Situated on a hill on the banks of the Tiber River, the Vatican is one of the most historically rich and socially influential places in the world. With a religious history spanning centuries and as a modern day city-state that is sovereign from the rest of Italy, the Vatican embodies many of the most important elements of Rome's cultural past and present.
The Vatican is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. It houses the central government of the Catholic Church, including the Bishop of Rome (more commonly known as the pope) and the College of Cardinals (essentially the pope's cabinet).
Each year, millions of people travel to the Vatican to see the pope, worship in St. Peter's Basilica, and appreciate the collections held within the Vatican Museums.
History of the Vatican
Technically, the Vatican is an independent city-state, the smallest in the world, and its official name is the State of the Vatican City. While the political body of the Vatican is governed by the Pope, it is much younger than the church itself. Vatican City as a political entity has only been a sovereign state since 1929. It was established in a treaty between the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of Italy that ended three years of negotiations over how to handle political, religious, and financial relations between the two entities. The pope and his cabinet refused to leave the Vatican compound until the dispute, which began in 1870, was finally resolved.
The 1929 Lateran Treaty defined the Vatican as a new entity, not as a vestige of the much larger Papal States that had encompassed much of central Italy from 756 to 1870. Most of this territory was absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, and the final portion, namely the city of Rome and the region of Lazio, ten years later. But the roots of the Vatican itself can be traced back to the establishment of the Catholic Church in the 1st century A.D.
From the 9th and 10th centuries through to the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church had reached the pinnacle of its political power. The reigning popes had gradually come to govern the regions surrounding Rome, and the Papal States ruled central Italy for more than a thousand years until Italian unification. For much of this period, the popes resided in several palaces within Rome, having returned to the city in 1377 after a 58-year exile in Avignon, France. But when Italy achieved unification, they would not recognize the Italian king's right to rule, and refused to leave the Vatican compound until the dispute was resolved in 1929.
Much of the architecture, paintings, and sculpture that draw visitors to the city today were created during the golden years of the Papal States. Artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Sandro Botticelli flocked to Rome to express their faith and dedication through the architecture and artwork of St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican in the 21st Century
Today, the Vatican is important as a landmark of religious and cultural history. People visit from all parts of the world to take in the beauty of its art and the depth and steadfastness of its history. But the Vatican is also important because its power and influence were not left in past centuries.
As the center of the Catholic Church, one of the largest religions in the world, the Vatican holds a highly visible and influential place in contemporary times. Each year, countless visitors are drawn here seeking religious transformation and renewal through worship services, prayer, and audience with the pope.
Between the priceless artwork in the Vatican Museums, the stunning architecture of St. Peter's Basilica, and the social and religious significance of the Pope, Vatican City is one of the world's most popular travel destinations. It embodies some of the most significant elements of Italian and Western history, offering a window into our shared past, as well as a brief glimpse into a still-vibrant and enduring religious tradition.
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