassinated by his lovely wife Aggripina), his adopted son, and son of Agrippina, the infamous Nero became Emperor, ruling from 54-68 AD until his own suicide following the great fires. Nero enlarged that Circus, and it then became known as Circus Neronis. And it is the time of Nero that the Vatican became the overwhelming place of pilgrimage for Christians. Why? Because both Peter and Paul were there, preaching. The impoverished population of the Vatican, largely marginalized by Roman society, listened. And large groups of marginalized non Romans, so close to the Palatine, Aventine and Capitoline became a significant concern to Neros Imperial Rome.
Nero, less sane than his absolutely not sane predecessor Caligula, struggled with containing the increasing Christian movement. His own dynasty and adventures were disasters and he equally struggled to maintain his authority with Roman elite. To quell this force that threatened his authority (the Christians) Nero undertook martyrdoms at a large scale. (Non Romans were crucified. Romans and free men were fined. ) As a public display of his authority, Nero used the Circus Neronis as the site of these mass executions. Among those crucified was Peter, accepted to have occurred in the year 64. Peter chose to be crucified head down. Given that the Vatican was already a burial ground, somewhere in the Vatican Hills, the remains of Peter were buried. According to the Vatican, that place is beneath the altar in St. Peters Basilica. Paul by the way, who was in Rome with Peter, was imprisoned in Maremtine Prison, and beheaded in 67 AD at the site where the Abbey of the Three Fountains now stands. His remains are believed to have been buried in a vineyard at the site on which now stands the Basilica San Paolo Fuori Le Mura.
Centuries of persecution and struggle continued, until, 200 years later, the time of Emperor Constantine. Constantine saw a vision of the cross on the eve of his most successful Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and converted to Christianity as a result. As the Emperor was a Christian, so every Roman became a Christian. It was a pretty dominant force in Rome at the time anyway, so it was not as unexpected as it sounds. Constantine built many basilicas, the first being San Giovanni in Lateran, between 314 and 318. (A fantastic history unfolds in this Basilica as well.) In 324 AD he built an enormous basilica on the site believed to be above the tomb of Saint Peter, known now as Old Saint Peters, which stood for 1,000 years.
Constantine and his mother Helena were to become the great champions of the church. Helena Augusta, as she was officially known, wielding the influence and resources that could only be mustered by the mother of the great and powerful Emperor, is credited with discovering and relocating many antiquities and relics of the life of Jesus and the Saints and had them brought to Rome. She undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine very late in life in 326-328. (She died in her 80s in 329.) Determined to walk in the footsteps of Jesus throughout the Holy Land, legend states that she located the Holy Steps (Scala Santa), the 28 marble steps from Pilates house that Jesus descended after his condemnation, and had them installed in her sons Basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano. These steps remain today in the Palace of Laterano, and can be ascended, but only on knees. They are protected by wooden boards to this day. She is credited with discovering and preserving the True Cross on the same journey, and a relic of the True Cross is held in the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which was built sometime after 326 by Helena, on her Imperial Palace grounds. Such was the impact of her personal contribution to the church that a statue of St. Helena is one of the four figures that surround the altar in the centre of the current St. Peters, that adorn the piers that support the cupola. St. Helena, for the relic of the True Cross, St. Veronica, for the relic of the image of Christs face on the cloth, St. Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ, for the lance, and St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter, for his cross and for many years, his head. (His head was returned to the Greek Orthodox church, in recent years, as it was rescued from Greece, during the Turkish invasion in the late 1400s.)
In addition to Old Saint Peters and the Basilica of St. John Laterano, Constantine built the Basilica of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way in Rome, the Basilica to San Agnese along the Via Nomentana (which is particularly pretty, and has uncrowded catacombs) the Basilica of Saint Lorenzo in Rome, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Eleona on Jerusalems Mount of Olives, and Constantinople, of course. In total, Constantine and his mother are credited with the construction of 5 of the 7 Churches of Rome: San Giovanni in Laterno, Saint Peters, St. Sebastians, Saint Lorenzos, and Santa Croce of Jerusalem. The other two, Santa Maria Maggiore, and Saint Paul Outside the Wall were built after the time of Constantine.
Back to Old St. Peters. The Old St. Peters Basilica was a site of pilgrims throughout the ensuing years, and throughout the Middle Ages, with Castel SantAngelo (Hadrians Mausoluem, built 135 AD ) standing as a fortress stronghold during periods of wars and invasions, sackings and pillage. Pilgrims entered the revered area of Saint Peters through various guarded gates, or doors (porta) which are still in existence today. But this part of Rome was primarily outside the ancient Aurelian Walls and again, throughout history, various Popes commissioned walls to extend that protection to the Vatican. Yes, a passage way from the Papal apartments to the fortress SantAngelo was built and used by Popes to escape various sackings and attacks. Throughout Rome you will find various Porta, and these gates to the old walled city, built by various Popes, which to this day identify the ancient lines of the Papal authority. These walls were ultimately breached in 1870, at Porta Pia, when Italian troops claimed Rome as the capital of the newly formed nation of Italy.
And the current St. Peters? The Vatican area was originally a burial ground, and laid low on the river bed. The nearby Tiber River frequently flooded the plain, and this, combined with the calcium remains of many thousands buried nearby, worked against the old basilica. Corrosion of the base, a weak foundation, and the impact of age and centuries of pilgrims made the building dangerously unstable 1,000 years on. Most European Kings of that day were sworn to the Pope and the Catholic Church. The symbolism for all Christian authority was too great to allow that Church to crumble. If the church collapsed literally, Royal authority and Papal authority would have been in question throughout Europe. In 1503, Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante the Architect to design a new Saint Peters, and in the next years, much of the old St Peters demolished. The Pope wisely determined that it was better to have it demolished in order to rebuild as a conscious decision of the Papal authority, than to let it fall.
And what of Michelangelo, didnt he build the new basilica? At the same time that Pope Julius II decided to reconstruct Saint Peters, he commissioned Michelangelo to design his tomb, which was to be within the new St. Peters, an immense 3 stories high, boasting 40 massive sculptures. Michelangelo had already completed the Pieta by this time (between 1497 and 1500, and it had been installed in Old Saint Peters, at the Chapel of Santa Petronilla), David (1501-1504), and much of the Sistine ceiling paintings among many other works throughout Italy. Michelangelo, watching the progress of the new St. Peters, criticized the designs and workmanship of Bramante. He argued with the Pope over many issues, and as has been recorded in many books and historical references, he fled to Florence and refused to return. Both Julius and Bramante died a few years later, leaving St. Peters unfinished. A few Popes later, Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo as chief architect in 1547.
As for Michelangelos other efforts, Julius II tomb was significantly reduced in scale by Pope Paul III. It was erected in the Church San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), near the Colosseum, and Michelangelos work Moses accompanies the Tomb. Pope Paul III was anxious to have Michelangelo get to work on Saint Peters and the Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel, to compliment the ceiling and cut the Julius works short, which would not have disappointed Michelangelo, who despised Julius. The unfinished elements of Michelangelos work on the tomb, consuming an intermittent 40 years of Michelangelos life, reveal the intended scale of the Tomb. Massive sculptures can be seen at the Academia, in Florence, in the same hall where you can see David, as well as in the Louvre, in Paris.
As for St. Peters, much of the main work was completed before Michelangelo died in 1564, including the interior drum of the dome. The exterior of the dome was completed by architect Giacomo della Porta, and the design is not precisely identical to that of Michelangelo. As recently as December 7, 2007, the Vatican Archives discovered what is believed to be Michelangelos last sketching, his design and instructions to the stone masons, for the construction of the dome.
All throughout Michelangelos involvement in the St. Peters work, the relationship of the Roman Church with many European Kings became strained or completely impossible. Protestantism, and its various forms, came to be. The Roman Church lost vast land holdings (and sources of funds) throughout this time, slowing work and distracting the Papal attention. The Lutheran movement commenced in 1517 in what is now Germany, and in jolly old England, Henry VIII caused great distractions to the Roman Papacy throughout his reign until his death in 1547, followed by the Mary I who died in 1558, attempting to reunite England with the Roman church, followed by Elizabeth I who finally disassociated England from the Roman Church by Parliamentary decree in 1559. No wonder that the entire process from Bramante to completion by Bernini (the master of the columns, which were installed in 1667, and the sculptor of the Angels on the Pont SantAngelo) took 120 years, 20 Popes, 10 architects.
In 1586, the Obelisk from the Circo Neronis was moved from its original place (which was to the left of the current basilica, just past the entranceway protected by the Swiss Guards), to its current site in the centre of St. Peters Square, by architect Domenico Fontana. It had been legend that the ashes of Emperor Julius Caesar were in the top of that obelisk. Domenico found only dust. That obelisk is important as the centrepiece of St Peters Piazza as it was the centre of the Circus Neronis, where Peter was martyred.
The original circus outline can be imagined to the left of St. Peters, through to the Square. A grand oval open space, intended for chariot races, which became infamous for persecutions. With the addition of Berninis columns, that are a architectural marvel today, Saint Peters Basilica, and Saint Peters Square constitute a fantastic history, linking ancient and medieval Rome, and much more. Unfortunately, a comprehensive study of Berninis works associated with Rome and the Church or those of Raphael (the apartments in the Vatican), or Domenico Fontana would render this blog far too long, and they have wrongly been given only brief mention. But there are many sources of this information available to travellers who have that interest.
In the 1940s repairs and excavations under the altar in Saint Peters led to the discovery of a number of archeological remains, the Vatican announced in 1950 that the tomb of St. Peter had indeed been found, and in recent years the Vatican has maintained regular tours of the scavi, that provide great access to the history of the Vatican, some of which I have tried to explain here.
The last significant changes to the Vatican City occurred in the early 20th century, between 1929 and 1950. In 1929 Mussolini proposed to build the Via Conciliazione, and although interrupted by war, this was completed in 1950. This created the expansive entranceway towards St. Peters, which stands today. If I could offer one suggestion for any visit to the Vatican, do not approach St. Peters from Via Conciliazione. St. Peters Basilica and the Piazza should be approached from the old gates, so that you enter next to, or under Berninis columns. St. Peters should impact from it grandeur, and should be a surprise on arrival. If viewed from distance, down that long road, it really only looks like a photo in a book, or a postcard. The scale of the basilica, and the intensity of the columns are lost when approached like that. Find a way, if you can, to view it as it was viewed before the road of 1950.
The Vatican guided tours of the scavi (excavations) are by appointment, and offered in a number of languages. This offers an informative tour of the construction of the Basilica, takes you underneath the basilica, and behind the gates. You can stand on the spot where the Obelisk once was in the centre of the old circo, and you descend the excavations and walk past the many altars and places that mark the origin of St. Peters, slowly past 2000 years or more of history in ancient Rome. I wont describe that tour in more detail, but you do see much more and learn much more than you would from a guidebook and it is one of the most worthwhile tours in Rome. It was informative, and enjoyable. Not for children, not for those who cannot climb stairs or ladders, or who have some extreme challenges in tunnels. It is very much underground, but well lit, and not a difficult tour for able adults. The tour ends within the Basilica, and you can continue on your visit inside St. Peters from that point. As well, you can tour the Vatican Gardens, again by appointment, and that is equally interesting and relaxing. And both offer some pleasant change to the hustle and bustle of push and shove queues that are famous in Rome.
And if you want to see the vastness of ancient and modern Rome, from the top of St. Peters Dome, when you exit the front doors of the Basilica, turn left, and left again, and head down the corridor. You will find the stairs to climb to the roof of St. Peters, or the queue to the elevator to the top of the basilica, and you can then continue, by foot, climbing to the interior of the dome, or further to the very top. From that spot, on a perfect day, you can see towards the Castel SantAngelo, the Palatine Hill, the Aventine, the Quirinale, and the other Hills of Rome, and you will have a perspective on the scale of the ancient Roman capital, where this journey started.
Visit the Vatican website: [url="http://www.vatican.va/"]www.vatican.va[/email] It provides links to other tours, and information regarding the Vatican Gardens, and the Museums. Book well in advance, and do not be late for the tour. They wont wait for you, and you will not likely get another appointment. Bookings or information: [email protected]
There is, no doubt, more detailed scholarly research on this history available in many sources, and these writings were intended, purely, to help you understand how the Vatican came to be throughout the ages. Many guide books, such as the Blue Guide Rome, and the Michelin Guide Rome offer detailed descriptions of St. Peters, the Vatican Museums and the 7 Churches of Rome. I found both of these useful companions to my many discoveries in Rome for their historical explanations and detailed maps. I prefer the Blue Guide, by the way.
and my apologies for such a long blog. It is 2,000 years of condensed history, after all....