Welcome back to the Nu History blog! My name is Analisa and although I’ve guested on the Nu History Podcast before, this is my first time writing for the blog. The subject is rather fitting as well! I’m continuing the countries of the world history series with the Holy See, or the Vatican. This is my favorite place in the world because of its rich history and tradition, fabulous architecture, and amazing museum complex! So, to learn more, keep on reading!
St Peter’s Basilica, the center point of the Holy See, has existed in some form or another for the past 2000 years! It marks the spot where St. Peter, disciple of Jesus, was executed by crucifixion in the mid 60’s CE. Emperor Nero shifted the blame for the Great Fire of Rome to the Christian population and St. Peter, as the leader of the early Church, was a prime target. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was a popular pilgrimage site fairly soon after St. Peter’s death.
In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This was a huge event for the early Church. It legalized Christianity, pulling it out from the shadows and into the spotlight. (Note that Christianity was not made the state religion of the Roman Empire until 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica.) As the first Christian emperor, Constantine took it upon himself to build basilicas, churches, and holy sites throughout Rome, Constantinople, and the Holy Land. The Constantinian St. Peter’s Basilica stood for about a thousand years until it fell into disrepair. (More on this later!)
During the medieval period, Rome fell into disrepair. Plague, invasions, and poor Papal leadership all contributed to the city’s (and therefore the Vatican’s) fall. From 1309 to 1376, seven popes ruled from Avignon France under pressure from the French monarchy, starting with Phillip IV. This was extremely controversial, especially because it seemed to be taking power away from the Church. In fact, a rival faction of popes ruled from Rome. This was chaotic and led to different edicts being issued from two or more popes! It must have been quite confusing for the faithful!
When the Papacy finally made its way back to Rome, the popes knew they had to fix things. It was time to restore the grand and powerful image of the Church. It was during the Renaissance and Baroque periods that many of the buildings and works of art we associated with the Papacy were made. However, this growing power (and abuses of it) led to some major events! The first occurred in 1517 with the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther displayed his ninety five theses, it rocked the Church to its core and would have lasting effects that still resonate today. A mere ten years later in 1527, the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, sacked the city. The pope was held captive and the world realized that the Church was not as powerful as it seemed. To help regain some of it back, the Papacy launched the Counter Reformation.
The pope served as the head of the Papal States for the next couple of centuries. But in 1850, Victor Emmanuel II became King of Italy. His main goal was to unify the multiple city states of Italy under a single government. On September 20, 1870, the king’s army forcibly occupied Rome. Pope Pius IX refused to reach an agreement with Victor Emmanuel II because he felt it was taking away too much of the Church’s power. So, Pius IX and his successors locked themselves within the walls of the Vatican for the next 59 years!
In 1929, Benito Mussolini approached Pope Pius XI. He offered to create a Vatican city state within the city of Rome. Knowing that many Italians, and Catholics, wished to see a truce, the Pope signed the Lateran Treaty on February 11. This gave the Pope power over the Vatican land and a couple of churches within Rome.
Today, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. It is only about 0.49 square kilometers (0.19 square miles)! There are about 600 citizens, though the majority of them live abroad for ecclesiastical purposes. The museums, gardens, and St. Peter’s Basilica makes the city a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. And how could it not be? With 2000 years of history and tradition, there’s a lot to see!