“The smallest state in the world at the center of the largest spiritual kingdom.” So the Vatican has been defined. Comprising barely 44 hectares (108.6 acres), the whole of it can be easily viewed from the top of the cupola of St. Peter’s. By comparison, the Principality of Monaco, which is the next smallest independent state, is nearly three-and-a-half times larger.
Shaped like a trapezoid, the Vatican is enclosed within walls (completed between 1540 and 1640) which join on the piazza. The maximum length of the tiny state is 1,045 meters, from the opening of the Bernini colonnade to the heliport; its maximum width is 850 meters, from the auditorium where papal audiences are held to the entrance of the museums.The perimeter of the entire state is 3,420 meters.
The whole of the Vatican is within the city of Rome.With respect to the city which surrounds it, it is located to the west of the Tiber and hence close to Rome’s historic center. It derives its name from the Vatican Hill, dating back to the time of the Etruscans (5th century B.C.).
As an independent state, it is so tiny that all essential services do not fit within its walls. In fact, the Vatican possesses more territory outside its walls than within, such as the 136 acres of the Pontifical Villas and the 1,086 acres of the transmission center at Santa Maria di Galeria. Equally few in number are its inhabitants. There are 472 citizens—half of whom represent the Holy See abroad—plus another 307 persons authorized to reside there while maintaining their original citizenship.
What really makes the Vatican unique is that it exists to guarantee the independence of a universal organization like the Holy See—in other words, the central government of the Catholic Church.“Just big enough to keep together body and soul,”was Pius XI’s comment upon the establishment of the mini-state that came with the signing of the Lateran Treaty on February 11, 1929. That was the pact that finally resolved the “Roman Question”—first opened with the capture of Rome by the republican armies of Garibaldi on September 20, 1870.
Spread gently across Vatican Hill, rising from the twenty meters’elevation of Piazza San Pietro to a peak of 78.5 meters (highest point in the gardens), the city-state is made up one-third of buildings, one–third of tiny squares and courtyards, and one-third of gardens. All in all, there are 10,000 rooms, 12,000 windows and 997 staircases.
Viewed from above, it looks like a vast architectural complex, airy and orderly, almost the product of a single mind. It is truly “the artistic patrimony of all mankind”as UNESCO defined it. And indeed it seems a sacred work of art, with Michelangelo’s cupola as its gleaming crown. In the midst of the urban tumult of Rome, the Vatican is an island of peace and tranquility—a “regal miniature”, as the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton so charmingly expressed it.