Skip to main content

What to Know Before Visiting the Vatican in Rome

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

St Peter's Square

St Peter's Square

The Vatican

It is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and the home of the pope. At times during the history of the Papacy, the pope was the ruler of what was virtually a private kingdom, with the Papal States occupying much of what is now central and northern Italy, as well as being the spiritual ruler of the world’s Catholics (which included the whole of Western Europe prior to the Reformation). Although most of this territory had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, Pope Pius XI ceded all remaining temporal control to Mussolini’s Italy in 1929; at this time, the Catholic Church was allowed to retain the Vatican City as a mark of its political neutrality.

It is therefore a state surrounded by a city (Rome), which has no economy (it is supported by the contributions of the World’s Catholic faithful), army (other than the largely ceremonial Swiss Guards), or most of the other functions of a national government.

St Peter's Basilica

St Peter's Basilica

St Peter's Basilica

There is much for the visitor to see, but he/she must also bear in mind the special significance of the Vatican and show due respect to its inhabitants. For example, visitors to St Peter’s Basilica must be modestly dressed, with no bare shoulders or short dresses allowed. Men must wear long, not short, trousers. Also, be aware that this is a place of prayer, that certain chapels will be set aside for quiet contemplation, and that masses are held at intervals throughout the day.

You approach the Basilica via Bernini’s vast Piazza which, on special occasions, is thronged with thousands of pilgrims. It is delineated by two double circular colonnades of pillars, and in the center is an ancient obelisk that was brought from Egypt at the time of Emperor Caligula and was the turning point for chariot races in Nero’s circus.

St Peter’s will astound you by its very size. You could fit the Statue of Liberty under the Dome with room to spare. An elevator from outside the building will take you to the roof, from where you can climb the 323 steps to the top of the Dome. Take your time, and your head for heights, as you will find yourself looking down into the Basilica itself as well as out over the city of Rome. You should allow an hour for the trip up and down.

Inside the Basilica, look up into the Dome and marvel at Michelangelo’s design. This amazingly beautiful piece of engineering has been here since 1593 (based on Michelangelo’s 1547 design but with several changes). The inscription on the Dome walls reads, in Latin, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church, and to you, I will give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”.

Michelangelo’s work can also be seen in the Chapel of the Pieta, which houses one of his most famous sculptures, depicting Mary holding the body of Christ. This is behind bullet-proof glass, the result of an attack on it in the 1970s, but its beauty can still be appreciated. Your eyesight is unlikely to be good enough to spot the young sculptor’s signature. Having overheard doubts expressed as to whether it was all his own work, the 22-year-old crept in at night and inscribed his name on the band across Mary’s breast.

At the far end of the Basilica is the Chair of Peter, which is of great antiquity but heavily restored over the centuries. An unusual feature of a piece of furniture that was thought at one time to have been the throne of St Peter himself is that the carvings on it represent one of the labors of Hercules, a strangely pagan theme to find in what is, in effect, the Catholic Church’s “holy of holies”.

“The Altar of the Lie” is an unusual name for an altar. It represents the story told in the Acts of the Apostles, as depicted in the mosaic above the altar, of the lies told to Peter by Ananias and Sapphira, who held back some of the money they had promised to the early Church and were struck dead as a result.

The High Altar, from which only the Pope himself ever says Mass, is notable for the massive bronze canopy, or “baldachino” which is the largest bronze monument in the world. It is the work of the young Bernini, who was 25 at the time. St Peter’s contains many other works by Bernini. The High Altar stands above the tomb of St Peter.

This account cannot possibly do justice to everything that can be seen in St Peter’s. For example, there are tombs of Popes to be found all over the Basilica, and in the crypt beneath. With so much to see and marvel over, you really should allow a whole day for the Basilica alone.

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel

The Vatican Museums

Throughout the history of the Papacy, a huge number of works of art and other artifacts have found their way to Rome, many of them commissioned by Popes by the greatest artists and sculptors of their age. The size and value of the collection reflect the huge wealth that the Catholic Church has commanded at various times in its history. Many of these treasures are now accessible for public view in a series of museums and galleries within the Vatican.

The most famous building within this complex must surely be the Sistine Chapel, named after Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-1484), which contains no exhibits except for the frescoes on its walls and ceiling. It is Michelangelo’s ceiling that the tourists come to see, and with good reason. The work took him four years to complete and includes images that everybody knows, such as the finger of God reaching out to give life to Adam. Also by Michelangelo is his later altarpiece of the Last Judgment (1536-41), on the wall behind the altar.

However, other museums that should be visited include the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, Raphael’s Rooms (decorated by Raphael and his school, 1508-24), and the Ethnological Missionary Museum. This latter collection alone amounts to some 80,000 exhibits, so it is probably just as well that they are not all open to public view!

The visitor to Vatican City has a vast amount to see in a very small compass. And this is just one small part of the city of Rome. Rome was not built in a day, and cannot be seen in a day either!