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<   No. 1475   2007-02-09   >

Comic #1475

1 {scene: Rome, looking down a long avenue towards St Peter's Square and the Vatican City.}
1 Ginny: The Vatican Museum is guarded round the clock by the Swiss Guard. The perimeter is patrolled by Mussolini's troops armed with Beretta '38s.
2 Ginny: The Library is in an inner chamber, sealed with a lock designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself. And then there's the Pope's rottweilers...
3 Monty: Right, so what's your plan to get in?
4 Ginny: Can you think of any reason why I would have rescued you lot if I had a way to get in there safely?

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That'd be Pope Pius XI, well known for his vicious attack rottweilers.

The photo in the background is one I took myself, showing the view down Via della Conciliazione towards St Peter's Square and St Peter's Basilica. This view is in fact anachronistic in this theme, since Via della Conciliazione did not exist in its present form until 1950.

Until the early 20th century, this street was in fact chock full of magnificent medieval and Renaissance buildings, as well as residences and small streets and alleyways, like much of the rest of this central part of Rome. Standing where the Joneses are, you would not have been able to see the Vatican. But in 1929, Pope Pius XI signed (by proxy) the Lateran Treaty with Benito Mussolini, ending a political dispute begun in 1861 when the newly formed unified Italian government attempted to annex Rome from the Papal States and declare the city to be its capital.

This intention was not realised until 1870, due to the protection extended by France to the Pope and his rump state. This protection collapsed in 1870 when Napoleon III's Second French Empire fell after the disastrous war against Prussia, and the protection guaranteed by the French garrison was no longer a threat to any Italian action against the Papal State. (Thanks to a reader who wrote to correct my earlier slightly incorrect summary of events and years.)

Anyway, the Lateran Treaty established the Vatican City as a sovereign state, established Roman Catholicism as the official state religion of Italy, and settled the conflicting claims of territory within Rome, granting the Vatican the land it currently holds - including St Peter's Square and Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and a handful of other buildings and garden areas totalling a bit under half a square kilometre - as well as financial reparations payable by Italy to the Vatican.

Mussolini was so pleased with this outcome that he decided to build a grand avenue, symbolically linking the Vatican to the heart of Rome. This avenue would lead from St Peter's Square to the Tiber River, by Castel Sant'Angelo, from where it would afford a view across the river to the centre of Rome. Unfortunately, there were all those pesky historical buildings in the way.

Demolition began in 1936, and by 1950 the Via della Conciliazione was built, and named in honour of the conciliation between the Vatican and Italy.

When I visited, I was merely stunned by the view. I knew none of this history. I have since discovered that Via della Conciliazione is one of the most hated streets in Rome by the locals. And now, despite having beheld its magnificence, I can understand why.

When you visit somewhere distant and exotic, take time to learn about the history of the places you see. It adds so much meaning to the experience.

2016-10-19 Rerun commentary: In a similar vein:

International visitors to my home city of Sydney invariably make visiting the deservedly famous Sydney Opera House[1] one of the priorities of their visit. And right they are too, for it's a spectacular building, situated in a spectacular location on the small point jutting into Sydney's picturesque harbour, and so surrounded by water on three sides.

The most used approach to the Opera House is by walking along the shore from the ferry terminals at Circular Quay[2], a walk which currently takes you past a series of ridiculously over-expensive restaurants with glorious views. It's a pleasant enough walk, and near the end you pass one last building before the vista opens up into the expanse giving you your first unobstructed view of the Opera House and the harbour beyond. It all seems lovely for tourists.

But it's that one last building that is infamous to the locals. It's officially called the Bennelong Apartments, but is much better known by the disparaging name of "The Toaster" to everyone who lives in Sydney. The land it sits on was redeveloped in the 1990s, and the plan was to build this monstrous edifice that would impose physically on the space which otherwise surrounds the Opera House. Historically, when standing on the western side of Circular Quay, one had an expansive view of the Opera House, then sweeping south you could see over the then squat buildings of the eastern side to the raised sandstone outcrop behind and the Royal Botanic Gardens thereon. It was a beautiful view - much more beautiful than what we have now, after the development of The Toaster that blocks these sightlines.

Ask anyone in Sydney what the most hated building in Sydney is: It's The Toaster - the closest building to the Sydney Opera House. Most visitors to our fair city probably don't even realise the wonderful views we used to have that it now blocks.

[1] The Sydney Opera House is, exotic as it may seem for foreigners, my local performing arts centre. I attend concerts there a few times a year (and my wife drags me to the ballet every December). As a matter of fact, later this evening (as I type this) I am going there for a concert tonight. Despite this familiarity, I still love it as a building - the architecture never grows old on me.

[2] "Quay" is pronounced the same as "key" in Australian (and British) English. American visitors often get this wrong.

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