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Vatican City

Vatican City: The Tiniest Country with the Biggest Influence


Vatican City, known officially as the Vatican City State, is the smallest and one of the most remarkable countries in the world. It is enclaved within Rome, the capital of Italy. There are only three enclaved countries in the world, the other two being San Marino, also surrounded by Italy, and Lesotho, which is an independent nation enclaved by South Africa

The Vatican City is a product of the history of the Catholic Church and the unification of Italy, and therefore comes as no surprise that its head of state is the Pope. This tiny country is of immense religious and cultural importance across the world. The name Vatican comes from one of the seven hills of Rome.

The History of the Vatican City

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Church began to play a leading role in society. The bishop of Rome, who later became the Pope, became the de-facto ruler of the city. This was especially true after the Lombard (Longobard) invasion of Italy in the 7 th century AD.

The Vatican was an area of the old city that came to be associated with the church and a huge Christian basilica was built over the site of St Peter’s burial. Over time, successive popes extended their temporal power and established the Papal States.

Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican (Sergii Figurnyi/Adobe Stock)

Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican (Sergii Figurnyi/Adobe Stock)

The first popes did not live in the Vatican but at the Lantern Palace or Quirinal Palace, and the Vatican remained an area popular with pilgrims. However, during the Unification of Italy, the Papal States were captured by the future king of Italy and the Pope retired to the Vatican district and lived there. The new Italian state did not interfere in the Vatican and the Papacy.

After Mussolini rose to power, he was keen to reach an agreement with the Pope. Under the Lateran Pact (1929) the Italian government recognized the sovereignty of the Catholic Church in the Vatican and the Pope technically became the head of state. The Vatican City is still enormously popular with Catholic pilgrims and tourists.

Painting, Books, Gardens, And So Much More to See

The city-state is home to some of the most well-known religious sites and art of the world. Its main public space is St Peter’s Square, where the Pope often celebrates mass. St Peter’s Basilica, the famous Christian church, was designed by Bramante and Michelangelo, among others.

Interior of St Peter's Basilica (wajan/ Adobe Stock)

Interior of St Peter's Basilica (wajan/ Adobe Stock)

The Sistine Chapel, within the Basilica, has many works by the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, such as Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Perugino and Michelangelo who painted the ceiling and sculpted the Pieta.

The library in the Vatican is perhaps one of the most important in the world as it contains many priceless documents and an irreplaceable collection of books.  From handwritten letters of historic personages such as Mary Queen of Scotts and Abraham Lincoln to papal bulls excommunicating Martin Luther, the contents of the archives are enough to make any scholar’s eyes go wide.

It is also steeped in controversy, with the vast majority of the archives hidden from the public. There has been speculation that there may be documents that show the Church was complicit in Mussolini’s state-sponsored terror and, possibly, even in Hitler’s anti-Semitic pogroms.

Michelangelo’s Pieta Sculpture, Vatican, Rome, Italy (Bill Perry /Adobe Stock)

Much of the Vatican is covered by magnificent gardens which cover up to half of the territory of the tiny state. Because of its unique status the Vatican has many unusual features such as the world’s shortest railway line. It is also possible to see the world-famous Swiss Guard, the world’s smallest army, on duty in the city-state.

Visiting the Vatican City

While the Vatican City-state is a sovereign state, anyone may enter. It is located near the heart of Rome and it can only be accessed by a number of limited routes. No passports are required to visit the City-State and many of the locations are so popular that they can be difficult to gain admittance, especially during the height of tourist season.

The gardens. Monastery Mater Ecclesiae, Mother of the Church, Vatican (marinv/Adobe Stock)

Most of the great artworks are open to the public. While visiting the Vatican, a dress code is required as many of the sites are religious in nature.

Top image: Vatican City                         Source: TTstudio/ Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

Updated on December 30, 2020.


Charles L. Stinger. (1998). The renaissance in Rome. Indiana University Press

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Grafton, A. (Ed.). (1993). Rome reborn: the Vatican Library and Renaissance culture. Washington: Library of Congress

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Hersey, G. L., & Hersey, G. L. (1993). High Renaissance Art in St. Peter's and the Vatican: an interpretive guide. University of Chicago Press

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Partner, P. (1972). The lands of St. Peter: the Papal State in the middle ages and the early renaissance (Vol. 10). University of California Press

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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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