When the Roman Emperor Constantine was baptised a Christian on his death-bed in 337AD (whether or not he was sincere in his conversion, or even properly understood the religion’s tenants are another matter) both the Empire and Christianity were changed forever. Early Christians surged to take advantage of this unprecedented recognition and by 356 AD had affected the closure of all pagan temples in Rome. Whilst this rapid destruction of their religious rivals isn’t exactly the greatest showcase of Christianity’s innate tolerance, it would be that fateful baptism by a lifelong pagan, which would end up earning Rome that ‘Eternal City’ sobriquet.
The issue with the Roman Empire was that it was just too big to govern in the days before an emperor could angrily tweet that he was building a wall and Scotland would pay for it. As a result it was split into two; the Western Empire of which Rome was the capital, and the Eastern, which was governed from Constantinople (founded by our friend, Emperor Constantine, who was not a big one for modesty) now modern-day Istanbul. Unfortunately for Rome, whilst the Eastern Empire grew in power and prestige, Rome’s military and economic power faltered and declined. As the Empire was bound together by fear and violence as much as civilization and knowledge, it was not long until the entire Western side finally met its ignominious end on the sword points of some very large European men in little furry hats. Whilst the Eastern Empire went on in the form of the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years, by 476 AD Rome was a finished power. Or at least it would have been if not for the rise of the papacy.
Christianity had only been Roman orthodoxy for a little over 100 years, but now without an emperor to kow-tow too, the post-Roman, Popes found themselves in a position of authority that would very rarely be challenged over the next millennium. As Christianity filled the vacuum of Dark Age Europe, it rose to a level of power and moral authority that in many ways outstripped the imperial age. Catholic Rome was the Empire continued by other means and, like any empire, its seat, the Vatican became the storehouse of some of the greatest treasures to be found within its global borders. Modern Rome feels as if it was deliberately constructed within the glittering bones of its past, and nowhere does that feeling of temporal dilation hold truer than in the Vatican museums, where all of these separate eras of Rome blur together into one absurdly lavish spectacle. From the imposing dome of the Basilica to the borderline overwhelming Sistine Chapel, the Vatican that a tourist sees is such a sensory overload that the phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ might as well be described by waving a picture of the Dome of St Peter.
The queues to get into the Vatican are punishing and for a visit it’s a much smarter idea to book online beforehand, which will allow you to jump the queue at little extra cost. The Vatican Museums are collectively (it’s just one long building culminating with the Sistine chapel) the world’s second largest museum behind the Hermitage in Russia. However there’s precious little to be found by way of signage or information on any of the functionally unaccountable quantities of statues, friezes and swirling paintings that make up the collection. In addition to this, due to some ancient quirk there is no distinguishing between masterpieces and the merely well crafted; all are hung next to each other in what was apparently a genuine attempt to prove the subjective quality of art. This is all very noble but can be a bit of an issue if you’re not as up on your Roman statuary as you could be. This lack of information is presumably designed to inspire one to hire a guide, but there is simply too much for anything but the most mercilessly concise guide to even make a dent. Far better to flow under your own steam and just allow yourself to be born on a raft of context free masterpieces. When you come to the close of the museums with the Sistine Chapel, even the crush of people can’t detract from the sheer potency of the combination of the art of man and the power of God that the Vatican is built on.
Of course the Vatican might be in Rome, but it’s not in Italy. Originally the Popes had commanded Rome and much of the surrounding area around it as absolute monarchs in what were referred to as the Papal States. However this period came to an abrupt end during the forging of Italy into a single nation in 1870, when Victor Emmanuel was able to steamroll the papist forces and claimed Rome as a sovereign capital for the new state. The then Pope Pius IX decided to wait out this whole ‘Italy’ fad by hunkering down inside the Vatican, fairly confident in both his impressive walls and the fact that invading the headquarters of one of the largest religions on earth is not great optics for a fledgling nation. This stalemate continued until Mussolini; in an attempt to legitimise his, shall we say, ‘controversial’ regime, used his tough strong-man powers to solve this problem by…giving the Papacy everything it wanted on a plate. The Lantern treaty of 1926, named after the palace it was signed in, created the separate sovereign state of the Vatican City (one of only seven absolute monarchies left in the world) and guaranteed full and independent sovereignty to the Holy See. The Pope was pledged to perpetual neutrality in international relations and to abstention from mediation in a controversy unless specifically requested by all parties, but in return for this concession, the Italian state agreed to pay 750,000,000 lire immediately plus consolidated bearer bonds with a coupon rate of 5% and a nominal value of 1,000,000,000 lire. The Holy Rollers had come up double sixes.
There are few institutions still extant that have exerted a bigger influence over history than the Catholic Church. To visit the Vatican and its treasure horde is to momentarily glimpse the historical giants whose shoulders the modern world perched on, wrought in marble and gold. Regardless of one’s personal feeling on organised religion in general and Catholicism in particular, it’s a pilgrimage everyone should undertake once.