Vatican

T H E    H O L Y    S E E


Many tourists while in Rome sooner or later will visit Vatican. For some, a visit to Rome means to go to St. Peters first, the best if it is Sunday. Then all eyes are turned onto one window, to see the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church. But the Pope is also the Head of a state, sometimes called the Holy See and sometimes simply the Vatican City. Below a short historical explanation.


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After the fall of the Roman Empire around VIII AD (>>>), there was no longer any unity on the Italian peninsula. For thousand years the region was split into numerous independent entities. Among them the most powerful were the so called Papal State(s) as well as the independent merchant cities like Venice or Genoa.

After the Catholic Church was legalised in the ancient Rome (III AD, earlier its followers were hunted and executed by the Roman Empire), it grew initially in power due to various donations, including land donations. In the middle ages popes owned widespread lands in the present central Italy. With time, the landownership turned into independence and setting up of the Papal State(s) with Rome as the capital.

Through ages the Italian peninsula was however a place of constant internal struggle amongst its independent entities as well as of foreign claims. Fights and wars were common. The harsh political conditions with all their social consequences made people living there fight for unity and independence. The unification of the separate states and entities into one coherent state took place in the late XIX century and was initiated, and led by the House of Savoy – rulers over Sardinia. The formal unification took place 1861. Vittorio Emanuele of the House Savoy became the first King of Italy.

In his struggles for unification he seized all the territories of the Papal State, including those in Rome. The act, for which he was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. The conflict between Italy and the Pope was terminated in 1929 by Benito Mussolini, who signed the Lateran treaties. Upon them a new state was created – namely the Vatican City. The Vatican City is the smallest country in the world or better to say the smallest independent territory.

And here we come to the other name of this small country, which is the Holy See. In international relations it is possible to be a sovereign entity even if one has no lands. (An example of such entity is the Order of Saint John at present headquartered in Rome however landless, but still recognised as a sovereign entity in the international law.)

So in broader terms, the sovereign state, the head of which is the Pope is called Holy SeeThe sovereign territory of the Holy See is the Vatican City as well as two extraterritorial premises in Rome (one is Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence) as well as the premises belonging to its international representations (Nuntiatures) in other countries (like in case of all embassies).


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Pope Francis, since 13 March 2013


T H E    L A T E R A N    B A S I L I C A


Rome’s churches, at least those most famous ones have some distinctive features, that cannot be seen in other places in Europe. Churches in Rome are usually quite old ones, however many times rebuilt or reconstructed. In Rome it was always customary that building materials were removed from one place to decorate another one. The most prominent example are probably the bronze reliefs that once decorated the ceiling in the Pantheon, but had been melted down, so that the bronze might have been used to make the famous St. Peter’s Basilica altar (by Bernini). The other distinctive feature is that inside the churches we may often find art pieces by famous artists (pictures, frescoes, sculptures, etc.). We have however to bear in mind, that the Catholic Church (popes and bishops) like kings and princes in many other countries hired talented artists to decorate the interiors. Some of the famous artists and their workshops could have shown the world their work and this way got famous because the Church was their sponsor. Further, there is the problem of not knowing at what to look at, the ceiling, the floor, walls or numerous pieces of art. All the details are worked out very precisely. Of specific things for Western European standards are the Byzantine frescoes and mosaics at walls and ceilings, typical for South-Eastern Europe, hard to find in the Western tradition. For different reasons, either invited or because they fled the country, some Byzantine artists worked in Europe since the times of Charlemagne (>>>) and his heirs. The other feature are marble walls and pillars, as marble formations are spread all over Italy and marble is a natural building element.

Below a small selection of photos from one of the most prominent and oldest (with origins back in IV century) churches in Rome. The Lateran Archbasilica or Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, although located in the city of Rome, is an extraterritorial Vatican property. In the past, the basilica and the adjacent palace were the official sit of popes. It lost its splendor as popes moved to Avignon. The present interior is a combination of works that had been conducted mainly in XVI-XVIII centuries. But still in hierarchy of basilicas of Rome, this one is precedent even ahead of the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican city.


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The main nave, with figures of 12 apostles alongside it.

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Vestibule, reachly covered with marble. Although its interior was designed centuries later, you easily can get the impression that you visit a palace in ancient Rome. 

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A piece of the floor arrangement in the vestibule.

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The ceiling of the vestibule.

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Bronze doors at the main entrance inside of the vestibule, taken from Curia Iulia building at Forum Romanum. In ancient Rome Curia Iulia hosted the Roman Senate.

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The floor mosaics in the main nave in the so called Cosmati style. Cosmati were a Roman family of artists. They specialised among others in designing and making of mosaics. 

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The ceiling in the main nave. While in Rome it is always recommendable to look up.

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One of 12 statues of the apostles located alongside the main nave. This one by Pierre le Gros is of St. Thomas.

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The look downstairs onto the confessio (adjacent in front to the main altar) covered with beutiful marble. Behind the stairs rail, the view onto the tomb of Pope Martin V.  

Confessio is a crypt to which you can get from inside a church taking the stairs down. It is usually linked to corridors and chambers containing tombs.  During our visit in Rome we saw confessios in a number of churches.

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The apse located at the very end of the basilica building, behind the altar. Traditionally it has a semi-circular shape, reachly decorated Byzantine style (mosaics at the top with figures shown at the golden background).


H A N D S O M E   M E N    I N    F A N C Y    G A R M E N T


Common knowledge says that they must fulfill certain conditions to be accepted into this force. This is true. Recruits must be single, between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 174 cm tall, Catholic and of Swiss citizenship. A requirement is also a degree and a completed basic training with the Swiss military.

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It is also common knowledge that the basic design of the colourful official uniforms, Renaissance style, is of MichelangeloThe latter is however not true. According to the official Vatican website, the designer is Jules Repond, one of the previous Papal Swiss Guard commanders (early XX century). He is sometimes told to be inspired by the picture of men carrying the litter of Pope Julius II on one of the Raphael’s frescoes on a wall in the Vatican complex. As is located in the Musei Vaticani area I tried to find it on photos I did inside the so called Raphael’s Rooms. Indeed, the men carrying the litter wear robes with white collars and sleeves that are slightly of a comparable design. But only slightly. The Vatican website says there are similarities because it is the Renaissance style design. The colours are however not a match.

As to the facts, the colours of the official Swiss Guard uniform are the Medici colours. Medicis was a noble, later royal family, with roots in Florence, Italy, whose coat of arms were six red balls onto a yellow background. As the rank of the family was raised by one of the French kings in the mid XV century, the upper red ball was replaced with another one containing the French Kings’ symbol, namely three gold Fleur de Lis onto a blue background. Hence, yellow/gold/orange, red and blue are told to be Medici colours.


M U S E I    V A T I C A N I


Musei Vaticani belongs to one of those museums where one is simply overwhelmed with all the artifacts, sculptures and paintings gathered in a relatively small space. It would be difficult to recall all of them, not to mention describing or even make photos of all of them. It would be simply too much.

In Musei Vaticani there a couple of routes you can take. Quite often the sightseeing begins with the antique section. Inside there are many sculptures, busts, reliefs, mosaics and other ancient artifacts. There are almost no paintings. (The latter will be however more than balanced in other parts of the Museum.) Walls and ceilings are of antique look. In this section of the Vaticani museum one should simply concentrate on the historical value of that, what one sees. The following sections are more about the art, paintings or frescoes as well as craftsmanship. There are a number of chambers that look like an art gallery, so the focus is indeed on the paintings on display. But there are chambers where one has to look around and look up. The most impressive frescoes are probably in the Raphael’s Rooms – a series of chambers painted by Raphael and his pupils. But there are also at least two passages alongside long but long corridors with frescoes painted on ceilings. These are a couple of hundreds meters long each: one is a corridor with tapestry maps and the other one a series of consecutive corridors in the Bibliotheca Vaticana.

When visiting this Museum one has to be prepared to find oneself in a crowd – there are daily hundreds of tourists, who want to visit this place. As far as the entrance is concerned: there is the official queue, in which one has to wait a longer time (around an hour or so). One can also use a quicker queue that in practice means use a service of a person (or a guide), who has a reservation. But one has to pay more for the ticket. The latter seems to be an under the desk procedure, but it works.