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When in Rome…

A night in a convent will save a few Euros when visiting the world’s most famous church

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Vatican City is an independent, sovereign state within the city of Rome. Ruled by the pope, it is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and, at approximately 110 acres in size, is considered to be the smallest country in the world. The Vatican, or Holy See, has its own constitution, postal system, seal and flag, as well as an army numbering close to 100 Swiss Guards. Except for the massive and bustling Saint Peter’s Square, it is entirely enclosed by walls.

Why is there a tiny, independent nation within the city of Rome? I pondered as we approached the mammoth square that is Saint Peter’s. Above the colonnade that flanks the plaza, 140 elaborate statues of various saints somberly gazed upon the gathering crowd. Well, simply put, it was Mussolini’s doing.

In February of 1861 the first Italian parliament assembled in Turin, and the following month, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king and Rome the new capital of Italy. Thus began a political dispute between the Italian government and the Papacy known as the ‘Roman Question’ that was to remain unresolved until Mussolini’s dictatorship almost 70 years hence.

Placing our bags in a security screening device similar to those used at an airport we were finally admitted into Saint Peter’s, whose famous dome, designed by Michelangelo, towered above. A hushed crowd was gathering in its cavernous interior, reverently admiring elaborate mosaics, statues of gilded bronze and towering marble columns. Awestruck by its vast, opulent interior, we simply strolled about, taking it all in.

The first church built on Vatican Hill was completed in 349 AD at the burial site of Saint Peter, who is thought to be the first pope. By the 15 th century, the original building was falling to ruin and Pope Julius II laid the first stone of a new basilica, what was to become the largest in the world. No visit is complete without climbing the narrow spiral staircase that winds its way up to the very top.

The Roman Question was finally resolved in 1929 with the creation of the Lateran Treaty, a pact between Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. From the year 756 to 1870, large territories in Italy known as the Papal States were ruled by popes, however with the country’s unification in 1861, these states were seized by the Kingdom. Their land gone, the popes considered themselves to be “prisoners in the Vatican”, unwilling to cede the last of the Papal States to the new government, nor to accept their proposal of an annual sum of 3,250,000 lire as well as use of the Vatican as compensation for the loss of their territory. The church desired independence, free from political power.