Vatican City

The Vatican by dayWhen is Rome not Rome? When it is Vatican City.

Italian popes ruled different portions of the peninsula for more than a thousand years, up until the latter part of the 19th century.

But as Italy united as a country, many of the Papal States were seized, and the Pope's holdings were further compressed by the incorporation of the city of Rome into Italy, with the papal seat right in the centre, in effect making him a "prisoner".

Not until 1929 did treaties establish the independent state known as Vatican City, which covers just 109 acres. In a hair splitting definition, Vatican City is governed by the Holy See. And the Holy See is the territory over which the Pope has sovereignty... which is Vatican City.

Inside Vatican City, you will find some of the most beautiful artwork of the last thousand years. But do plan a visit with an eye to the time of year, because Summer is extremely crowded with tourists, and you are sometimes allotted very little time in certain attractions.

St. Peter's Basilica

When Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, ordered the building of a basilica, he chose, as its location, the place where Saint Peter had been buried in 64 AD.

The construction of the new church was completed around 349 AD, but by the middle of the 15th century, it was falling to ruin.

The visionary Pope Julius II awarded reconstruction to the architect Bramante. The foundation was laid in 1450, but the new domed basilica would not be completed until 1626.

The original plans were partly modified by Michelangelo, who succeeded Bramante in 1547. Michelangelo was responsible for the design of the dome; he died in 1624, two years before the dome was completed.

Vastly changed from Bramante's original design, St. Peter's is one of the most beautiful sites in Rome to this day.

St. Peter's Square

The Vatican by nightThe square was built by Bernini for Pope Alexander VII, over a period of 11 years starting in 1656.

Designed as a gathering place for the faithful, it is elliptical in shape, and has a colonnade of 284 pillars and 88 columns that are topped by 140 statues.

From the square, a marble platform leads up to the Basilica. Worshippers gather in the square, for the Pope's blessing. In its centre is the Egyptian obelisk that formerly stood in Caius Caligula's circus, where St. Peter's Basilica now rises above the Square.

St. Peter's Tomb

The necropolis (city of the dead) is a subterranean world, directly under St. Peter's Basilica, and only accessible by small tour groups who must book in advance.

Once you enter the underworld of Ancient Rome, you'll walk along two story streets of mausoleums, and past the Christian, Roman, and pagan statues that share the place. There are even remains of ancient shops and "real" cemeteries, where the bodies are buried in the ground.

At the end of the tour, and the "road", lies what is reputed to be the burial site of St. Peter himself, which is situated directly under the high alter of the Basilica.

Vatican Museums

The actual birth of "collections" by the popes began in 1503, when Julius II della Rovere brought a statue of Apollo from his home church, and placed it in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace.

More statuary followed, along with other artefacts, which were reorganized in the mid 1700s by Pope Benedict XIV and Clement XIII who established the Apostolic Library Museums for sacred and profane music.

Today the museums house paintings, sculptures, ethnic and religious artefacts, as well as documents and tapestries.

Sistine Chapel

Without a doubt, the artistic crown jewel of Vatican City. Known worldwide for the ceiling frescoes which took Michelangelo four years to paint while on his back, and newly restored in the 1990s, it's a place you could spend the entire day, but where you'll only be allowed a strictly allotted amount of time to admire its many wonders. In the fresco depicting Creation, you might look for the shape of the clouds and figures behind God. It has been noted that it resembles the human brain, and that the subjects in particular areas, correspond exactly with the centres of the brain that would evoke those emotions.