HBO’s new limited series The Young Pope starts with a fever dream from his holiness, and proceeds to give viewers a stylized lens through which to watch the intrigue of Vatican politics and the ascension of the world’s first pope born in the United States, Pius XIII (originally Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law). Between sips of Cherry Coke Zero and drags from his cigarettes, the new pontiff strolls through the splendor of Vatican City, the center of Christendom and one of the most stunning collections of historical architecture in the world. When Renaissance greats such as Michelangelo served as artists in residence, it’s fair to boast, as Pius XII does, that Rome will be known as a suburb of Vatican City.
The show’s set designers and crew did their best to showcase the Vatican, since, due to strict policies about when and where filming can take place in the holy city, they had to recreate the interiors of the famed buildings at a nearby studio in Rome. But nothing can compare to the craftsmanship and splendor of the original. Amid the grandeur, gardens, and museums filled with art and antiquities, here’s the story of some of the most famous buildings in Vatican City’s 109 acres.
St. Peter’s Square
While Vatican City has been a sovereign nation since 1929, before the church claimed this area as its own, the central gathering place for the faithful to watch the Pope’s addresses had its own less upstanding history. Once the home of expensive villas during the early years of the Roman Empire, as well as a circus situated in the former gardens of Emperor Caligula’s mother, it was, like much of Rome, burnt in a fire in 64 A.D.
Design for the current incarnation of the space began in the 16th century, somewhat parallel to that of the grand basilica. An Egyptian obelisk, originally from Heliopolis, was erected in 1586, in what is now the center of the public plaza (Emperor Nero used it as a turning point for chariot races). A series of circular stones in the plaza marks where the sun’s shadow hits at noon, making the 83-foot-tall red granite structure a sundial.
Credit for the travertine-paved square belongs to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a multifaceted artistic genius who created a unified design for the Piazza San Pietro in the later half of the 17th century. A series of gargantuan Tuscan colonnades ring the space, and along with a granite fountain Bernini designed, have welcomed visitors and pilgrims for centuries. Atop the 284 columns sit statues of 140 Christian saints. The entrance to this grand space, the Via della Conciliazione, was initially commissioned by Mussolini in the ‘30s.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Designed by a dream team of architects including Donato Bramante (a High Renaissance master), Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno (one of the father’s of Baroque architecture) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (also the leading sculptor of his time), this is considered the holiest church in Christendom.
Stated by Pope Julius in 1506 and complete a little more than a century later in 1615 by Paul V, the towering house of worship, one of only four Major Basilicas in the world, is laid out as a three-aisled Latin cross with a dome, the tallest in the world at 448 feet. Scripture inscribed in letters two meters high rings the inside of the dome, reading, in part, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The grand building can hold more than 80,000 worshippers, and the interior is ringed with a series of chapels, including the Chapel of the Pieta, featuring Michelangelo’s delicate marble carving of Jesus being cradled by Mary after the crucifixion.
The extensive periods of development and construction that went into the creation of this masterpiece saw Donato Bramante’s original plan altered and modified by successive architects until Michelangelo, who had been pressed into service by Pope Paul III in 1547, reimagined the structure, laying out a grand vision inspired by Bramante’s original creation.
Behind Carlo Maderno’s immense facade, filled with flourishes and the statues of Christ, St. John, and the 11 apostles, the interior boats art of incalculable wealth, including papal tombs ornamented with marble statues, and scores of mosaics and metalwork. Grottos spiral below the structure, also filled with tombs of former popes (remains of the original 4th century basilica have also been discovered underground). Bernini’s baldachin, a bronze canopy made with metal from the Pantheon, stands over the high altar above St. Peter’s grave, upon which only the Pope can serve. The massive fundraising campaign to afford such magnificence led to protests across the continent during the basilica’s construction, and served as one of the catalysts for the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.
Representative of the great era of Vatican artwork inaugurated at the beginning of the 16th century, this iconic building—despite its plain, rectangular exterior—features a succession of masterful paintings and artworks, most famously the Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall and the magnificent ceiling fresco, both by Michelangelo (Goethe once said "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.") Years and years of effort went into this crowning achievement, though the artist did have his critics: within the masterwork lies an image of Biagio de Cesena, a papal master of ceremonies who criticized the painter, features donkey ears and a snake. While it’s best-known for the priceless works on its wall—don’t strain your neck staring at the ceiling and miss other works by Botticelli and others lining the interior—the chapel also plays host to the College of Cardinals during the election of a new Pope, which announces its choices via puffs of smoke sent through the chimney.
Officially known as the Palace of Sixtus V, this 16th century residence houses the Pope, the Vatican office and library, as well as the Sistine Chapel. The sprawling structure also showcases what appears to be a case of one-upmanship among Popes when it came to interior design. The Raphael Rooms, decorated by the then young artist from Urbino for Pope Julius II, were meant to overshadow the lavishly decorated living quarters of his predecessor and rival, Pope Alexander VI (whose Borgia apartment contains gorgeous frescos painted by Pinturicchio). Pope Francis, the “pope of the people,” made news when he announced that he would forsake a room in the palace and instead be living in the papal guesthouses. The Palace is near the Vatican Gardens, 58 acres of winding paths, ancient fountains, and stately oak trees.