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