On the Origins of ‘Vatican’

In these days of non habemus papam, I began to reflect on the origin of the word ‘vatican’ – the name given to the hill (the mons vaticanus) upon which the papal complex is built.  It takes its name from vagiciniis ferendis, which refers to the Vaticinia, or oracles, that were delivered at that spot.  Vatic/Vates/Vatis – all words related to prophecy.  Today the most famous vaticinia are those associated with Nostradamus. Thus, the geographic centre of the empire of the church was founded precisely on the same ground associated with ancient pagan prophecy – not so surprising, since the early Christian tradition borrowed  liberally from the ‘pagan’ cults preceding it – not least in terms of the early images of the Apollonian Christ – the sun/son (of) gods/God.  

One thing that does occur to me with respect to the foundation of the Vatican complex itself on a geographic site associated with ancient prophecy is that this fact might well have influenced Michelangelo’s inventory of Sibyls (the female prophets of antiquity) incorporated into his sixteenth-century decoration for the Sistine Chapel.  The Sibyls are a clear evocation of ancient prophecy, female oracles, paired with the prophets and staring fixedly down – time past as time present in a history of papal succession. 

According to the OED the word ‘sibyl’ originated only “c.1300, from Old French sibile, from Latin Sibylla, from Greek Sibylla, name for any of several prophetesses consulted by ancient Greeks and Romans, of uncertain origin. Said to be from Doric Siobolla, from Attic Theoboule “divine wish.” – thus Sibyls are a form of wish fulfilment in the dreams of prophets. 


“The Vatican Hill takes it name from the Latin word Vaticanus, a vaticiniis ferendisin allusion to the oracles, or Vaticinia, which were anciently delivered here.”


About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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