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A - 5 : Does the Pope live in a Fortress?

Remember the days when you were waiting in the smouldering heat of the Roman summer to get access to the Vatican Museum? Did you also wonder why the queue had to go around these stone bastions which perfectly reflected the heat, provided no shadowk and almost melt you? Well, blame Pope Pius III and the Turks - they deserve it.

The Vatican Bastion "overlooking" the waiting crowd suffering from the summer heat


When you look at the map of the Vatican, you quickly discover that the Papal City resides in a perfect renaissance fortress with geometric artillery bastions and deep trenches. Of course, that is not how the Vatican wants to be portrayed. The pope locked into a fortress? So nobody talks about it. But the walls are there for anybody interested to see.

Today's Map of the Vatican still shows the mighty Renaissance Fortifications built by Pius III


When the Austrian-Spanish Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, which then was allied with France, the pope had to take refuge in the Sant’ Angelo fortress, the only place strong enough to withstand the Spanish-German Army. The ancient Aurelian walls provided not much protection. Even more alarming was the presence of the Turkish fleet of Suleiman the Great in the Tyrrhenian Sea west of Rome after 1534 with its thousands of embarked Janissaries and its modern artillery .

Turkish Fleet wintering in Toulon in 1543


Pope Paul III knew very well that Suleiman the Great’s grand strategy was to conquer Rome in order to become Europe’s dominant superpower and to eliminate the political centre of the Christian world (the Turks otherwise respected christian believes and did not force people to convert to Islam).

Sangallo's modern Walls protecting Rome's Trastevere neighbourhood


A crash program was thus launched in 1534 to upgrade Rome’s defences. The Italian engineer Sangallo was commissioned to reduce the circumferences of the Aurelian wall from 18 km to 9 km and to build modern bastions to protect the wall. Sangallo started in the south. The results of his work be seen between the gates of San Paulo and San Sebastiano. By 1542, the pope however run out of money and could not continue construction. Only the section around the Borgo (today’s Vatican City) was fully completed. Pope Pius IV added in 1565 more bastion to the Borgo to make it even stronger.



So if you find yourself again in the queue of the Vatican Museum without a single shadowing tree, blame the Turks and the popes. Had they not been at war, you would probably wait on a nice boulevard in the shade of large umbrella pine trees




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