10 Fun Facts About Vatican City

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On the first day of our 12 days spent exploring Italy with Globus Tours, we started at Vatican City. To be honest, I knew very little about the Vatican, other than it housed the Sistine Chapel with its famous Michelangelo painted ceiling and the Pope. Other than looking forward to seeing that magnificent chapel, I had little interest in touring the rest of the Vatican.

Silly me. That was my ignorance talking.

I had no real idea what lay behind the those tall Vatican walls. A delightful surprise awaited me.

Check out these 10 fun facts about Vatican City, so that you know more than I did on your visit.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City title meme

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City

Visit Rome, Italy and you’ll likely see the walled Vatican City, completely surrounded by Roman neighborhoods. Home to the Pope, the Sistine Chapel and incredibly beautiful architecture, this is not a sight to miss while exploring.

There’s so much more to the Vatican than the Pope’s home though. How many of these fun facts do you know?

Smallest Country in the World

Vatican City covers 121 acres, making it 1/8 the size of New York’s Central Park, and it is entirely surrounded by the city of Rome. It’s an independent city state, making it the smallest country in the world.

Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy, with the Pope as the head. The Vatican mints its own euros, prints its own postal stamps, issues passports and license plates, has its own flag, anthem, newspaper and radio station and operates media platforms.

The population of Vatican City numbers about 800. To gain citizenship you must work there as an employee. Lose the job, lose citizenship. There isn’t an official language.

Vatican City is the only entire country to receive the UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.

St. Peter’s Basilica Sits on a City of the Dead

During Pagan times a Roman necropolis…city of the dead…existed on Vatican Hill. When the great fire leveled Rome in AD 64, Emperor Nero accused Christians of starting the fire. He executed them at the base of the hill, in horrible ways, including Peter the apostle of Jesus. Peter was buried, supposedly, on Vatican Hill.

By the 4th century, Emperor Constantine began building the original basilica on top of the old burial grounds, with the tomb of Peter at the center. The present basilica, constructed in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs.

More than 100 tombs exist inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Ninety one of these hold past Popes. However Queen Christina of Sweden rests here along with James Stuart, the pretender to the British crown.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City st peters basilica
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City – St Peter’s sits on a city of the dead

The Obelisk that Stands in St. Peter’s Square Came from Egypt

Emperor Caligula of Rome built a small amphitheater at the base of Vatican Hill, where charioteers trained and Nero martyred the Christians. He transported an obelisk from Egypt, that once stood in Heliopolis, to the center of the amphitheater.

The obelisk, made of red granite, was built to honor an Egyptian pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago.  It moved to St. Peter’s Square in 1586.

The Swiss Guard Protects the Pope

The Swiss Guard, dressed in colorful Renaissance style uniforms, serves as bodyguards to the Pope. Founded in 1506, they are the world’s smallest standing army, with 135 members currently. Although also ceremonial, the soldiers are highly trained marksmen. Members of the guard must be Swiss, Catholic and undertake basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City swiss guard
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City – Swiss Guards

The Pope Owns a Telescope in Arizona

The Vatican owns one of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world, the Vatican Observatory. However, because of light pollution in Rome, the Observatory purchased a top of the line telescope and installed it on a hilltop in Tucson, Arizona, in the US. It’s called the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, with a primary use of conducting astronomical research.

There’s a Secret Passageway

A half mile long elevated covered passageway, constructed in 1277, connects the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for the Pope.

In 1527, Pope Clement VII used the passageway to safely evade the forces of Emperor Charles V as they murdered priests and nuns throughout the city. The Swiss Guard held back the throngs long enough for Pope Clement to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo although 147 of the guards perished.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City secret passageway
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City – there’s a secret passageway…but this isn’t it!

Vatican City Has Its Own Soccer Team

Vatican City has a soccer team, called the FC Guardia. All of the players are Swiss Guards. In 1972 the city founded the Vatican City Championship. Eight teams, comprised of workers from the City’s various state departments, compete.

Vatican City Has the Highest Wine Consumption in the World

Because of its small population, the country earns the title of highest wine consumption in the world. Most of the residents of Vatican City drink wine…averaging 54 liters each per year…plus it is used in religious ceremonies.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City wine consumption
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City – highest wine consumption

World’s Shortest Railway

Vatican City opened a railway in 1934. At just 300 meters long, with one station, it’s the world’s shortest national railway. The train is used primarily to transport freight and occasionally for ceremonial purposes.

The Vatican Palaces are Enormous

Although it’s a small country, the Vatican palaces are huge. The palaces consist of connected buildings with more than 1,000 rooms. Inside is the Pope’s residence, plus museums, meeting rooms, chapels…including the Sistine Chapel…residential apartments and offices. Additionally, you’ll find nine miles of gorgeous artwork on display.

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City palace
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City – nine miles of artwork to view

Have You Visited Vatican City?

I’m grateful that our tour of Italy began at Vatican City. Had I made my own travel decisions, I know I would have skipped the Vatican. And what a shame if I had. We spent all morning there. I felt amazement over the rooms and rooms of art. St. Peter’s Basilica is truly beautiful and mysterious. And the Sistine Chapel did not disappoint.

My advice: don’t skip seeing Vatican City. It’s worth spending half a day or more exploring all that this interesting place has to offer.

Have you visited Vatican City? And did you learn any new facts about it in this post?

10 Fun Facts About Vatican City first look
First look at Vatican City, from our hotel room window.

 


 

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Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my Disclosure Policy for details.

The Sistine Chapel, located within Vatican City in Rome, Italy contains one of the most famous frescoes in the world. On the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo’s masterpiece inspires wonder. Security officers within the room encourage silence out of respect for the space. Truly, the magnificence of the paintings instill reverence. It’s not difficult to observe the silence.

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel either, to protect the vibrancy of the artwork. So when my daughter, grandson and I toured the room, we strove to soak it all in. Although I grew up seeing limited photos of the chapel, that someone took, I had no idea what to expect. Several things surprised me.

Check out these fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel and see if any surprise you!

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel title meme

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel

Because we could not take photos in the chapel, I’m sharing photographs of other ceilings within Vatican City, which truly contains amazing collections of art. While not painted by Michelangelo, these ceilings inspire awe as well, when you look up.

The photo of the chapel ceiling, used here in this post, is one I purchased from the Canva site.

Where Does the Name Come From?

The chapel is named for Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel’s construction in 1475. It rests on the foundation of the original Cappella Magna (Great Chapel). The chapel’s layout is reminiscent of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Old Testament.

Size of the Chapel

The small size of the chapel surprised me. I think because the paintings are so complex, covering the ceiling and parts of the walls, I expected a huge room. In reality, the chapel measures a little larger than a professional basketball court.

Michelangelo Covered Another Artist’s Work

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, beginning work in 1508, he covered the original fresco on the ceiling. Artist Piero Matteo d’Amelia created a blue night sky filled with gold stars.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel St Peter's Basilica
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – this gorgeous view is in St Peter’s Basilica

Michelangelo Didn’t Want to Paint the Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo considered himself primarily a sculpture, not a painter.  In fact, he didn’t feel qualified for such a massive project as the chapel ceiling. However, because the pope asked him to do the work, he could not easily refuse. Michelangelo even entertained the thought that his rivals set up the commission, just to see him fail.

Michelangelo Expressed His Unhappiness in a Poem

The artist disliked his commission so much that he wrote a poem about it.  His friend Giovanni da Pistoia received the lament, which included the line, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture, hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy.” I somehow find it refreshing that the great Michelangelo could poetically tell it like it is!

Did He Paint Lying on His Back?

Although the story suggests that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling while lying on his back, he in fact built his own scaffolding. This allowed him to stand near the ceiling, providing better precision and control of his brushes. As his poem suggests, however, the cramped working conditions and long hours looking up created physical pain for him.

St Peter's Basilica ceiling
Ceiling in St Peter’s Basilica, which is also located in Vatican City.

Four Years of Work

It took Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling, covering 12,000 square feet of space. He left the portrait of God until last, so that he could refine and perfect his technique. A year into the painting, a large portion of the fresco developed mold. He had to repaint that section. He tried to use this setback as proof that he wasn’t the right artist for the work, however the pope asked him to continue.

Depiction of God

Michelangelo painted God as an older man with white hair and a long white beard. While this image later became common, Michelangelo was the first to portray God in this way. The angels surrounding God create an image with their spread wings that resembles a brain. Scholars think Michelangelo perhaps showed off his knowledge of anatomy.

Cover Up Those Nudes

In the 1560s Pope Pius IV ordered painted fig leaves and loincloths added to strategically cover the nudity in Michelangelo’s paintings. Fortunately, when restoration work was done between 1980 and 1999, to remove layers of grime that built up over the years, these cover ups were removed.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel museum
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – Vatican Museums contain beautiful ceilings too

The Last Judgment

Michelangelo also painted The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar. However, he returned 22 years after he completed the ceiling, to add this fresco. The artist included two figures in The Last Judgment that represent him and neither are considered flattering.

Acorn Motif

A reoccurring motif in Michelangelo’s work is the acorn. This is a nod by the artist to the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV, whose family name was Rovere, meaning oak in Italian.

Millions of Visitors

When we are not experiencing a pandemic, the Sistine Chapel draws more than five million visitors every year. If a visitor has exposed shoulders or clothing that ends above the knees, he or she is asked to cover up while within the chapel. Due to the high volume of visitors, sweat, carbon dioxide and skin flakes pose a threat to the frescoes. Methods of controlling humidity and temperature are underway.

Vatican City Hallway
Amazing ceiling in a museum hallway.

Well Worth a Visit

Our 12 day tour of Italy began in Rome. On our first full day there, we visited Vatican City. Nothing prepared me for the experience. The vast collections of art astounded me. St Peter’s Basilica moved me to tears. And the Sistine Chapel, which was near the end of our tour, truly was the highlight of an amazing half day spent exploring the vastness of Vatican City. I think my mouth involuntarily dropped open when I entered the chapel.

Is Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel worth seeing? Yes. Allot at least three hours and more if you have time. There’s so much to see and experience.

I hope the collection of fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel inspires you to plan a visit. It’s a sight I’m extremely grateful for.

For now, check out this virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.

Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel – a section of the famous ceiling (Canva photo)

Check out things you may not know about Michelangelo’s David HERE

 


 

Cindy Goes Beyond is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. This affiliate program provides a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com, all at no extra cost to you.