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Pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939)

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5c Tribonian Presenting Pandects to Justinian I single

Today's Vatican City State is the last remaining vestige of the Stato Pontificio, a vast territory ruled by the pope that once straddled the Italian peninsula. The Pontifical State collapsed during unification, when General Cadorna's army invaded Rome in September 1870 and proclaimed the city as the capital of the new Italian kingdom. This launched a fifty-nine-year cold war known as the "Roman Question," during which Pope Pius IX and his successors declared themselves "prisoners in the Vatican" and sequestered themselves in the Apostolic Palace to protest the loss of their territories.

The Pontifical State had possessed a highly-developed postal system that issued stamps in 1852, 1867, and 1868. After the fall of Rome, the pontifical posts were integrated into the Italian system and Italian stamps were used on Vatican mail. It was not until the Lateran Accords, signed February 11, 1929, that the Vatican and Italy formally recognized each other's right to exist and Vatican City became politically independent. Two days later, the Vatican reestablished its post office (Poste Vaticane). It joined the Universal Postal Union on June 1 and signed a postal treaty with Italy on July 29. The latter allowed Vatican mail to be routed through Rome. The first stamps were issued and the post office opened to the public on August 1, 1929.

Vatican stamps were the first tangible representation of the new state's sovereignty; they preceded the first Vatican coinage by a year and a half.

Daniel Piazza, National Postal Museum

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75c Coronation of Pope Pius XII

Most of the commemorative stamps issued during Pius XI's reign were tied to international conferences held at Rome. Each of these conferences was, in its own way, preoccupied with the rise of the modern authoritarian state and mounting international tensions that led to the outbreak of World War II.

The International Juridical Congress (1934, stamps issued 1935) featured papers marking the fourteenth centenary of Emperor Justinian's Corpus Iuris Civilis and the seventh centenary of Pope Gregory IX's Decretals. These documents are regarded as the basis of Western civil and ecclesiastical law, then being actively dismantled in many countries by totalitarian regimes.

The World Catholic Press Exposition (May 1936, stamps issued June 1936) sought to counteract aggression against Catholic journalists and clergy by Fascists in Germany and Italy and Communists in Russia, Mexico, and Spain.

The International Congress of Christian Archaeologists (October 1938) took place after the German occupation of Austria (Anchluss). Pius XI opened the congress with a speech that predicted a disastrous end to the Third Reich.

When Pius XI died on February 10, 1939, several values of the 1929 definitive series were overprinted with the inscription Sede Vacante ("the See is vacant") and the year 1939 in Roman numerals ("MCMXXXIX"). These stamps, issued February 18, were valid only until the election of Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli as Pope Pius XII on March 3. Thus this custom, which had been observed for centuries in papal coinage, was translated into philately for the first time.

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30c Papal Arms single

On August 1, 1929, the Vatican released its first stamps, a definitive series known to collectors as the "Conciliation" issue, referencing the reconciliation between the papacy and the Italian government. It consisted of thirteen regular postage and two special delivery stamps. The seven low values, which depict the papal tiara and crossed keys, are strongly reminiscent of the Pontifical State stamps. The remaining values feature a photo of the then-reigning pontiff, Pius XI, taken by the official papal photographers, Fotografia Federici.

The Conciliation series of stamps was overprinted numerous times, making it one of the most interesting subfields of Vatican philately. On January 10, 1931, the thirty-cent value in the series was issued surcharges in red vermillion by the Vatican Polyglot Press. The new, twenty-five cent value paid several heavily used domestic letter and foreign postcard rates. In 1934 and again in 1937, the six high values of the Conciliation issue were surcharged with new values because of an increase in postage rates on letter mail to Italy.

On May 31, 1933, the Conciliation series was replaced by a set of pictorial definitives featuring Vatican landmarks and Pope Pius XI. Colloquially referred to as the 'Gardens and Medallions' (giardini e medaglioni), this was Vatican City's first bicolor issue. The vignettes were engraved by Austria's master engraver, Ferdinand Schirnbock, and were his last work before he died in 1930. Enrico Federici engraved the frames.

Philatelic scholar Dr. Greg Pirozzi has suggested that the 1933 Gardens and Medallions were actually intended to be the first series released by Poste Vaticane, but Schirnbock's death and the Italian State Printing Office's difficulty printing bicolor issues caused it to be delayed nearly four years.

International Philately