It goes without saying that a trip to Rome’s Vatican means seeing the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica as well as Michelangelo’s famed art in the Sistine Chapel.
However, there are a number of things about the Vatican you might miss if you aren’t aware of them. The following are eight fascinating facts you likely weren’t aware of about the Vatican that could illuminate its history and intrigue even more vividly during your escorted vacation.
1. Popes Didn’t Always Reside Within Vatican Walls
While the pope now lives at the Vatican during his tenure, this wasn’t so until the 14th century. Even after the original St. Peter’s Basilica construction, the pope lived across Rome at Lateran Palace. Popes actually left Rome altogether in the year 1309 after King Philip IV had a French cardinal elected pope. The papal court then relocated to Avignon, France. No less than seven French popes ruled from Avignon, but the papacy finally returned to Rome in 1377 after the Lateran Palace burned down.
2. Vatican City is a Country
Not unlike Washington DC in the U.S., Vatican City is an independent city-state. However, it’s only around 100 acres, making it the smallest “country” in the world. Vatican City is encircled by a border within Italy that’s about two miles in circumference. It’s governed as an absolute monarchy and, not surprisingly, the pope is its leader. The Vatican prints its own stamps, mints its own euros, issues license plates and passports, and has its own media outlets as well as its own flag and national anthem. Surprisingly, there are no taxes; however, admission fees to the museum as well as souvenir and stamp sales cover the needed revenue.
3. Vatican City Has Only Around 800 Citizens – and Most of Them Live Abroad
Statistics show that the Vatican’s total citizenship includes numerous cardinals, clergy members and members of the Swiss Guard; however, more than half of the Vatican’s clergy members hold diplomatic positions in other countries.
4. The Current Pope Said He Would Baptize Aliens
During a homily that took place in May 2014, Pope Francis announced that he would be open to baptizing aliens if he ever had the opportunity or if they showed up at the Vatican. He explained that it would not be right to “close doors” to anyone, even beings from outer space. The homily was about acceptance and inclusion, with the Pope referencing the conversion of the first pagans and urging Christians to accept the Holy Spirit even if it appeared in “unimaginable” or “unthinkable” forms.
5. St. Peter’s Basilica Sits Atop a Cemetery
Before the Vatican became the Vatican, it was actually a Roman necropolis. Some called it a city of the dead, and St. Peter himself is said to be buried there. When a major fire in A.D. 64 leveled most of Rome, the Emperor Nero accused the Christians of starting it in order to shift blame away from himself. Christians were executed in brutal ways and then buried there.
It wasn’t until the fourth century when Christianity was recognized as the official Roman religion. Emperor Constantine then ordered construction of a basilica on top of the ancient burial ground. Today’s current basilica was built during the 1500s, and it is said to reside over a complex maze of catacombs as well as the grave of St. Peter.
6. There Are Numerous Conspiracy Theories About the Vatican
The Secrets of Fatima involved three young girls who are said to have been entrusted with three secrets from the Virgin Mary; however, conspiracy theorists say these secrets were suppressed by the Vatican. Some say that Pope Pius XII was complicit in the German Holocaust against the Jews. Others say that The Knights of Malta are headquartered in the Vatican and control the world. (Robert Anton Wilson insisted the Knights were behind the Vatican bank scandals of the ’70s and ’80s as well as a Nazi infiltration of the CIA.) Still others say that a Jesuit “black pope” is the true leader of the Vatican and the world. No matter what you believe, there is certainly no shortage of conspiracy theories about the Vatican.
7. The Vatican Has One of the World’s Biggest Art Collections
The Vatican is said to hold more than 9 total miles of art pieces if placed end to end; their length could easily wrap well over four times around Vatican walls. There are 1400 rooms, galleries and chapels making up the Vatican Palace’s former wings and housing its impressive art collection.
8. The Vatican is Watching the Skies with L.U.C.I.F.E.R.
Not only is the Vatican open to baptizing E.T. – they also seem to be watching for him. The Vatican has two observatories with state of the art telescopes in both Castel Gandolfo (15 miles outside of the Vatican) and near the U.S. city of Tucson, Arizona atop Mount Graham. Even more astonishing is the fact that the Vatican’s main telescope at Mount Graham is openly referred to using the acronym L.U.C.I.F.E.R., which stands for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research.
The Vatican is steeped in tradition and intrigue, and there’s likely much you don’t know about its history. While your experienced guide will have plenty to share about the Vatican’s past and its influence in the world, and we know part of the fun of travel is learning a little more before you go.