For those who have been carefully following my travelogues, you may
have observed some glaring omissions in my recent description of Rome.
What about St. Peter's Plaza and Basilica? What about the massive
art collection in the Vatican Museum? And what about the Pope?
Because it is technically an independent country with its own postal
service, its own military (albeit entirely ceremonial), and even its
own Internet domain (try visiting www.va), I decided to give The Holy
See -- also known as Vatican City -- special treatment in its own
On the Sunday morning following our arrival in Rome, Michelle and I both rose early and took the subway to St. Peter's basilica to observe the 9am mass. In St. Peter's plaza, we found a long line of visitors waiting to pass through the metal detectors and into the cathedral. But when we finally made our way inside, we found thousands of tourists milling about and taking photos, but the morning mass was nowhere to be seen. Only when we made our way to the very front of the basilica did we discover a meager audience of 200 -- about the size of a typical service at the little protestant church that I was raised in. Sneaking quietly among the hundreds of vacant seats, Michelle and I sat through the rest of the mass, admiring our extravagant surroundings.
Above the center of the basilica, the great dome rises a staggering 390 feet above the floor. From that towering height, all the way down to the elaborately tiled floor, every inch of St. Peter's is intricately decorated with paintings, relief work and masterfully carved sculptures, including Michelangelo's famous Pieta.
Returning again on the following day, I spent a solid eight hours in the Vatican Museum -- barely enough time to scratch the surface of their expansive collections. Millions of items are on display, including famous paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo and seemingly endless hallways lined with thousands of intricately carved marble sculptures. The most popular destination within the museum is the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of which was painted by Michelangelo in the early 16th Century and includes the instantly recognizable depictions of Creation and the Last Judgment. The museum is so expansive that even the direct route to the Sistine Chapel can take more than an hour -- depending on the tourist volume -- leading visitors through a maze of hallways with every inch covered by immaculate paintings and frescoes.
Wandering among the Vatican's sprawling collection of sculptures -- many depicting wealthy patrons from before the time of Christ -- it's sometimes surprising how familiar the figures can appear, despite being separated in time by nearly 100 generations. Disregarding clothing styles that have long since become unfashionable, many of the faces bear a remarkable resemblance to strangers that I might pass on the street even today.
When considered as its own country, Vatican City is undoubtedly one of the most curious places on earth. The country occupies less than one half of one square kilometer and has a permanent population of 921. With its vast collection of priceless treasures, it is most certainly, per capita, the wealthiest country on earth, receiving contributions from every Catholic diocese in the world. As an observer at the Sunday mass, it was strange for me to watch the congregation -- mostly middle-class Italians -- fill the offering plate with financial contributions that will be used, in part, to pay for the upkeep of the absurdly opulent palaces that surround them.
Having its own country does not, by any means, contain the influence of the Catholic Church, which can be observed throughout Rome. The Pantheon, originally built as a Roman temple, was converted to a church in 109 A.D. and is now filled with Catholic relics. At the Colosseum -- once richly decorated with white marble -- all of the beautiful stone was removed for the construction of St. Peter's basilica and other private residences. Regardless, when entering the Colosseum today, visitors are greeted by a titanic cross as yet another reminder of the church's influence. And at every tiny tourist kiosk, postcards can be found with pictures of the less-than-photogenic Pope Benedict XVI.
Despite all its oddities -- or perhaps because of them -- The Holy See is a remarkable country to visit and can easily occupy several days of sightseeing during a stay in Rome. Regardless of one's religious persuasion, the treasures housed within the walls of the Vatican are absolutely worth the trip.