Not many religions actually own a country, but Catholicism isn't just any religion. Holy See (Vatican City) is probably per square foot the richest independent state in the world, making up for its total lack of natural resources with an astonishing collection of priceless art treasures.
Headed up by His Holiness, the tiny enclave in the heart of Rome is the administrative and spiritual capital of Roman Catholicism, and the world's smallest independent state. During the working week, the population increases fivefold as residents of Rome cross the 'border' to do the Lord's work.
Despite its importance to the devout - there are an estimated one billion Catholics worldwide - it's not all bells and smells at the Pope's house. Scandal and intrigue have accompanied the office of the papacy for almost two millennia, and plenty of that scandal occurred within the Vatican buildings. But even without a dubious relationship with the Nazis, corruption and rumours of Mafia murders, the Vatican would remain a spectacular destination for history buffs, religious types and art lovers alike.
Full country name: Holy See (Vatican City)
Area: .44 sq km
Capital City: Vatican City
Religion: Roman Catholic
Head of State: Pope Benedict XVI
Head of Government: Cardinal Angelo Sodano
Member of EU: No
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Mass is said daily in the Vatican (not always by the Pope, of course). Details about the services are available from the tourist office in the Piazza. If he's at home, the Pope usually gives a public audience on Wednesday mornings. Permission to attend must be sought in advance, either from an office near the Basilica or in writing.
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Religious ceremonies attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Vatican, with Christmas and Easter being the best-attended feasts. Each Christmas, the Pope himself says Mass to the standing-room-only crowd. Unless you've got special business, however, the city virtually shuts down on religious holidays. Rome is at its best in spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). During these seasons the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures are pleasant, and there are relatively few crowds. Try to avoid August, as this is the time that most Italians take their vacations, and many shops and businesses are closed as a result.
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The Sistine Chapel is best known for two of the most awe-inspiring acts of individual creativity in the history of the visual arts: Michelangelo's frescoes on the barrel-vaulted ceiling, and his Giudizio Universale (Last Judgement) on the end wall.
Restorations carried out over the past two decades have brought back to life Michelangelo's rich, vibrant colours. It took the great artist four years to paint the ceiling, working on scaffolding lodged under the windows. The frescoes down the middle represent nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the Division of Day from Night, the Creation of Adam, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the Flood.
These main images are framed by the Ignudi, athletic male nudes; next to them, on the lower curved part of the vault, are large figures of Hebrew prophets and androgynous pagan sibyls. In the lunettes over the windows are the ancestors of Christ.
More than 20 years later Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Last Judgement. The dramatic, swirling mass of predominantly naked bodies caused a scandal when it was unveiled, and Pope Pius IV had Daniele da Volterra (one of Michelangelo's students) do a cover-up job with fig leaves and loin cloths in appropriate places.
The walls of the chapel were painted by important Renaissance artists including Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio and Luca Signorelli. Try to drag your attention away from Michelangelo's frescoes to appreciate these late 15th-century works.
St Peter's Basilica
St Peter's Basilica is one of the world's most gloriously ostentatious displays of papal wealth, as well as as a monument to some of Italy's foremost artists and architects, including Michelangelo and Raphael.
The first church built on the site of St Peter's tomb was consecrated in 326. The work on the current basilica began in 1506 and took more than 150 years to complete.
The cavernous interior holds up to 60,000 people. Bernini's Baroque baldacchino stands 29m (95ft) high in the centre of the church. The bronze used to make this extraordinary work of art was taken from the Pantheon. The high altar, at which only the Pope can serve, stands over the site of St Peter's grave.
A visit to St Peter's can encompass a trip up to the heights of Michelangelo's 119m (390ft) dome, or a tour of the excavations of the original church, an early Christian cemetery and the tomb of St Peter.
St Peter's Square
Bernini's piazza is considered a masterpiece. Laid out in the 17th century as a place for the Christians of the world to gather, the immense piazza is bounded by two semicircular colonnades, each of which is made up of four rows of Doric columns. In the centre of the piazza is an obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula from Heliopolis in ancient Egypt.
If you stand on the dark paving stones between the obelisk and either of two fountains, the columns line up in perfect rows so that the massive columns behind can't be seen. Be prepared to fight your way onto the disks - not many people know they are there, but those who do will likely be standing on them waving fundementalist placards and umbrellas. The oval-shaped piazza is located on the eastern boundary of the Holy See. The square is also home to the Vatican's post office.
On the northern border of the Holy See is the entrance to the stunning Vatican Museums. Comprised of several museums and galleries, the museum complex is home to Syrian, ancient Greek, ancient Roman and Egyptian relics (including those stalwarts of student art tomes, the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoon); ancient and Renaissance sculptures; marble busts; Renaissance paintings; tapestries; maps; apartments painted by Raphael; the Borgia Apartments; and more. It's a truly awesome collection that is even more impressive when you consider that a vast amount of the Vatican's art treasures are kept away from the public gaze.
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