VATICAN CITY — When I told my mother yesterday that I attended an exhibit at the Vatican commemorating Vatican City State’s 80th anniversary, her response echoed many others: “The Vatican is only 80 years old? Hasn’t it been around forever?”
An engraving made in 2007 of the layout of Vatican City. (CNS photo courtesy of Vatican Library)
In a sense, she’s right. St. Peter was crucified upside down and buried on the Vatican hill nearly 2,000 years. However, the sovereign state of Vatican City wasn’t born until Feb. 11, 1929.
On Monday I attended a special event for journalists: the preview of an exhibit showcasing the Vatican’s eight decades of existence as an independent state. The exhibit opens to the public today, the actual 80th anniversary and an official holiday at the Vatican.
There were at least 50 to 60 journalists in attendance on Monday, led by an Italian guide through the exhibit spread over two floors of the “Braccio di Carlo Magno,” an exhibit space under the end of the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. When we entered the main door, we were immediately faced with a giant model of Vatican City. I was struck by its intricate detail, as were the many journalists who pushed their way forward to snap a picture of the state in wooden miniature.
After passing through the entrance, we arrived in a room dedicated to Pope Pius XI. He reigned as pope from 1922 to 1939 and was responsible for helping end the breach between the papacy and the Italian government. The agreement with Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini resulted in the signing of the Lateran Treaties, making the Vatican’s independence official.
Pope Pius’ gold and white cope was on display in the center of the room; I was shocked by its enormous size! Our guide explained that the cope was crafted so that it covered the pope’s portable throne on all sides when he was seated and carried through the crowds. I was equally impressed by his tiara, decorated with gold, pearls, and gems. But most impressive was definitely his car — a one-of-a-kind Citroen Lictoria, complete with a throne in the back seat.
The exhibit displays items gathered over the years, including wall-sized maps and portraits of the seven popes who have reigned since 1929. It also shows photographs of the Vatican’s railway and radio stations.
Perhaps most exciting of all the items on display are the original documents of the Lateran Pacts, resting in a glass case secured with an alarm system. The documents have never been on public display before and will surely draw large crowds to the exhibit.
I was impressed by the presentation of the pacts: the room is designed so that visitors feel as if they are attending the signing with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Mussolini and others. On the right-hand side of the room, a life-size photograph of the actual event covers the wall. In front of the wall, the long table that appears in the photograph stands behind the encased documents.
It’s hard to believe that the Vatican is less than 100 years old. Even more shocking is the fact that from 1870 to 1929 the pope felt obliged to stay behind the Vatican’s walls due to his uncertain status with the Italian government. This was just one of the many surprising details revealed by the Vatican’s anniversary exhibit that made my visit worthwhile.
Happy 80th birthday, Vatican City!
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