Vatican City is an unusual entity, to say the least. We know it today  as the home of the pope and the seat of the Catholic Church, but the little city-state surrounded by Rome has unique historical aspects and unexpected foundations — literally and figuratively. A repository of some of the world’s most celebrated art, architecture and religious relics, the Vatican and Vatican City are cultural treasures in and of themselves. Within them, of course, are contained the Renaissance frescoes of Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo ceiling. Beyond these well-known features, Vatican City offers a number of intriguing points of interest.

During Times of High Drama, Popes Escaped Through a Secret Passage

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The Passetto di Borgo, a half-mile-long elevated covered passageway completed in 1277, connects the Vatican directly to the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. Pope Nicholas III directed the building of the Passetto, and the hidden passageway was concealed in the upper portion of what otherwise looks like a fortified battlement wall. It was used as an escape route by popes during times of political unrest and war to flee from the lightly guarded Vatican to the safety of the castle. The route’s most famous user was Pope Clement VII. When hordes of mercenary invaders sacked Rome in 1527, Clement made it to safety in the nick of time as numerous nuns, priests and their protectors, the Swiss Guard, lost their lives. The Pasetto had been closed to the public for many years, but in honor of the Pope’s Jubilee year, in 2000, it was renovated and now opens for visitors to tour each summer.

Benito Mussolini Signed Vatican City Into Existence

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After years of turmoil and political strife, in 1929 the dispute between the Italian government and the Catholic Church finally ceased with the signing of the Lateran Pacts. These pacts, signed into law by Benito Mussolini, provided for the existence of the Vatican as its own sovereign state. The pacts also approved compensation to the church to the tune of $92 million (more than $1 billion today) for the Papal States, the regions in central Italy formerly ruled over and governed by the church as part of its land holdings. The payment was used to restock Vatican coffers. Though Mussolini was the head of the Italian government, he signed the treaty on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III.

For 60 Years, Popes Never Left the Vatican

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Although it wasn’t until 1870 that popes took up residence in the Vatican, a standoff between the Catholic Church and the Italian government prevented them from leaving for more than half a century after that. A group of sovereign Papal States in central Italy was ruled by popes until Italy was unified in 1870. Upon unification, the secular government took all of the papal land parcels, with the exception of the tiny Vatican. From that point until more than 50 years later, popes did not venture beyond the Vatican grounds. Despite being smack in the middle of Rome, they simply refused to recognize Italian authority. Pope Pius IX even claimed himself “a prisoner of the Vatican,” and popes refused to appear in the balcony overlooking the public square when Italian troops were there.

Vatican City Is the Smallest Country in the World

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As an independent city-state completely surrounded by the metropolis of Rome, Vatican City has strict boundaries. It is encircled by a two-mile border with Italy, and Vatican City covers just over 100 acres, making it one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park. Despite its size, Vatican City has its own flag and national anthem. It mints money, prints stamps and issues its own license plates. But Vatican City’s independent political status means that it can’t collect taxes. Luckily, the Vatican and its treasures are a huge tourist draw. Contributions, Vatican Museum admissions and souvenir sales generate the funds that keep the Vatican running.

St. Peter’s Basilica Sits Atop a City of the Dead

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Within the confines of Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica is the jewel of the complex, an Italian-Renaissance architectural masterpiece with its grand, 450-foot tall dome towering above. Precisely due to the church's namesake, St. Peter, the illustrious church sits on a fascinating piece of land; the hill on which the Vatican is perched today was a necropolis, or cemetery, in pagan times. When much of Rome burned in the great fire of A.D. 64, Roman Emperor Nero blamed the early Christians. Among those executed by crucifixion was St. Peter. The disciple of Jesus and leader of the Apostles was the first bishop of Rome, so his death was symbolic, and the hill where his body was buried in a shallow grave became one of the most venerated sites in Christianity. The basilica is built directly atop his gravesite.