The photo of St. Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole to the door of the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is one of the most iconic images of Rome. It is technically a challenging photo to take, but it is one that everyone can get.
There are certain iconic photos of famous places that everyone is familiar with. If you have seen a photo of the Taj Mahal, odds are it is of the building taken from the front with the building in the center and reflecting pool in the foreground. If you’ve seen a photo of Machu Pichu, you’ve seen it taken looking down from a hill above the ruins. If you’ve seen a photo of Time Square, it was taken near ground level pointed at One Times Square. Every one of those iconic photos can differ slightly depending on where you are standing, what you are standing on, etc. The Rome Keyhole photo is one of the few iconic photos I know of that everyone pretty much has to take exactly the same. The camera has to literally be in the same spot to get it to work.
If you look at the top photo on this page (click to see a bigger version) you’ll see a girl taking a photo through the keyhole. She was actually rather frustrated because it wasn’t working out for her. While I was there about a dozen people walked up to the gate to look through the keyhole. I took over 30 photos with various settings on my camera to get it to work. It is a really tricky shot because you are dealing with a very small hole, not much light, and a very far away object. The lack of light means a longer exposure time and the far away object means it will move around significantly with the smallest movement on your part.
If you look at the second photo, it shows the entire keyhole with some of St. Peter’s in the hole. This is a much harder shot because you need to get the door and the dome in focus. This would have turned out much better if I had my tripod with me. I should go out of my way to note that this photo is far from original. If you search for “Rome keyhole” on Google, you will find a ton of almost identical photos.
The view through the keyhole is so perfect, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t planned that way. Not only is St. Peter’s perfectly framed by the garden arch, but the two domes are in perfect alignment. If the garden were aligned just a slight bit differently, or if the keyhole were in a slightly different spot, it wouldn’t work. I have to believe that during construction, someone noticed the view and set up the arches and keyhole on purpose.
All of this, of course, raises the question: what exactly is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? They are better known as the Knights of Malta and their full name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. They are what is left of the former monastic order of the Knights Hospitaller which was created during the Crusades to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. They used to control Malta until they were expelled by Napoleon in 1798.
They are a unique entity in the world. They claim to be a sovereign power and have diplomatic relations with over 100 countries and international organizations. Yet, they have no territory. They also have permanent observer status at the United Nations similar to that of Palestine, the difference being that Palestine, however you define it, is a place. The SMOM has extraterritorial jurisdiction over this location and another building near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The buildings are Italian soil, but the SMOM has authority over it as if it were the embassy of a foreign country. Some people think they are an independent country like the Vatican, but they are not. (However, I think it would be cool if they were because the world needs more tiny countries.)
The SMOM has their own license plates, coins, stamps, and passports. Despite the use of “military” in their title, their current mission is that of providing humanitarian and medical aid. Its mission is similar to the Red Cross.