VATICAN TOURS OVERVIEW
No trip to Rome is complete without a tour of the Vatican — the world's smallest independent state and the seat of the Catholic Church — and its world-famous Museums, full of magnificent artistic treasures. Once one of Europe's primary centers of political power, the Vatican has preserved its status as one of the most sacred places in Christendom. It also stands out for its unique architecture and artworks of exceptional universal value, from Ancient Roman statues to frescoes by Raphael. Our skip-the-line Vatican tours will allow you to visit St Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, including Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Laocoön and His Sons, the Belvedere Torso and much more. We offer both private Vatican tours and group Vatican tours. For visitors who want an even more atmospheric experience, we recommend our Vatican tour at night, where you’ll get to visit the Vatican Museums after dark. If you’re arriving at the port of Civitavecchia, join our shore excursion to Rome, which includes a private tour of the Vatican.
The Vatican And The Tomb of St Peter
Located on the Vatican Hill, on the west bank of the Tiber River, the Vatican City State, as it is officially known, occupies no more than 0.2 square miles and is completely encircled by the city of Rome, with which it shares a 2 mile border. Established as a state relatively late, in 1929, the Vatican holds a special place in the history of mankind. As well as being the world center of Catholicism, the Vatican also has a unique heritage that spans art, culture and politics.
The St Peter’s Basilica that we see today is not the original basilica. The first basilica was much older, having been built under the orders of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. The location was not chosen at random – the Vatican Hill was considered to be sacred ground, as it was believed to be the site of St Peter’s grave. St Peter was crucified and buried in 64 AD, and his burial spot was transformed from a small shrine to the site of a basilica. The Tomb of St Peter can still be visited today, as part of the Vatican necropolis, which also includes several papal tombs. Our tour of Vatican City ends in St Peter's square, just in front of the basilica, from where you will be able to admire the church and the amazing effect of the colonnade.
St. Peter's Basilica
St Peter's Basilica is the largest religious building in the world, with its magnificent ellipse-shaped square bordered by colonnades and surrounded on all sides by imposing palaces and numerous gardens. The iconic Saint Peter's Basilica and Square are a testament to the creative genius of a succession of artists and architects, including Bramante, Bernini, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno and Della Porta, whose brilliant minds found their utmost expression in the creative solutions required by such an ambitious project. St Peter's Basilica, whose rebuilding started in 1506 by Pope Julius II, was erected, according to tradition, over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle, the first Pope. It was completed in 1626. The basilica houses Michelangelo's Pietà, one of the finest examples of Renaissance sculpture, Bernini's bronze canopy, a Baroque masterpiece located above the basilica's high altar, and many other unique monuments and valuable religious artworks. Towering over the basilica's 185 meter long and 46 meter tall nave is Michelangelo's dome, with an inner diameter of 42.56 meters, still remains an architectural wonder which has served as inspiration for, among others, the Capitol Building in Washington DC. St Peter's Square, which opens up the Vatican towards the city of Rome, was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The massive 320 meter wide square is bordered by two Tuscan colonnades featuring 284 columns displayed in four rows, topped by a balustrade along which stand a row of 140 statues of saints made by Bernini's pupils. Bernini himself defined his masterpiece:
“An open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics” (G.L Bernini, 1598-1680)
St Peter’s Basilica: Maderno’s façade
Another aspect of the Vatican that’s often overlooked is the magnificent façade of St Peter’s Basilica. Designed by the architect Maderno and built with travertine stone, the vast façade features gigantic Corinthian columns, a central pediment, and thirteen statues – Christ is flanked by eleven Apostles and St John the Baptist. Maderno also created the long portico behind the façade known as the “narthex”, as well as the central nave of the basilica. After Michelangelo, it was Maderno who transformed St Peter’s Basilica into the imposing building we see today, influencing church architecture across the world. On our St Peter’s Basilica tours we examine this beautiful building from every angle, learning the secrets of its architecture.
POPE JULIUS II
Founded by Pope Julius II in the 16th century, the Vatican Museums are home to some of the world's most valuable art collections, attracting visitors from all over the world. Consisting of 54 galleries, the Vatican Museums are housed in the Apostolic Palace (also known as the Vatican Palace), the official residence of the Pope, and include the Borgia Apartments, the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms as well as the Vatican Library. It was during Pope Julius' pontificate, a time when the Papal States had reached the pinnacle of political power that the Vatican made use of the creative genius of two of the masters of the High Renaissance, Raphael and Michelangelo. One of the most influential art patrons of his time, Pope Julius II was the first to see the creative potential of Raphael, a young native of Urbino who had just moved to Rome. Among the most remarkable examples of Raphael works in Rome are the frescoes in the Vatican apartments known as the Raphael Rooms, with the much-celebrated School of Athens, which are seen as the embodiment of the spirit of the Renaissance and its ability to revive, celebrate, and depict the ideas and concepts of the past with exquisite craftsmanship.
Pope Julius II, also nicknamed the “Fearsome Pope,” such was the extent of his political and diplomatic clout, was also the man who convinced the 33-year-old Michelangelo that he could do as well as a painter as as sculptor, and thus take on the task of decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Today one of the major points of attraction of tourists visiting the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, that features some of the most exquisite frescoes of the High Renaissance, a perfect blend of religious art and exceptional artistic vision and skill. On the ceiling one finds The Creation of Adam, featuring God depicted for the first time as a muscular figure, extends his finger to give the gift of life the the first man, Adam. The Last Judgment on the altar wall was painted by Michelangelo 25 years after he completed The Creation of Adam.
The Sistine Chapel
Attracting a staggering 5 million visitors a year, the Sistine Chapel is famous for its frescoes by Michelangelo, which include intricate depictions of Biblical scenes on the ceiling and one of his greatest masterpieces – The Last Judgement – on the altar wall. Michelangelo was commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II. The artist spent four years (1508-1512) painting the ceiling using a painstaking fresco technique that left no room for mistakes. Considering himself more of a sculptor than a painter, Michelangelo had been reluctant to take on the work, and he complained bitterly about the hardships he endured while working on the ceiling. But his hard work paid off — the designs are dazzling in their rich intricacy and complexity, including numerous Biblical scenes (most famously, The Creation of Adam), and the figures of prophets, sibyls and ignudi.
In 1536 Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel, after accepting a commission from Pope Clement VII to create a mural on the altar wall. The Last Judgement is an astonishing achievement – a vast, detailed fresco depicting hundreds of figures, from the blessed ascending to Heaven to the damned descending to Hell, surrounded by saints and angels. At the centre is Christ himself. Look out for interesting details such as St Bartholomew holding his flayed skin (the face bears an uncanny resemblance to Michelangelo) and the figure of Minos, whose genitals are being bitten by a snake. Join one of our Vatican tours and you’ll learn all about the history and context of this amazing masterpiece, as your guide points out details you might otherwise have missed.
Sistine Chapel: other artworks
Although Michelangelo’s frescoes are the undisputed highlight of the Sistine Chapel, you wouldn’t want to miss the works by other great artists, painted in 1481-1482. The southern wall of the chapel is decorated with frescoes depicting the Stories of Moses, including works by Botticelli and Perugino. The northern wall depicts the Stories of Jesus, and was painted by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. These paintings are often unfairly overlooked by visitors to the Sistine Chapel – don’t let your interest in Michelangelo blind you to these other Renaissance masterpieces! Our Sistine Chapel tours are designed to show you all the artistic treasures in the chapel, giving you a more authentic, in-depth Sistine Chapel experience.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums never fail to amaze, with a vast collection of art that spans more than two millennia. Join our tours of the Vatican Museums and you’ll discover statues from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as Renaissance masterpieces by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo. The remarkable collection includes ancient masterpieces such as the Belvedere Torso. Michelangelo was inspired by this magnificent marble torso, modeling his own statues and even painted figures on the Belvedere Torso. According to a story attributed to Bernini, Michelangelo defined the Belvedere Torso:
“The work of a man who was wiser than nature.” (Michelangelo Buonarroti)
Due to their influences on the art world, the Belvedere Torso, as well as the Apollo Belvedere, named after the court where they were first exhibited, are a must-see for art scholars as well as for the general, art-loving public. Another outstanding work of ancient art, one that has fascinated generations, and the first artifact to be added to the art collection that later developed into the existing museums, is the Laocoön and His Sons ensemble. The marble statue, one of the most famous statues in the world, shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. Purchased by Pope Julius II at the advice of Michelangelo immediately after being discovered in a Roman vineyard, the statue sits in the Pio-Clementino Museum, where has been displayed since 1506!
In the same museum, the red porphyry sarcophagi of Saints Helena and Constantia, mother and daughter of Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who established Christianity in the Empire, are well-worth a stop on your Vatican tour. The Vatican complex also includes numerous gardens and courts, many of which are open to visitors taking a tour of the Vatican. Among them, the Giardino della Pigna, enclosed by four buildings, features a giant bronze pine cone, which was preserved from the old St Peter's Basilica, that once stood on the site of the current basilica. The vast size of the Vatican Museums means that many visitors don’t know where to begin. Our Vatican tours are designed to show you the highlights of the Vatican’s extraordinary collections, making sure you don’t miss the must-see masterpieces. You’ll also get to see some of the Vatican’s hidden gems, and learn the secret stories behind the artworks, enriching your experience.
Our Vatican Tours
By opting for one of our Private Vatican Tour or Small Group Vatican Tour you will be making the best of your visit to one of the most important religious and cultural sites in the world. Join the great family of Roma Experience today. With the knowledge and support of our expert guides you will experience and admire the highlights as well as the hidden gems of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basilica.
Special Catacombs and Vatican Tour
For a more in-depth, comprehensive visit to the Vatican, we recommend our special Rome Catacombs and Vatican Tour. This tour combines a visit to the Vatican (including the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica) with tours of the Roman catacombs and the beautiful Basilica of San Clemente. Over the course of the day you’ll learn all about the history of Christianity in Rome, and visit some of the most fascinating religious sites in the city – the ultimate Rome experience.