Monday, January 17, 2011

The origins of the Vatican

We Catholics think of St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican as if Jesus had given the architectural plans to Peter when he said: “Upon this rock I will build my Church—ok, Peter, this is what it is to look like—don’t forget to give Michelangelo a call, he's expecting to hear from you. Ane remember, marble, I like marble--it's hard and thick, like your head.” Of course, that basilica we see today wasn’t the “Church” Jesus was talking about (if he was even talking about a “Church” at all—a very complex question). If Peter ever came back and saw today what stands over the place he died and was buried, he would scratch his head and then have to ask for a docent to show him around and explain a lot of things to him. I hope Jesus would be as patient were he to decide to pay a visit. One of the jokes in the Vatican concerns precisely that. Vatican automobiles bear their own license plates—the Vatican is a sovereign state and issues its own passports, stamps, and license plates. The Vatican plates are marked SCV—Stato Cittá Vaticana—Vatican City State, but the local wags remark that SCV stands for Si Christus videsset—the Latin for “If Christ ever saw this.”
In any event while the Vatican today is just at the edge of the “heart of Rome” the so called “centro storico” (“historic center”)—in the days of Peter and for long after it was mostly open fields, orchards, gardens, and cemeteries. (The dead could not, by law, be buried within the city.) The emperors Caligula and Nero (not two of history’s nicest guys) built a large amphitheater or “circus” there and it was in this theater where Peter was martyred and then buried in a cemetery just across the road. A monument was built over his grave about a century after his death and at the end of the second century a Roman presbyter, Gaius, mentions Peter’s grave beneath this monument or, as it is called, a “trophy.” I will do some future postings on the grave of Peter as it is a very interesting—though not undisputed—topic. In any event, when Constantine was building his positive relationship with the Christian population of his empire, he built a church over the tomb of the apostle, using the basilica (royal hall) floor plan that he and the clergy were finding adapted itself so well to Christian public worship. He built a similar shrine over the tomb of the Apostle Paul on the Via Ostia, marking the site of Paul’s tomb and not far from the traditional site of his martyrdom, also outside the ancient city.
Today you can walk from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the site of the ancient palace given to the Church by Constantine for the pope, to the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican in just under an hour. In the late imperial period and the Middle Ages, it was not nearly so convenient. Streets were narrow and windy for a cavalcade to pass, there was no very direct itinerary, and the bridge crossing the Tiber (the ancient ponte Sant’Angelo still leading to the Castle of the name required somewhat of a detoured route. With the relative amount of pomp that accompanied a pope it would have taken the better part of morning, at least, to make the journey. Thus Constantine, or perhaps the popes themselves, built a somewhat more modest (more modest than the Lateran Palace) residence for the pope near the Vatican Basilica for the occasions when they were officiating at services there. They could come over from the city to the basilica the day before and spend the night on site—most religious services beginning early in the morning or even involving a vigil through the previous night. In the seventh and eighth centuries a small village called the “borgo” (related to our word borough, meaning a “village”) grew up near the basilica. In 849 Pope Leo IV fortified the area with the famous Leonine Wall that connects the Vatican to the Castle Sant’Angelo (remember it from Angels and Demons? If not, not to worry, most of that book should be forgotten, Dan Brown never respected his readers enough to do any research on Roman geography, history, costuming, etc. ). Of course Leo fortified the basilica and ancient borgo after Saracen pirates sacked the Vatican Basilica in 846. This “Leonine city” inside the wall (which needs to be distinguished from the modern Borgo which is outside the wall) is interesting in itself and perhaps I will get around to doing an article on it someday. )
Well we can wrap this up pretty simply. The ancient basilica stood there from 325 when Constantine built it until the very end of the fifteenth century when it was decided to tear it down and build the “new St. Peter’s” the one you see now. Actually Constantine’s basilica stood there well into the sixteenth century as it was gradually dismantled as the new one rose above it and around it (the new is considerably larger than the old). When the popes came back from Avignon in 1377, they found that the Lateran was in hopeless disrepair and so established themselves in the papal residence adjoining the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, though they did not stay there very long. Various popes live in various Roman palaces throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries until Gregory XIII build the Quirinale in 1583. We have already done one posting on the Quirinale concerning conclaves there and we will do more in the near future.
Today's image is the Constantinian Basilica which stood in the Vatican from Constantine's construction in 325 until the sixteenth century when it was replaced by "New" Saint Peter's.

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