The Vatican City is the smallest country I have ever visited. In fact, it is the smallest country in the world. It even has its own football team, consisting entirely of Vatican employees: government officials, police officers, postmen and even members of the Swiss Guard who protect the goal when they are not busy protecting the Pope.
The Vatican is steeped in history. It is ruled by the Pope who is the Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church and who is guarded by the Pontifical Swiss Guard who serve as the military of Vatican City. Sporting their iconic yellow, blue and red uniforms, the Swiss Guard look like the world’s deadliest jesters.
During the Late Middle Ages, the Hundred Years’ War took place where five generations of kings from two opposing dynasties battled it out in full Game of Thrones fashion for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. After the war, its veterans sought out soldiering as a full-time profession which led to the rise of mercenary forces. Swiss Mercenaries were especially sought out for their combat skills and proven battlefield strategies and, in 1506, Pope Julius II permanently established the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
Just two decades later, most of the guards were massacred during the Sack of Rome in 1527 when the mutinous troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, stormed the city shifting the power away from Pope Clement VII. In what is known as the Stand of the Swiss Guard, the Swiss managed to fend off the troops long enough for the Pope to escape through a secret passageway connecting the Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo.
Rome took a large cultural hit as the city suffered extreme depopulation and an economic collapse causing artists and thinkers alike to flee the city. The pillaging and ransacking lasted eight months after the initial attack, which is when the food ran out and the plague appeared due to the piles of unburied corpses that lined the streets.
Many major artworks were destroyed or misplaced, and the 1527 sacking is considered by many the official end date of the Italian High Renaissance. The Catholic Church also took a hit as the Pope now made all his decisions under the rule of the Emperor. It was even Pope Clement VII who refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Catherine of Aragon which led to the Church of England breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, as Catherine was the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt.
In fact, you can visit the Vatican’s no longer so secret archives to see the actual letter from King Henry VIII to the Pope requesting the annulment, because people can visit the archives to examine every pope’s correspondence for the past 1,000 years, providing they know exactly what document to ask for as browsing is forbidden! Furthermore, in March this year, the Vatican opened access to some of its WWII records, thereby divulging even more secrets.
I have mentioned the secret Passetto, the elevated passage leading to Castel Sant’Angelo, but there are also secrets hidden below the Vatican. Beneath St Peter’s Basilica is the Vatican Necropolis containing various levels of history. Just beneath the cathedral you have the tombs of former popes and their private chapels. Even deeper into the earth, you will find ancient Christian crypts and arches dating back to the fifth century and, even further down, there is an ancient pagan burial dating as early as the first century.
It was amazing to be able to visit the Vatican Museum and see all the artworks that I had grown up seeing in history and art books. The Museum is filled with everything from the statue of Laocoön and His Sons (which I was particularly interested in because a replica is featured at the entrance of my old fine arts faculty in Lisbon), The School of Athens fresco by Raphael featuring Plato and Aristotle, and even the Sistine Chapel featuring The Creation of Adam.
The spiral staircase is the last artwork I was able to admire before exiting the Vatican Museum. It was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932 and consists of two spirals which allow people to go up and down without crossing each other. It is as if it was designed specifically for the current world pandemic. The two spirals were inspired by another secret staircase within the same museum, which was designed by Donato Bramante in 1505. This original staircase, which in reality doesn’t have any stairs, is actually a winding ramp built so that the Pope could reach his private residence within the building by carriage instead of walking up several flights of stairs in his heavy papal vestments.
These are only a few of the Vatican’s Secrets as I am sure there are many more that are not disclosed to the public. It is even rumoured that Raphael decorated a bathroom within the papal apartments with erotic frescos. From the Vatican Secret Archives to a vast collection of hidden treasures locked away in its vaults, the Vatican is at the centre of many conspiracy theories and controversies from ties to the mafia, proof that aliens exist and is even rumoured to have proof that Jesus himself never actually existed. All of this makes the Vatican one of the most enigmatic and interesting places I have ever visited.
By Jay Costa
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends
and history that define them.