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Vatican City is amongst the most important historical and religious sites in the world; it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and the home of the Pope. The smallest state in the world, it occupies only about 0.44 square kilometers (0.17 square miles) near the center of Rome and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vatican has figured in key events throughout history and is further significant because of its superlative architectural, religious, and artistic attractions. It was Pope Julius II della Rovere in the 16th Century who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the history of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - just one of the Vatican's world-renown cultural and artistic jewels. Others include St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Among countless other notable events, the Vatican also hosts the convening of the College of Cardinals upon the death of a reigning Pontiff, for the purposes of electing a new Pope. No visit to Rome is complete without an excursion to this magnificent location, a place steeped in history and tradition.
Designed by some of Italy's most infamous master artists, St. Peter's Basilica is not only the world's largest church but is also one of its most spectacular. Originally built at the site of St. Peter's grave around 349 CE by Emperor Constantine, the basilica, as it stands today, was consecrated in 1626 at the culmination of over 120 years of construction. The original designs were laid out by Bramante in 1506, however, over the following years, the ambitious designs were altered by several renown architects including Michelangelo, Giacomo Della Porta and Carlo Maderno, each adding his own personal touch to the magnanimous design. St. Peter's Basilica now enshrines some of the world's most famed artistic pieces including Michelangelo's Pieta and Bernini's Baldachin. The splendid facade and riches that lie within are crowned by an intricately adorned dome that is revered as Michelangelo's most grand architectural legacy. The Pope delivers the Urbi et Orbi blessing each year on the occasion of Christmas and Easter from the basilica's central balcony, attracting millions of devout pilgrims to the threshold of St. Peter's each year. He remains the only one who can serve at the high altar of the St. Peter's Basilica.
Originally commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, and subsequently rebuilt by Hadrian, the Pantheon is a monumental homage to the architectural finesse and ingenuity of the Romans. Massive bronze doors guard the entrance to the central space, sheltered by the graceful arch of the Pantheon's dome. The temple was transformed into a church in the early 7th Century by Pope Boniface IV, and has remained well-preserved as a result. The building's primary source of light is the oculus, a circular opening at the dome's apex, rimmed with the original Roman bronze used at the time of its construction. Many famous Italians are buried in the Pantheon, including the Renaissance painter, Raphael, and King Vittorio Emanuele I.
A bygone beacon of the Roman Empire, the Foro Romano was the nucleus of social, political and economic life in this historic city. Located between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it was a revered meeting place that witnessed the alpha and omega of a thriving empire. Triumphal processions raked the regal roads of this plaza, while morbid silences hung in the air after trials and executions that were carried out. Among the priceless vestiges that remain today, the most salient ones include the Regia, the royal residence, the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Saturn. Toward the northwest, the Umbilicus Urbis indicates the symbolic heart of Ancient Rome, and the northern aisle of the Basilica of Maxentius still stands in grandeur. While their transient glory is lost to the ravages of time, what is left behind is not less than awe-inspiring. Worn columns, near-crumbling facades of ancient marble, and stoic triumphal arcs still dominate the ruins' antiquated skyline.