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The Vatican

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The state of Vatican City is the smallest sovereign state in the world. A tiny enclave within the city of Rome, it occupies 109 acres and is almost completely surrounded by medieval walls. As a result of the Lateran Pacts of 1929, the Italian Government granted St. Peter’s Basilica and Square and the surrounding area within the Vatican walls as the Holy See’s sovereign and independent territorial base. Besides St. Peter’s, Vatican City also includes the Apostolic Palace, administrative and residential buildings, museums, archives, and libraries, a cemetery, and gardens covering almost one-third of the entire area. Thirteen other buildings in Rome, as well as the Pope’s summer residence at nearby Castel Gandolfo, enjoy extraterritoriality under the terms of the Lateran Pacts.

Vatican City is the physical base of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. The word “See,” in Italian “sede,” literally means a seat, as a bishop’s seat or diocese, in this case that of Peter and his successors, the popes. The Pope exercises supreme spiritual authority over the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority over the Curia Romana and the State of Vatican City. The Pope governs through the Curia Romana, the Holy See bureaucracy that was reorganized in the June 1988 reform.

Rome now is one of the grandest cities in the world. Millions of pilgrims and tourists come every year to admire, and be awed by, its treasures of architecture, art, and history. But is was not always this way. By the fourteenth century, the great ancient city had dwindled to a miserable village. Perhaps 20,000 people clung to the ruins despite the ravages of disease and robber barons. Popes and cardinals had fled to Avignon in southern France. Rome was dwarfed in wealth and power by the great commercial cities and territorial states farther north, from Florence to Venice.

In the Renaissance, however, the popes returned to the See of Saint Peter. Popes and cardinals straightened streets, raised bridges across the Tiber, provided hospitals, fountains, and new churches for the public and splendid palaces and gardens for themselves. They drew on all the riches of Renaissance art and architecture to adorn the urban fabric, which they saw as a tangible proof of the power and glory of the church. And they attracted pilgrims from all of Christian Europe, whose alms and living expenses made the city rich once more.

The papal curia--the central administration of the church- -became one of the most efficient governments in Europe. Michelangelo and Raphael, Castiglione and Cellini, Giuliano da Sangallo and Domenico Fontana lived and worked in Rome. Architecture, painting, music, and literature flourished. Papal efforts to make Rome the center of a normal Renaissance state, one which could wield military as well as spiritual power, eventually failed, but Rome remained a center of creativity in art and thought until deep into the seventeenth century.


The Apostle Peter, considered the first bishop of Rome, was martyred and buried in the Vatican area, and later a large Christian necropolis grew around his tomb. On this site, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine built a great basilica, replaced during the 16th and 17th centuries by St. Peter’s—the Renaissance-Baroque masterpiece we admire today. Although medieval popes had their main residence in the Lateran, they expanded and fortified their Vatican palaces for periodic stays (for security reasons or for ceremonial visits to St. Peter’s). Later in the 14th century, upon returning from the “Avignon captivity” in France, the popes made the Vatican their administrative and residential center. In 1861, the newly unified Italy took over most of the papal territories, and in 1870 Rome itself was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. From that time the popes considered themselves prisoners in the Vatican, until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 recognized the Holy See as an independent and sovereign state, with Vatican City as its territorial base.

The Holy See, the central government of the Catholic Church, is the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisors to direct the worldwide Roman Catholic Church with its one billion members. The Holy See has a legal personality under international law giving it recognition as a sovereign state which allows it to enter into treaties and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Vatican City State -- a small enclave surrounded by the city of Rome, provides territorial sovereignty that guarantees its ability to operate in freedom as the juridical equivalent of other states.

The Pope is the Head of State and enjoys absolute executive, judicial, and legislative authority, which he delegates to the Roman ...

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