Nes­tled inside Rome, the bustling Ital­ian cap­i­tal, this tiny city-state has re­mained the cen­tre of the Catholic world for cen­turies

How It Works - - HISTORY - Words by Tim Wil­liamson

Vatican City is the spir­i­tual and phys­i­cal cen­tre of Catholi­cism and the res­i­dence of the religion’s head, the Pope. With a tiny pop­u­la­tion of 800 peo­ple, and guarded by the world’s small­est army, the city nonethe­less wel­comes some 5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, in­clud­ing de­vout pil­grims and cu­ri­ous tourists from around the globe.

Since its con­struc­tion be­gan in the 5th cen­tury the city has sur­vived de­struc­tive wars as well as sev­eral rad­i­cal re-de­signs. The city we see to­day is a mere frac­tion of the size of the many ter­ri­to­ries pre­vi­ously con­trolled by the Catholic Church, the gov­ern­ing body of which is the Holy See. His­tor­i­cally, these Pa­pal States made up a large por­tion of the cen­tral Ital­ian Penin­sula, be­fore the uni­fi­ca­tion of Italy in 1871 re­duced them to es­sen­tially the con­fines of the Vatican walls. In its mod­ern form the Vatican City State has ex­isted since 1929, when the King­dom of Italy granted its in­de­pen­dence. In this treaty, the Holy See and the Vatican City State were de­fined as two dis­tinct en­ti­ties – the for­mer is a legally recog­nised sov­er­eign en­tity, the re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tion, while the lat­ter is the coun­try it­self with phys­i­cal bor­ders and a gov­ern­ment.

The head of both the Vatican City and the Holy See is the Pope. Of­fi­cially he is also known as the Bishop of Rome; Vicar of Je­sus Christ; Suc­ces­sor of the Prince of the Apos­tles; Supreme Pon­tiff of the Uni­ver­sal Church; Sov­er­eign of the State of Vatican City and more. In their role as the head of the Catholic Church, popes have used the

Vatican as their res­i­dency since the 5th cen­tury. Built upon the sup­posed burial site of Saint Peter (one of Je­sus’ dis­ci­ples), it holds great re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance for Chris­tians, and the mod­ern build­ing is a won­der of Re­nais­sance ar­chi­tec­ture, filled with artis­tic mas­ter­pieces. How­ever, dur­ing more tur­bu­lent times the pa­pacy faced grave op­po­si­tion, and, dur­ing the 14th cen­tury in par­tic­u­lar, ri­val fac­tions

chal­lenged its le­git­i­macy. Ri­val popes, also known as ‘an­tipopes’, were set up as chal­lengers to the Pope in Rome, with one such reign­ing in Avi­gnon (which to­day is in France) from 1378.

Dur­ing this pe­riod the pa­pacy was heav­ily in­volved in Euro­pean pol­i­tics, au­tho­ris­ing and even tak­ing part in wars on neigh­bour­ing states. In the 15th cen­tury Pope Julius II for­ti­fied the city with thick walls and com­mis­sioned a unit of Swiss Guard for his per­sonal pro­tec­tion, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues to this day.

Religion and faith of­ten did not stand in the way of Europe’s kings declar­ing war against the Pope, and in 1527 the city came un­der at­tack and was conquered by a mutinous army of Charles V, Holy Ro­man Em­peror. In 1808 the city was again un­der threat af­ter Napoleon oc­cu­pied Rome. Hav­ing an­nexed the rest of the Pa­pal States, the French army even kid­napped Pope Pius VII, who re­mained cap­tive un­til 1814.

The cen­turies since have wit­nessed the fi­nal de­cline of the Church’s ter­ri­to­ries, and since the 20th cen­tury the Vatican City re­mains the only state be­long­ing to the pa­pacy – nonethe­less, its long his­tory and tra­di­tions re­main a global fas­ci­na­tion to mil­lions.

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