The Vatican isn’t technically part of Rome; it’s the world’s smallest autonomous city-state and is merely surrounded by Rome (that’s a freebie). Technicalities aside, if you’re going to Rome you won’t be able to leave without paying at least a quick visit inside these hallowed walls. Whether you’re a devout Catholic, a history buff or a casual sightseer, Vatican City offers more than its fair share of intrigue, mystery and visual grandeur. Here are a few interesting facts to pique your curiosity and impress a bishop or two when you visit the Vatican.
1. Vatican City is a Whole Country
First of all, you should know that Vatican City is the world’s smallest country, with about 1 square kilometer of land space and something like 840 citizens (though many are actually diplomatic clergy residing abroad). The city has existed as an autonomous political entity since 1929, when Benito Mussolini benevolently signed it into existence along with Pope Pius XI. Mussolini also gave millions of Italian Lira in seed money to the new state, allowing for the formation of banks and some small industry within the walls. Today, citizenship is granted based solely on employment status, so working for the Holy See is the only way to get your own Vatican passport.
2. Vatican City is Environmentally Conscious
Just because Vatican City is small doesn’t mean it can’t play its part in saving the planet. While Pope Francis has yet to decree a law of recycling to his 1.2 billion constituents, his predecessor did make a promise that Vatican City would become the world’s first carbon-neutral state. Pope Benedict XVI lived up to his word by promoting clean-energy development in the Vatican and elsewhere, installing solar panels on Vatican buildings and establishing the “Vatican Climate Forest” to further offset carbon emissions. Interestingly, the site of the Climate Forest is in rural Hungary, far outside the holy walls.
3. St. Peter’s Basilica Holds More Than One Record
More than half of the Vatican is comprised of the Papal Gardens, but the paved parts are where the city-state really shines. St. Peter’s Basilica is a record-holding structure, coming in as the world’s largest church with the highest dome. Don’t confuse the two claims, though, as the Michelangelo-designed cupola isn’t even on the top-ten list of largest domes. Still, the footprint of this massive ode to Christianity approaches 30,000 square meters and the record-holding dome ascends to an external height of nearly 140 meters. If you’ve got 6 EUR to spend, an observation deck near the top affords one of Rome’s best panoramic views.
4. Vatican City is Europe’s Last Absolute Monarchy
If it were always true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the Pope would make Bernie Madoff seem like, well, the Pope. The Sovereign of the Vatican City-State and leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide is Europe’s last absolute monarch, meaning that he has complete executive, judicial and legislative authority over the Vatican. That doesn’t mean that the 76-year-young Pope Francis is, himself, the entire government, but he does have the power to veto anyone else’s opinion at any time. This non-hereditary monarchy supposedly dates back to St. Peter, who was appointed by the J-man himself as the leader of the Christians. As the story goes, St. Peter’s Basilica is buried on the late saint’s tomb.
5. The Pope Has Over 130 Bodyguards
Such an important political figure as the Pope has to have personal protection, so it’s a good thing he’s got over 130 bodyguards. Since 1506, the Holy See has commissioned Swiss soldiers to protect the pope from his enemies as well as throngs of adoring fans. Members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard must be under 30 years old and above-average height, having completed basic Swiss military training as well as bodyguard training. They make up a sizable portion of Vatican City’s citizenry, and you can easily spot them with their bright-colored bloomers, but you won’t get to interact with them unless you make a grab for the papal robes.
This list could go on and on, but I’ll save some of the mystery for you to unravel on your own. Take a couple extra hints, though: ask a clergyman if he’s into astronomy, definitely withdraw from the Vatican Bank’s ATM machine, and try to snag some rare Vatican-minted Euro coins.