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How It Came to Be: The Origins of the Vatican City

Basilica di San Pietro

Ask anyone what they know about the Vatican City, and you’re probably going to get some very familiar answers: “It’s the home of the pope,” “it’s the world’s smallest country,” or “it’s where Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Catholic Church’s mother church, is located.”

True enough, the origins of the Vatican City, a walled compound within Rome, is where the pope lives, and it is indeed the world’s smallest sovereign state, being only 44 hectares in size – that’s about one-eighth the size of Central Park in New York! But did you know that Saint Peter’s Basilica is not actually the official ecclesiastical seat of the pope, hence it is not the ecumenical mother church of the Catholic hierarchy? This honor belongs to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, which is one of the four major basilicas of the Catholic Church, the others being the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and – you’ve got it – Saint Peter’s Basilica. The thing is, only Saint Peter’s basilica is actually within the boundaries of the Vatican City, whereas the other three are located outside the walls elsewhere in the city of Rome, where they enjoy extraterritorial status as properties of the Holy See.

But wait right there. What exactly is this Holy See? And how did the Vatican City get to have this special relationship with Rome to begin with? These are a couple of the questions we’re going to help you answer in this piece about how the Vatican City came to be. Read on, and find out which of these trivia bits you might already know!

First things first: the Papal States

So how did the Catholic Church get to have the Vatican City in the first place? To make a long story short, beginning in the year 754, the papacy began its secular duty as the governor of large tracts of land surrounding Rome. Over a period of more than 1,100 years, these territories became known as the Papal States.

For a long time, it looked like the pope would rule these lands forever, but Italian nationalism eventually led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Then, on September 20, 1870, this new realm declared war on the Pope Pius IX in Rome and the Papal States. Capturing Rome was actually easy breezy for the Italian Army, and the Papal States were annexed to the kingdom in no time.

Refusing to recognize the authority of the Kingdom of Italy, Pope Pius IX confined himself within the walls of the Leonine City, which is sort of a precursor of the modern-day Vatican City. There, he excommunicated the King of Italy and maintained an image of power by preserving diplomatic relations with many countries.  Between 1870 to 1929 a total of five popes were considered “prisoners in the Vatican.”

And then they said, “let there be a Vatican City!”

This stand-off between the Kingdom of Italy and the Catholic Church ended in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty on February 11, 1929. It was signed by the Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and the Holy See’s Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri.

The pact recognized full sovereignty of the Holy See over the State of Vatican City, and it also listed which of its properties on Italian soil were to hold extraterritorial status and were to be exempted from expropriation and taxes. The Italian government also gave the Holy See a financial compensation that is equivalent to about $1 billion in today’s money.

The holy what?

But what exactly is this Holy See that the Kingdom of Italy signed an agreement with? How is it different from the Vatican City? Well, for one thing, the concept of the Holy See is much older – think almost 2,000 years old, as far back as the beginnings of Christianity itself.

According to the Catholic tradition, it is a term used to describe the episcopal see, the throne, or the seat of the bishop of Rome. The Holy See’s original Latin name, “Sancta Sedes” actually means the “holy seat,” as a reference to the seat of Saint Peter, traditionally considered as the first bishop of Rome. Additionally, it is also used to refer to the district or diocese under the administration of the bishop of Rome. Unlike other Catholic episcopal sees and dioceses in the world, however, the Holy See is special because the bishop of Rome is also the pope.

The Holy See is distinct from the Vatican City, which is its sovereign territory. Believe it or not, the Holy See possesses a full legal personality in international law, with rights and duties similar to sovereign states. But because it isn’t the actual country, it only issues diplomatic and service passports, while the Vatican City issues the normal passports to its citizens! If you’re still confused, you can probably think of the Holy See as a corporate entity with the Pope as its head, while the Vatican City is the realm he rules.

Can a 44-hectare walled city be an actual country?

In many ways, comparing Vatican City to other city-states like Monaco, San Marino, or Singapore is quite problematic. For one thing, Vatican City does not maintain an actual commercial economy like other countries do, and its finances are mostly supported by contributions from members of the church, admission fees into museums, and the sale of postage stamps and souvenirs. Quite unique, right? For another, it does not have a self-reproducing population, and this is due in no small measure to the fact that most of its 500 or so citizens are men who are celibate! At present, there are only about 30 Vatican citizens who are women.


The other 200 people who work in Vatican City come from other countries and are allowed to maintain their citizenships. Furthermore, there are around 3,500 other people who work for the Vatican’s properties outside the city walls. Those who do reside inside the city walls and are Vatican City citizens are mostly members of the clergy or of the Swiss Guard – you know, the pope’s private military personnel who are known for their colorful Renaissance garb.

So, who gets to become a citizen of the Vatican City? After all, the Swiss Guards were originally citizens of Switzerland, and many of the clergymen, one would guess, also came from other countries. In 2011 Pope Benedict XVI enacted a revised citizenship law which basically classifies citizens into three categories: 1.) the cardinals resident in Vatican City State or in Rome; 2.) the Holy See’s diplomats; and 3.) persons who reside in the Vatican City State because of their office or service. The last category includes the Swiss Guards.  In some cases, citizenship can be requested by qualified individuals. For example, by people who have obtained papal authorization to reside in Vatican City or by spouses and children of current citizens.

All hail the King of Vatican City!

Aside from protecting the pope, the Swiss Guards are there for another reason: to protect the king of Vatican City. Most of us never get to hear about this king of Vatican City, but he is very much real because he also happens to be the pope!

Piazza San Pietro at night

Many people don’t know it, but the Vatican City is actually one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, making it a member of an exclusive club that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei, Oman, and Swaziland. Technically speaking, an absolute monarch has unrestricted political power over sovereign states and their people, but since the pope is elected by the cardinals, this makes the Vatican City the only non-hereditary absolute monarchy in the world.

Other Vatican City facts

The Pontifical Swiss Guard – Yes, we were serious about the “protection” part. Don’t let the Swiss Guard’s theatrical-looking Renaissance uniform fool you. They are actual soldiers from the Swiss military who can knock out the bad guys when they have to.

Pontifical Academy of Sciences – Most people associate the Vatican City with religion, but did you know it is also home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which aims to promote the progress of mathematical, physical, and natural sciences? Its members include some of the 20th century’s most prominent scientists and Nobel laureates.

Latin language – The Roman Catholic Church is one of the few organizations in the world that still uses Latin, and it is also the language mainly used by the Holy See. The Vatican City is also the only place in world where you can find ATMs that allow you to do transactions in Latin!

The obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square – This obelisk is one of the oldest artifacts in Rome. Originally erected in Heliopolis, Egypt, around 4,400 years ago, the obelisk was moved to its present location in 1586 under the direction of Pope Sixtus V.

You can read the pope’s letters If you are a qualified scholar, you can actually gain access to the Vatican Secret Archives and read the correspondences made by every pope for the last few centuries. These include those between King Henry VIII of England and Pope Clement VII in the 1500s, wherein the former asked the latter to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. When the pope denied the request, Henry VIII and the Church of England separated from Rome, and the king married Anne Boleyn anyway!

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By Priscila Siano (266 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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