The Vatican City (or Holy See) is technically the smallest country in the world thanks to a treaty with Italy in 1929 which granted it independence. There are less than 1000 people living there, and it is also one of the world's wealthiest countries since it has all the money of the Catholic church at its disposal (more or less). This is the view from the Palatine Hill. The dome of St. Peter's pretty much dominates the Vatican skyline.
There are two major sights in the Vatican City, St. Paul's and the Vatican museum. The museum takes up a lot more time and seems to have an endless number of display rooms. This is one of the courtyards of the museum. We waited in line for about an hour to get in, and amazingly resisted the gelato stands across the street from the line.
The hall of maps consists of a fabulous set of paintings of all the regions of Italy and the known world. The maps that most of the Italy pages are prefaced with have come from this room. As you can see, the ceiling is an attraction in its own right. Most of the people in this hall are rushing down to the far end so they can see the Sistine Chapel but this was probably the highlight room of the museum for me. There is also an interesting room of early clocks and similar mechanical inventions that I rather enjoyed.
Some of the rooms that now display artwork (actually quite a lot of them) were originally the apartments of some former Pope. Pius IX for instance had his seal inscribed on the ceilings of his chambers.
The Raphaelite rooms are quite impressive as well. This is Raphael's famous 'School of Athens' painting depicting several Greek philosophers. There's a lot of discussion on who is who in this painting, but it seems to be generally accepted that the central figures are Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). Diogenes is sprawled on the steps, Epicurus drinks from the fountain on the left. Pythagoras kneels with a sketchpad on the left, and Anaximander watches over his shoulder. In the front center are Parmenides and Heraclitus and in the front right are Euclid (with the compass of course) and Ptolemy with the globe.
Raphael's 'Fire in the Borgo' is also located nearby. Just after these rooms is the Sistine Chapel which is where about half the people in the Vatican museum will be at any given moment. (Believe me, that leaves plenty of people for the rest of it too) Photography is not allowed inside so we have no pictures of it. Not that you would see anything on this website you haven't already seen since just about every painting is world famous. Honestly we were a little underimpressed with the Sistine Chapel in relation to the rest of the Vatican museum. The entire collection is really quite impressive, and much like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, if there's one major sight which draws a lot of people to it, that just seems like a good way to get a better look at other things.
St. Peter's basilica is of course the center of the Roman Catholic religion and the grandest cathedral, at least in terms of importance. The front façade is actually somewhat unusual for an Italian cathedral.
Before we went inside, we hung out in the square out front for a little while. We also lounged about here afterwards because there's a lot of walking involved with the Vatican and we were tired. Piazza San Pietro was designed, along with much of the Vatican by Bernini.
For what it is worth, you can sit on the steps here but if you lean back too far it will be considered lying down and you'll be reprimanded by the Vatican police. Melanie discovered this firsthand. Unfortunately, they did not give her a ticket because that would've been a really neat souvenir. And if you're wondering, because we were, the obelisk in the middle of this famous square comemorates… nothing! It was taken from Egypt by the Roman Emperor Caligula and incorporated into the design of the square over a thousand years later.
Why is this picture here? Because David's mom has an amazing knack for taking pictures in visually spectacular settings that don't seem to have anything interesting at all in the background. But this way she gets at least one picture on the Vatican page.
A fascinating bit of tradition in the modern world is the Swiss Guard. They lurk mostly around St. Peter's basilica, as much as one can lurk while wearing the colors of the Medici family. The Swiss Guard consists of 100 Swiss nationals who among other things are trained in the use of the halbard.
Of course, the first thing you'll see most likely in St. Peter's basilica is Michelangelo's Pieta. It's difficult to get a picture of because everyone else is using a flash which glares off the plexiglass guarding the sculpture. The plexiglass is there because it was actually attacked by a man wielding a hammer at one point. The Pieta is an amazing piece of artwork though, all the more so considering Michelangelo finished it while still in his early 20s.
We don't often get to name a picture baldacchino, but that is the name for the covering of the altar. It stands at the spot where St. Peter is supposedly buried and is another impressive contribution from Bernini.
The great dome of the basilica is also the work of Michelangelo who used the one in Florence as inspiration but came up with a cleaner (geometric) design. It is possible to climb to the cupola at the top of the dome which supposedly affords great views. We didn't because we spent too long inside the basilica and the dome was closed by the time we made it there.
The last work of Bernini's lifetime is one of the definite highlights of the basilica. Certainly not as well known, the tomb of Pope Alexander VII (above) features a representation of death and time and an incredible marble 'blanket'.
Castel Sant' Angelo started out as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian. By the 6th century it had become a fortress and given the political and military history of the Vatican, was well used during the middle ages. Bernini (or more likely his pupils) carved the sculptures decorating the bridge.