“All history is contemporary history” - Benedetto Croce

The history of the Vatican City is often bundled in with the history of Rome and the Roman Empire. Of course, you can’t separate the history of the Vatican from the history of Rome.

The Vatican is now the home of the Holy See of the Catholic Church. However, the site of the Vatican has been important since the Antiquity. It has nearly 2,000 secular employees, twice as many people as the Vatican’s entire population. Everything is the property of the Holy See and it’s impossible to acquire real estate in the Vatican City. However, the land is valued at around $1.35b.

So how did the world’s smallest country become so rich?

In this article, Superprof is taking a look at the Vatican’s history.

The Vatican: A History with Ancient Roots

While the Vatican only became a city-state on 11th February 1929 with the Lateran Treaty, its history dates back to the Roman Empire.

When was the Vatican founded?
The Catholic Church dates back to Roman times, over 2,000 years ago. (Source: DomyD)

By the end of the Roman Republic (from 509BCE to 27BCE), the Vatican was just a small plain by the banks of the Tiber with a small hill, the Vatican Hill. The Vatican Hill is between the Janiculum, one of Rome’s seven main hills, and Monte Mario. The name Vaticanus traces its etymology back to the word “vaticinium”, which means “oracle” since many soothsayers used to occupy the place during the Roman Classical Antiquity.

For historians, the Vatican was an Etruscan city known as Vaticum. The Vatican Plain was never within the city of Rome. The Vatican Hill was a holiday resort for Roman nobles who built palaces and luxury homes by the Imperial Gardens built under Caligula. Agrippina the Older, the mother of Caligula and grandmother of Nero, also had several villas built. Caligula (12-41), during his short reign (37-41), made the Circus Vaticanus which included the obelisk which is now in the centre of Saint Peter's Square.

Under the reign of Nero (37-68), many Christian martyrs were persecuted at the Circus Maximus.

Saint Peter himself was buried there in a necropolis along where Constantine (272-337) would build the first basilica on the ruins of the Roman circus 300 years later.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

This is where you can now find Saint Peter’s Basilica, which was built between 1506 and 1626.

Vatican Hill was home to a meeting place to resist heresy and paganism (as the Christians called it from the 6th century to stigmatise non-Christians).

Find out more about visiting the Vatican.

The Vatican in the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, the hill became the residence for the popes. Pope Symmachus built a palace at the end of the 5th century where political and religious leaders could stay.

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When did the Vatican become the home of the Pope?
The Vatican used to hold more land than just the Vatican City. (Source: lena1)

During the time of Constantine and the Kingdom of the Lombards, the popes received many donations, particularly land holdings, over the centuries, making the pope one of the biggest landholders in Europe. This helped legitimise the power of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican. Emperor Constantine, I gave Pope Sylvester sovereignty over the Eastern Church and Imperial Power over the West. Sylvester, in theory, was happy to own all these provinces in the Western Roman Empire. In 1440, this was shown to be a fabrication.

In the 8th century, donations from Pepin the Short in 754 and Charlemagne in 774 helped created the Papal States, which were under the authority of the pope from 752 to 1870. The donations resulted in lands that were previously occupied by the Lombards being given to the pope and legitimising their power. The fake Donation of Constantine document helped legitimise the Papal States and served the interests of the Carolingians.

Following the Treaty of Venice in 1177, the Papal States became independent from the Holy Roman Empire. The Papal States in the 14th century reigned over central Italy: Rome, Ostia, Sabina, Ancona, and enclaves in the Kingdom of Naples and Avignon.

Find out how to plan a trip to the Vatican.

The Vatican During the Italian Renaissance

The popes became more powerful than kings and emperors during the Middle Ages and their infallible authority became increasingly contested during the 14th century for several reasons:

  • Social upheaval
  • The plague, which was ravaging Europe
  • Political crises
  • Religious warring between Catholics and Protestants
  • Rationalisation

At the start of the Renaissance, there was a thirst for knowledge where a mastery of sciences and the accomplishment of man gained more value than that of God.

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What art did the Church fund?
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Vatican funded a lot of artists. (Source: carlo75)

The humanist movement drove great men into the sciences and humanities. The pope appeared to the people as a monarch and not the all-powerful representative of God on earth. The Papal States were helped by loyal followers to collect immense riches; the popes during the Renaissance were patrons of the arts. They rebuilt the city of Rome, profited from the discoveries in the Americas, and the Vatican became a theatre excess during the time.

The papacy of the 16th century was radically conservative and fought to hinder the change brought on by the enlightenment, which the rest of Europe was seeing as progress.

It wasn’t until the election of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) that the papacy entered into the Italian Renaissance. They built the Vatican Palace, one of the residences of the pope from 1447. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) were the first Renaissance popes. Quarrelling between powerful Italian families such as the Orsini, Colonna, Borgia, and Medicis weighed heavily on the Church.

Under the rule of Pope Julius II, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by Michaelangelo and Rome became the home of Sacred Art. The current Saint Peter’s Basilica was painted, the Vatican Gardens were remodelled, and the Cortile del Belvedere was built under Julius II, too.

The art they’d collected, Laocoon and His Sons and the Apollo Belvedere, in particular, were later displayed in the Vatican Museums. The popes were the first to make their art collections public.

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The Vatican in the Modern Age

After the French Revolution, Napoleon’s troops under the Directory entered Rome on 6th February 1798.

What do people think of the Church now?
In the modern age, the Church isn't as revered as it once was. (Source: Mikdev)

The pope was forced to give up his power to retain his spiritual power. He was forced to leave Rome and the Papal States fell under the control of the Directory. In 1808, Napoleon annexed the Papal States but they were ceded after the Congress of Vienna and the abdication of Napoleon I in 1815.

In the 1860s, the Papal States were limited just to Rome and Latium. Parts were annexed by Piedmont and, following the defeat of Napoleon III against Prussia, the Papal States were integrated into the Kingdom of Italy. Rome was declared the capital of a unified Italy. In 1900, the Papal States were abolished by Pope Leo XIII with the pope residing in the Apostolic Palace.

Rome was historically the seat of power for the pope and following the unification of Italy, a dispute, known as the Roman Question, arose. Pope Pius IX opposed the Risorgimento (unification of Italy) between 1848 and 1870. When the Italian army annexed Rome on 20th September 1870, this marked the end of the Papal States dominion over Latium.

The Roman Question was resolved with the Lateran Agreement between Mussolini and the Holy See that recognised the latter as a sovereign state, an elective absolute monarchy through divine right. The Vatican also has a rich architectural and cultural heritage throughout Europe and is visited by 6 million tourists every year.

Find out more about what to see in the Vatican.

Before you go to the Vatican, consider learning some Italian. While Latin is also the official language of the Vatican, you'll get much farther with Italian. There are plenty of talented Italian tutors on Superprof who can help you with this.

With three different types of tutorial available, face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials, and group tutorials, each with their pros and cons, you need to carefully choose which one is right for you and your learning objectives.

Face-to-face tutorials take place with just you and the tutor. Your tutor will provide you with bespoke tuition and lessons that are tailored to you. Since this involves a lot of extra work for the tutor outside of the tutorials, you'll pay a premium for these types of tutorials. However, with the tutor's undivided attention, these tutorials are also the most cost-effective tuition you can get.

Online tutorials come with a lot of the same benefits as face-to-face tutorials but your tutor won't be there in the room with you. While this works fine for academic subjects, these types of tutorials aren't always as effective for hands-on subjects. With fewer travel expenses, though, your tutor can charge less for the tutorials.

Finally, group tutorials involve several students and one tutor. You won't get as much one-on-one time with your tutor but you won't pay as much per hour as the cost tutor's time is shared amongst all the students in the tutorial.

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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.