Updated: Nov 15, 2021
The Vatican Museums are the most visited attraction in the Italian peninsula – but belong to Vatican City, a whole other country! No visit to the Eternal City is complete without visiting the Vatican: the home of the Catholic Church and the world’s smallest state. Within, you’ll find some of the most impressive artefacts from the Greek and Roman world, including the eternally entrancing Laocoon and His Sons. Not only that, but the Vatican Museums are home to the Sistine Chapel — and Michelangelo’s impressive ceiling. Perhaps there is no other building in the world are artistically rich as the Sistine Chapel.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
The Sistine Chapel
Perhaps there is no other building in the world are artistically rich as the Sistine Chapel. Although there are stunning masterpieces by Botticelli and Perugino within its walls, no one remembers the Sistine Chapel for that. Everyone knows it as the home of Michelangelo’s astonishing frescoes, The Last Judgement and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Painted between 1505 and 1512, the Sistine Chapel is a masterwork of human ingenuity. It holds host to some of the world’s most iconic artwork, including Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. Admire one of the great artistic triumphs of the Renaissance. Want to spend time in the Chapel in serenity? Sit on one of the benches which lines the wall. That way, you can admire the ceiling without hurting your neck.
The Raphael Rooms
You won’t only find wonders of the Renaissance in the Sistine Chapel; the Vatican Museums contains more impressively decorated rooms by another maestro, Raphael. The Raphael Rooms cross four rooms, each richly decorated in frescoes. The most impressive of all rooms is Stanza della Segnatura where you see Raphael’s representations of great figures from philosophy, theology and literature. Keep your eyes peeled for Raphael in The School of Athens, disguised as a young and dashing Apelles of Kos.
The Gallery of Maps
Although most first-time visitors to the Vatican do not know the Gallery of Maps when they enter, by the time they leave the Museums, it’s a firm favorite. You’d have to seriously lack sensibility to not find the Gallery of Maps delighting. Over an astonishing 394 feet you’ll find over 40 paintings of the Italian peninsula and its Islands from the 16th century. Painted by Ignazio Danti, a monk with a passion for cartography, these maps still delight and entrance to this day.
Anyone with sensibility finds the Gallery of Maps delighting.
The Pius-Clementine Museum
Most ancient art aficionados regard the Pius-Clementine Museum as home of some of Vatican City’s greatest works. Masterpieces from Greek and Rome positively abound in the Pius-Clementine, the area of the Vatican Museums which was first open to the public. Admire the stunning Octagonal Courtyard, the home of the Vatican’s best sculptures since the 16th century. See the iconic Laocoön and His Sons, one of Michelangelo’s favorite masterpieces from antiquity, and the beautiful Apollo of the Belvedere. Another highlight? The ginormous bathtub of Emperor Nero, made out of porphyry — a red stone that only Rome’s Emperors were allowed to use.
The Chiaramonti Museum
Most of the Vatican Museum’s random classical statuary can be found in the Chiaramonti Museum. As impressive as it may be to us, this stuff is dime a dozen in modern Roman Museums, due to the wealth of classical artefacts within the area. Aside from a very impressive statue of Augustus, save yourself for the great stuff in the Pius-Clementine Museum.
The Gregorian Etruscan Museum
Before the Romans came the Etruscans, the civilization which occupied the majority of Italy before the Roman state ascended. The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was the first of its kind in the world dedicated to Etruscan antiquities. Admire beautifully detailed pottery, crafts and jewelry. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see the original 16th century Bramante Staircase — an exclusive-access area of Vatican City, normally closed to the public. The Gregorian Egyptian Museums The Gregorian Egyptian Museums span 9 rooms and are an enlightening visit for anyone interested in Egypt’s influence on Rome, and vice versa. Most artefacts were brought from Egypt to Rome in the classical period by Rome’s Emperors; many were taken from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.
The Gallery of Tapestries
The Gallery of Tapestries proceed the Gallery of Maps, and span at 246 feet. All the scenes from the life of Christ were based off drawings by Raphael and his workshop. These were then woven into tapestries in Bruges, the center of weaving at the time. Keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Resurrection’, where Jesus, emerging from the tomb, seems to be looking at you as you cross the room. The Borgia Apartment You’ll find even more fantastic Renaissance frescoes in the Borgia Apartment, once the private residence of the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI. The apartments show scenes from the New Testament portrayed as vignettes from the life of a Renaissance court – their incredible refinement dazzles. It took three years for Pinturicchio to paint them. Recently, there’s been a renewed interest in these spectacular apartments because it’s believed they show the first pictorial representations of Native Americans in the European canon; two years after Christopher Columbus returned.
The Collection of Modern Religious Art
Any lover of 20th century art is sure to be delighted by the Vatican’s collection of modern and contemporary art. Masterpieces by artists as diverse as Van Gogh and Dali, Chagall and Bacon, are united under its wing; all are connected by their religious subject matter. The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly donations from Matisse’s collection of works from Vence. See remarkable vestments, images of the Virgin and drawings of stain glass window, in Matisse’s playful cut-out style. Some of the best bits of the Vatican Museums are hidden behind closed doors.
RESTRICTED-ACCESS AREAS OF THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
Some of the best bits of the Vatican Museums are hidden behind closed doors – and you can see them on an exclusive Sistine Chapel tour.
The Bramante Staircase
Behind closed doors in the Pius-Clementine Museum, you’ll find the original 16th century Bramante staircase. This staircase was wide enough to accommodate carriages driving from the ground floor to collect the Pope from his apartment. From the top, you’ll enjoy a spectacular view of Rome. The Hall of Animals Pope Pius VI was determined to create a ‘stone zoo’ from the collection of antiquities in the Vatican Museums, and so the Hall of Animals was born. Some of the most delightful fauna every sculpted in stone are found here. Admire a leopard carved from a strange, speckled marble and a bull being slaughtered during a Mithraic ritual.
The Cabinet of Masks
The Cabinet of Masks is one of the most elegant rooms of the classical museum. Gods and Goddess, including a wonderful Bacchus carved from porphyry marble line the walls. In the center are some remarkable mosaics from antiquity; portrayals of tragic and comedic masks taken from Hadrian’s Villa, which give the room its name. The Niccoline Chapel Inside the Niccoline Chapel, the private chapel of the Popes, you’ll find one of the triumphs of 15th century artistic achievement – remarkable scenes from the lives of Saints Steven and Laurence, painted by great master of Christian humanism, Fra Angelico. Admire the astonishing details which make every inch of these frescoes a masterwork in Renaissance refinement, which serenely radiates gentility in carnation pink, lapis and gold.
HISTORY OF THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
The collection of Vatican City became a museum – in the sense by which we know a Museum today, a place to store and display precious objects – in 1506 by Pope Julius II. Pope Julius had recently found the lost sculpture Laocoön, which showed the Trojan priest and his sons being dragged to the depths by serpents coiled around them. Before Laocoön was found, it had been written about and descriptions of it admired by the intelligentsia, so its discovery was a real point of pride for Pope Julius. Julius decided to display the Laocoön, alongside other masterpieces from antiquity, in the Octagonal Courtyard. From 1506 onwards, the Octagonal Courtyard could be visited by members of the public, to see the Laocoön and other great works, like the Apollo of the Belvedere.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, which revolutionized European thought with humanistic sympathy, that some collections of the Vatican were opened as a Museum proper. Two Popes, Clement XIV and Pius VI, established the Pius-Clementine Museum, where many of the greatest artworks from classical antiquity are found. Subsequent Popes continued expanding the impressive collection of the Vatican Museums, and now we have the wonderous display of magnificent artefacts we see today. In October 2006, the Vatican Museums celebrated 500 years.