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Entries in Vatican City (3)


Pope's butler oblivious to Vatican culture

It is nice to have a scandal in the Catholic Church that merely involves old-fashioned corruption and money laundering. The best part of the Vatileaks scandal is that it turns out the Butler did it.

Oh, Paolo Gabriele was not responsible for any of the corruption outlined in the expose "His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI". No, Gabriele was the source within the Vatican who exposed all the corruption by sending secret documents from the Pope's desk to investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi. The Vatican never denied the authenticity of the documents but seemed to care more about uncovering the whistle-blower than in fixing the corruption. Now the butler is being imprisoned in the Vatican where he will undergo a farce of a trial under antiquated Church law and faces up to 30 years imprisonment when (not if) he is found guilty. 

What I find most interesting is just how oblivious Gabriele was about Vatican culture. In a statement released by his lawyer, Gabriele makes it clear that he didn't accept any money for the documents and only released them because:

I saw evil and corruption everywhere in the Church. I was sure that a shock, perhaps by using the media, could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track.

Really? What on earth gave you the impression that media exposure of wrongdoing by the Catholic Church would result in them accepting responsibility for their own actions? If the Pope and Cardinals actively followed a policy of hiding systematic child rape and still seek to shift the blame after it has been exposed repeatedly, what makes you think they would be shamed into action by an exposé of mere corruption? Surely once you've rationalised child rape, financial crimes won't register on the shame-radar.  


Saudi women gain right to vote in meaningless elections

From the headlines you would imagine a huge leap forward in women's rights in Saudi Arabia - from the New York Times "Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right to Vote" or from the Guardian "Getting the vote could herald real change for Saudi women". 

Really? Because as great as it is that Saudi Arabia has joined the rest of the world in allowing women to vote (except of course the Vatican City, as the last bastion of male exclucivity), those elections are not going to be worth a dime. In the last 50 years there has only been one election that anyone could vote in, and it was a local council election where the monarchy determined eligibility to stand for election and directly appointed half the members. So at some point in the future there will be another local council election with the result pre-ordained by the Monarch, but a few women will be allowed to vote for the remaining window dressing. Whoop-e-bloody-do.

It is hard to imagine this move as anything other than a (successfull) attempt to give the illusion of progress and democracy where none exist. The King of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarch, who bloody cares who can "vote"? What is a vote without democracy! Progress would be the women of Saudi Arabia getting rights that they can actually use, such as the right to marry who they want and travel where they want. Anything else is just PR.


Three sovereign entities

The Colosseum

The Colosseum must be one of the most famous structures of ancient Rome. Amphitheatrum Flavium was constructed between 70 and 100 CE on an unprecedented scale. The Colosseum is 189 metres long, 156m wide, 48m high and has an area of 24,000 m2. To enable the seating of the 50,000 spectators the events regularly attracted there were 80 entrances and passageways called vomitoria (the Latin word for rapid discharge, only later to come to mean rapid discharges of the more organic variety). The Colosseum was used for entertainment of the bloody variety for nearly 500 years (event organisers had slaves pumping perfume into the air to cover the stench of block. The Romans certainly built it to last, because even after the building was abandoned it held up, being used as an apartment block in the medieval period, with arcades being rented for housing and workshops. In 1200 the building was bought by the Frangipanis and fortified as a castle. An earthquake in 1349 caused major damage, followed by the theft of stones to rebuild the city after the quake. At the start of the modern period the Catholic Church took over the site and trialled several uses – firstly as a wool factory to provide employment for Rome’s prostitutes (1590), then for bullfighting (1671), then it was declared a site of Christian martyrdom (1769) despite there being no historical evidence for the claim made by Pope Benedict XIV at the time that Christians were ever put to death at the site.

I found the Colosseum to be one of those sites, like the Great Pyramids, that felt overly familiar when I saw it. I think for me that when the attraction of a site is the historical importance and grand superstructure, it is all too easy to see little new when visiting, while it is sites with unexpected or hidden details that need personal exploration to appreciate.


The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta

Everyone knows that Rome contains a state within a state, the independent Vatican City within the Italian capital. Less well known, however, is that Rome is actually the capital of three independent sovereign entities, Italy, the Vatican City and the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta. The Knights Hospitaller were founded in 1050 as a hospital to provide care for the poor and sick pilgrims during the Crusades. When Jerusalem was conquered in 1099, the Knights became a chartered Catholic Military Order. The Knights operated first from Jerusalem, then when that was lost in 1310 they moved to Rhodes. After being ejected from Rhodes in 1523 they operated from Malta, ruling the island until 1798 when they were kicked out by Napoleon.

Losing three successive capitals may seem like the end of sovereignty, but the Knights of Malta now claim to be a sovereign entity without a state. They have been granted two extra territorial properties in Rome, the Palazzo Malta (where the Grand Master resides) and the Villa Malta (where the Grand Priory is based), and have been based within Rome for the last 200 years. The Knights of Malta are recognised by 103 countries and have permanent observer status at the United Nations. They even issue their own internationally recognised stamps, licence plates, passports and currency (the scudi). Today their main jobs appear to be medical relief in war and humanitarian relief, being official backchannel contacts between countries that do not formally have relations but need to discuss issues, and dressing up like they are still medieval monks. We visited the Villa Malta, which essentially consists of a marble facade and locked doors, as visitors are never allowed on to the compound. The closest you can come is to peer through the key hole, which provides a remarkably good view down a tree lined avenue looking over the Churches of Rome. Intriguingly, a jeep with six men in camouflage gear and serious assault weapons were parked outside the compound. Malta – watch out, the Knights may be preparing a come-back.


The Vatican City

The final sovereign entity we visited was the Vatican City. The Vatican City is the world’s smallest country, only 0.44km2 with 800 residents. While a church has stood on the site since 326 CE, the country itself is quite young. The Vatican City was only established as a state by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, following a 68 year standoff between the Kingdom of Italy and the Pope after the vast Papal territories were included within the new Italian State. The Vatican City is also Europe’s only remaining theocracy, the only country in Europe where women do not have a vote and one of three European countries with an absolute ruler (the other two being Liechtenstein and Monaco). Our visit to the Vatican was limited to just St Peter’s square and St Peter’s Basilica.  

St Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian church in the world, able to hold 60,000 people. Interestingly it is not the chief Papal Basilica – that is St John’s – but it is the most frequently used, due to its size and proximity to the Papal residence. It was built from 1506-1626 and is 220 metres long, 150 metres wide and 148 metres high, around the same size and capacity as the Colosseum built 1500 years earlier (and the building of it cannibalised 2,522 cartloads of stone from the Colosseum). Another interesting intersection with history – the selling of indulgences in Germany to raise money to build the basilica was a major spur for Martin Luther and the Reformation. One of the high points of the Basilica is meant to be the dome by Michelangelo, who was a major designer of the Church (albeit an unwilling one forced to take on the job in his 70s). Oddly, even though one of the conditions of Michelangelo taking on the job is that the Church would follow through with his plans intact, after his death they radically changed his plans, doubling the length of the nave and building a clunky facade, so that you can barely see the architecture of the Church Michelangelo designed. Inside the Basilica is very richly and tastefully decorated (except for a huge tacky plastic nativity scene added for the season), with a good use of marble and light.