Vatican – a city state and enclave

Vatican City, officially Vatican City State (Italian: Stato della Città del Vaticano;) is the Holy See’s independent city-state. The geography of Vatican City is unique due to the country’s position as an urban, landlocked enclave of Rome, Italy. With an area of 49 hectares it is the world’s smallest independent state. Outside the Vatican City, thirteen buildings in Rome and Castel Gandolfo (the pope’s summer residence) enjoy extraterritorial rights. (One building, the Paul VI Audience Hall, straddles the border, but its Italian portion has extraterritorial rights.) The Vatican border is the World’s shortest entire boundary, only 3.2 km. The Vatican is often cited an an example of an Enclave, a territory that is completely surrounded by the territory of one other state, in this case Italy.

By Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Vatican was established as an independent state through the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy in 1929.

When the Lateran Treaty of 1929 that gave the state its form was being prepared, the boundaries of the proposed territory were influenced by the fact that much of it was all but enclosed by this loop. For some tracts of the frontier, there was no wall, but the line of certain buildings supplied part of the boundary, and for a small part of the frontier a modern wall was constructed.

The territory includes St. Peter’s Square, distinguished from the territory of Italy only by a white line along the limit of the square, where it touches Piazza Pio XII.

St. Peter’s Square is reached through the Via della Conciliazione which runs from close to the Tiber to St. Peter’s. This grand approach was constructed by Benito Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaty.

Italy – Vatican Borders

The columns and white lines marks the border.
The outer columns of St Peters Square mark the border
Border pillars & fencing.
Access points to the Vatican.
The old Vatican Post Office sits right on the border so the nearest post boxes overhang Italian territory.
The white line marks the border
The outer columns of St Peters Square mark the border
Border pillars & fencing
The white line marks the border
Access points to the Vatican
The Vatican Museums entrance is on the border.
The Paul VI Audience Hall, straddles the border.

Border Dispute

As noted earlier the Vatican has a very short international border (3.2 km long). The map on the right indicates the extraterritorial zone, to the left of St Peter’s Square, marked in blue, most of this is the Papal Audience Hall. The map also indicates a small section (60 metres long and 3 metres wide) in red which is an area of the border which is contested. Italy contends  that the Lateran Treaty stipulates that this is Italian territory, but the Vatican disputes this. The difference between both states has remained unresolved since 1932, when a mixed Italian-Vatican commission tasked with demarcating the border agreed to disagree.

In May 2023 I was in Rome and although the visit was not border focused I found time to revisit this area to see how the area was demarcated and whether it was possible to make sense of the situation “on the ground”. The border is marked by white lines and there is a subtle change in the street paving, this area is clearly marked as being part of Vatican territory. Speaking to the stall owner, he was certain the area belonged to the Vatican.

As noted on the map above the contested border is the narrow area to the right of the red line, between the columns and the walls, Part of that area is occupied by a street seller. The top end of the area is where it narrows.

The Italy – Vatican border is clearly marked across the entrance to the disputed area. Note the vertical line of tiles each side of the white line.
Looking back into the disputed area.
The pillar is for traffic management and is forward of any notional line.
Looking into the disputed area and knowing that no one is aware of its contested status. Standing in Rome!
Standing behind the street stall and looking into the disputed area.

The area is clearly defined between the pillars and the walls. There is no change in surface tiling and it all looks contiguous with the surrounding areas. It is the large white line and the border tiling across the entrance both are convincing pieces of evidence plus that of the street stall vendor that confirms at least de facto ownership by the Vatican.

More information is available here. The maps suggest the contested area is longer than the one I was using for my visit. Another trip is needed.

The Pilgrims

German Pilgrims at the Vatican

Elements of Statehood

The Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world. Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. There are no taxes, no restrictions on the import or export of funds, and no customs or excise duties payable in the Vatican City. Employees of the Vatican pay no income tax and no customs duty on gasoline or goods that they buy in the Vatican. Non-Italians enjoy allowances on their monthly salaries. Vatican City generates revenue through museum admissions and the sale of coins, stamps, and publications. As one walks around the area Vatican specific symbols are available.

Vatican Licence Plate
Vatican Fire Brigade
Vatican Post Office
The Swiss Guard are the armed forces of the Vatican.

Extraterritorial Properties

Another interesting element of the Vatican is the existence throughout Rome of extra territorial properties. These include many churches and other buildings of special significance that have been granted extraterritorial status by the Lateran Treaty without being part of the independent Vatican City. Italy has agreed to exempt these areas from taxes and from obedience to the law of expropriation for public utilities: papal authorities are entrusted with internal police service. For postal and telegraphic service they are considered to belong to the Vatican. Travel between these properties was seen as being on diplomatic business.

Vatican Embassies

Most countries have diplomatic representation with the Vatican. Due to the small area however, the embassies are located in the adjacent streets.

British Embassy to the Holy See

The Holy See maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with 183 sovereign states and is the jurisdiction of the Pope in his role as the bishop of Rome. It includes the apostolic episcopal see of the Diocese of Rome, which has ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Catholic Church and sovereignty over the Vatican City.

The British Embassy to the Holy See is responsible for promoting the relationship between the UK and the Holy See.  The focus of the Embassy is working with the Holy See on the ethical dimension of foreign policy and global challenges; and the role of religion in world affairs. It has no outward facing role for UK citizens. The UK has a large embassy maintaining its diplomatic relationship with Italy which also is there to support its relationship with the Holy See. A separate Ambassador is appointed to the Holy See.

Most of the buildings are non descript with several countries sharing one building. For more images of nearby embassies please click on the image to the left or here.

The Vatican Flag is square.


1) St Peters Basilica is available here

2) The Holy See Information website here

Date of Visits: October 2011 and May 2023