From the food, to the history, to the culture, there are many reasons to visit Italy. It is a country with countless landmarks and tourist destinations, and among the most popular of these is the Vatican. Most people know that this is where the Pope lives, but many are confused beyond that. What is Vatican City? Is Vatican City a country or something else? And why is Vatican City so important?
What is Vatican City?
Located entirely within the city of Rome, Vatican City is officially called the Vatican City State or the State of Vatican City. It is an independent state with an area of 0.17 square miles (0.44 km2) and a population right around 1,000. As such, it is the smallest state in the world by both area and population.
Vatican City came into existence in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty, and was created to serve as the territorial identity for the Holy See in Rome. The “Holy See” refers to the combined authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty held by the Pope and his advisers to oversee the global Roman Catholic Church.
As an independent sovereign entity, the Holy See, or the See of Rome, maintains international relations with 174 nations. In diplomatic relations, the Holy See acts and speaks for the whole church. In essence, the Holy See serves as the universal government of the Catholic Church.
Though often used interchangeably, “Vatican City” and the “Holy See” are distinct. The Holy See dates back to antiquity, and is the main episcopal see of the roughly 1.2 billion Catholic adherents around the world. Vatican City, conversely, was created after talks between the Holy See and Italy. According to the Lateran Treaty, the Holy See maintains ownership and sovereignty over Vatican City.
The Pope is the ruler of both Vatican City State and the Holy See.
Is Vatican City a Country?
The short answer: Yes! Vatican City is a country – but it is a bit complicated.
As described earlier, it is actually the Holy See that maintains sovereignty over Vatican City. This government operates from Vatican City, and under international law, Vatican City is a recognized national territory.
The Holy See/Vatican City is not a member of the United Nations. However, as with other countries, full UN membership is not necessarily a valid litmus test for determining what is a country.
The Holy See/Vatican City is an observer to many international organizations, like the African Union, the Arab League, the Council of Europe, and the Organization of American States. Furthermore, it is a non-member observer state of the United Nations and its agencies.
Given its international recognition, its self-governance, and its status within the UN, most sources agree that Vatican City is in fact a country.
History of Vatican City
Though the site of Vatican City had been considered sacred before Christianity, the history of Vatican City really begins in the 4th century AD with the construction of a basilica over what was believed to be Saint Peter’s grave. Ultimately, a palace would be constructed nearby to serve as a home for the Pope. In the centuries that would follow, the area would see more growth and would become a popular pilgrimage site.
After being abandoned briefly in 1309 when the papal court moved to France, the church returned in 1377. Soon after, many now famous landmarks were built, including the Sistine Chapel in the 1470s.
The city would change drastically after the appointment of Pope Julius II in 1503. He would select Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, and he would order St. Peter’s Basilica (at nearly 1,200 years old) to be torn down, with a new one to be built in its place.
Development of the site would continue under future Popes. These Popes would grow to have secular roles as governors of regions near Rome. Known as the Papal States, these regions covered a large portion of the Italian peninsula for over a thousand years. However, in the mid-19th century, all territories belonging to the papacy were taken by the new Kingdom of Italy.
The Holy See was able to continue to operate from within the walls of the Vatican, but Popes did not recognize the right of the King of Italy to rule Rome. Tension between the the church and the secular government of Italy ensued for nearly 60 years.
Vatican City Today
On February 11, 1929, the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy was signed.
By accepting the treaty, the Holy See conceded that the Italian government had sovereignty over the former Papal States. Italy recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See over Vatican City. And for their loss of territory, the Holy See was given $92 million as compensation.
Today, Vatican City maintains its religious ties, continuing to serve as home to the Pope. It is still a pilgrimage site and spiritual center for the nearly 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church. Despite its small size, Vatican City boasts an impressive array of centuries-old buildings and gardens, and continues to maintain its own banking, postal services, and telephone system. It is also one of just three countries in the world that is completely surrounded by another nation (Lesotho and San Marino are the other two).
With its artistic beauty, rich history, and religious significance, it’s no wonder that it’s such a popular tourist destination when vacationing in Italy.