Vatican City

How did the world end up with the tiniest country of all, the Vatican City?

Vatican City and the Pope


Vatican City is the capital of the Catholic Church and home to the Pope. It is also the owner of impressive collections of art and history, all contained within the borders of the world’s smallest country. It is so small that you could easily walk around it in only 40 minutes.

Discover in this gorgeous book all the masterpieces of the ‘Vatican City’: hundreds of paintings, sculptures, maps, artifacts and more.  

Sistine Chapel

 Just how did the world end up with this tiny Nation?

The short answer is because of Mussolini, and the long answer is fiendishly complicated. So here’s a simplified medium version:

The Popes used to rule a country called the Papal States that covered much of our modern-day Italy. It was during this 1000+ year reign that the Popes constructed the Saint Peter’s Basilica – the largest church in the world – and also built a wall around the base of a hill known as Vatican, upon which Saint Peter’s stood.

But the Kingdom of Italy next door thought that Rome would make an awesome capital for their country and so Italy conquered the Papal States. His Nation destroyed, the Pope hid behind the walls of ‘Vatican’ and conflictingly refused to acknowledge that the Kingdom of Italy existed while simultaneously complaining about being a prisoner of the Kingdom of Italy which again, according to him, didn’t exist. Rather than risk religious Civil War by getting rid of the Pope, the Kingdom of Italy decided to wait him out, assuming he would eventually give up but religion is nothing if not obstinate. Five Popes (Piux IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Piux XI, from 1870 to 1929) and 60 years later, nothing had changed.

Until Benito Mussolini, the then Prime Minister of Italy, who was tired of listening to the Pope complain to Italian Catholics about his self-imposed imprisonment, thought he could score some political points by striking a deal that looked like this:

  • Italy gives the land of Vatican to the Pope, along with a lot of ‘apology money’

And in return:

  • the Pope acknowledges that Italy exists and promises to remain neutral in politics and wars (on the off-chance that it might be in their benefit).

The deal was signed and a new country ‘Vatican City’ was born.

And today, the tiny Nation on a hill has all the things you’d expect of a country:

The 'Bramante' spiral stairs

The ‘Bramante’ spiral stairs

Click here to book your visit to the Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel with our skip-the-line tickets.

It has its own government that makes its own laws that are enforced by its own police who put people who break them in its own jail. It also has its own bank and prints its own stamps and issues its own license plates (though only its citizens can drive within its borders). And as the true mark of any self-respecting nation, it has its own top-level domain .VA

But despite all those national trappings, ‘Vatican City’ is not really like any other country.

If you want to know more about the history of the Vatican City check out this beautiful YouTube documentary

Understanding the Vatican

To understand the ‘Vatican’, there are two people and two things that you need to know about:

  • the famous Pope,
  • the incredibly confusing Holy See,
  • the country of ‘Vatican City’,
  • and along with that the almost completely unknown King of Vatican City.

But first, the Pope, who gets a throne to sit upon and from which he acts as the Bishop for all the Catholics in Rome. Actually, all Bishops in the Catholic Church get their own thrones but because the Bishop of Rome is also the Pope, his throne is special and has its own special name: the ‘Holy See’.

Every time a Pope dies or retires there is a sort of Game of Thrones, to see which of the Bishops will next get to occupy the ‘Holy See’. So, while Popes come and go, the throne is eternal. And as such, the name ‘Holy See’ not only refers to the throne but also all the rules that make the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church!

When Mussolini crafted the aforementioned deal, technically he gave the land of ‘Vatican City’ to the ‘Holy See’ which – believe it or not – is a legal corporate person in International Law. (Basically every time you hear the words ‘Holy See’, think Catholic Church Incorporated, of which the Pope is the CEO).

The King of Vatican City has absolute unchecked power within the country’s borders and his presence makes Vatican City one of only six remaining absolute monarchies in the world including Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland.

The King’s absolute power is why Vatican City can’t join the European Union because only democracies are allowed. Though Vatican City does, strictly speaking, have a Legislative Branch of Government staffed by Cardinals and appointed by the Pope, the King of Vatican City can overrule their decisions at any time and for any reason.

So why do you never hear about the King of Vatican City?

Because though King and Pope have two different roles, they just happen to be occupied by the same person, at the same time. It has the funny consequence that, because the Pope is elected and the King is all-powerful but they’re the same person, it makes ‘Vatican City’ the world’s only elected, non-hereditary, absolute monarchy.

It’s this dual role that makes untangling ‘Vatican City’ so difficult because the Pope, depending on the situation, acts either as the King of the Country of ‘Vatican City’ or the Pope of the ‘Holy See’.

The United Nations has the Holy See (the corporation) as a member, but not ‘Vatican City’ (the actual country.)

The Holy See gives passports to ‘Vatican City’ citizens that other countries accept, even though those passports come from a company and not a country.

What about Vatican City citizens?

As of for Vatican City citizens, they are perhaps the strangest consequence of the Pope’s dual role as religious leader and monarch.

While other countries welcome new citizens with their ever-popular process of human reproduction, ‘Vatican City’ does not. No one in Vatican City is born a citizen (and that’s not just because within a rounding error there are no females Vatican locals!). The only way to become a citizen is for the King of ‘Vatican City’ to appoint you as one. And the King only appoints you a citizen if you work for the Pope (who is also the King) and because the King is all-powerful, your citizenship is at his whim. In other words, if you happen to quit your job for the Pope, the King (who is also the Pope) will revoke your citizenship. These rules mean that Vatican City doesn’t have a real permanent population to speak of, there are only about 500 full citizens – which is fewer people that live in a single skyscrapers in many countries – and all these citizens work for the Holy See, as either Cardinals, Diplomats, the Pope’s bodyguards or other Catholic related jobs.

So it’s best to think of ‘Vatican City’ as a kind of sovereign Corporate Headquarters that grants temporary citizenship to its managers rather than a real city-state.

But in the end, the reason why the world cares about Vatican City is not because of the citizens within its walls but rather because of the billion members of its church outside those walls.

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