Other than the pope and his papal court, the occupants of the Vatican are some of the most famous artworks in the world. The museums that contain them are part of the Vatican Palace, residence of the popes since 1377. The palace consists of an estimated 1,400 rooms, chapels, and galleries. The pope and his household occupy only a small part of the palace; most of the rest is given over to the Vatican Library and Museums. Beyond the glories of the Sistine Chapel,
the collection is so extraordinarily rich you may just wish to skim the surface, but few will want to miss out on the great antique sculptures, Raphael Rooms, and the Old Master paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome.
Among the collections on the way to the chapel, the Egyptian Museum (in which Room II reproduces an underground chamber tomb of the Valley of Kings) is well worth a stop. The Chiaramonti Museum was organized by the Neoclassical sculptor Canova and contains almost 1,000 copies of classical sculpture. The gems of the Vatican's sculpture collection are in the Pio-Clementino Museum, however. Just off the hall in Room X, you can find the Apoxyomenos (Scraper), a beautiful 1st-century AD copy of the famous bronze statue of an athlete. There are other even more famous pieces in the Octagonal Courtyard, where Pope Julius II installed the pick of his private collection. On the left stands the celebrated Apollo Belvedere. In the far corner, on the same side of the courtyard, is the Laocoön group. Found on Rome's Esquiline Hill in 1506, this antique sculpture group influenced Renaissance artists perhaps more than any other.
In the Hall of the Muses, the Belvedere Torso occupies center stage: this is a fragment of a 1st-century BC statue, probably of Hercules, all rippling muscles and classical dignity, much admired by Michelangelo. The lovely Neoclassical room of the Rotonda has an ancient mosaic pavement and a huge porphyry basin from Nero's palace.
The room on the Greek-cross plan contains two fine porphyry sarcophagi (burial caskets), one for St. Constantia and one for St. Helena, daughter and mother of the emperor Constantine, respectively.
Upstairs is an Etruscan Museum, an Antiquarium, with Roman originals; and the domed Sala della Biga, with an ancient chariot. In addition, there are the Candelabra Gallery and the Tapestry Gallery, with tapestries designed by Raphael's students. The incredibly long Gallery of Maps, frescoed with 40 maps of Italy and the papal territories, was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. Nearby is the Apartment of Pius V.
The Raphael Rooms
Rivaling the Sistine Chapel for artistic interest—and for the number of visitors—are the recently restored Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). Pope Julius II moved into this suite in 1507, four years after his election. Reluctant to continue living in the Borgia apartments downstairs, with their memories of his ill-famed predecessor Alexander VI, he called in Raphael to decorate his new quarters. When people talk about the Italian High Renaissance—thought to be the very pinnacle of Western art—it's probably Raphael's frescoes they're thinking about.
The Stanza della Segnatura, the first to be frescoed, was painted almost entirely by Raphael himself (his assistants painted much of the other rooms). The theme of the room, which may broadly be said to be "enlightenment," reflects the fact that this was meant to be Julius's private library. Instead, it was used mainly as a room for signing documents, hence "segnatura" (signature). Theology triumphs in the fresco known as the Disputa, or Debate on the Holy Sacrament, on the wall in front of you as you enter. Opposite, the School of Athens glorifies philosophy in its greatest exponents. Plato (likely a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci), in the center, debates a point with Aristotle. The pensive, gloomy figure on the stairs is thought to be modeled after Michelangelo, who was painting the Sistine ceiling at the same time Raphael was working here. Michelangelo does not appear in preparatory drawings, so Raphael may have added his fellow artist's portrait after admiring his work. In the foreground on the right, the figure with the compass is Euclid, depicted as the architect Bramante; on the far right, the handsome youth just behind the white-clad older man is Raphael himself. Over the window on the left is Mt. Parnassus, the abode of the Muses, with Apollo, famous poets (many of them likenesses of Raphael's contemporaries), and the Muses themselves. In the lunette over the window opposite, Raphael painted figures representing and alluding to the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, and subjects showing the establishment of written codes of law. Beautiful personifications of the four subject areas, Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence, are painted in circular pictures on the ceiling above.
However, the rooms aren't arranged chronologically. Today, for crowd-management purposes, you head down an outdoor gallery to loop back through them; as you go, look across the way to see, very far away, the Pinecone Courtyard near where you entered the museums. The first "Raphael Room" is the Hall of Constantine —actually decorated by Giulio Romano and Raphael's other assistants after the master's untimely death in 1520. The frescoes represent various scenes from the life of Emperor Constantine, including the epic-sized Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Guided by three low-flying angels, Constantine charges to victory as his rival Maxentius drowns in the river below.
The Room of Heliodorus is a private antechamber. Working on the theme of Divine Providence's miraculous intervention in defense of the faith, Raphael depicted Leo the Great's encounter with Attila; it's on the wall in front of you as you enter. The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple of Jerusalem, opposite, refers to Pope Julius II's attempt to exert papal power to expel the French from Italy. The pope himself appears on the left, watching the scene. On the window wall, the Liberation of St. Peter is one of Raphael's best-known and most effective works.
After the Room of the Signature, the last room is the Room of the Borgo Fire. The final room painted in Raphael's lifetime, it was executed mainly by Giulio Romano, who worked from Raphael's drawings for the new pope, Leo X. It was used for the meetings of the Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae, the Holy See's highest court. The frescoes depict stories of previous popes called Leo, the best of them showing the great fire in the Borgo (the neighborhood between the Vatican and Castel Sant'Angelo) that threatened to destroy the original St. Peter's Basilica in AD 847; miraculously, Pope Leo IV extinguished it with the sign of the cross. The other frescoes show the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III in St. Peter's Basilica, the Oath of Leo III, and a naval battle with the Saracens at Ostia in AD 849, after which Pope Leo IV showed clemency to the defeated.
The tiny Chapel of Nicholas V is rarely open. But if you can access it, do: one of the Renaissance's greatest gems, it's aglow with Fra Angelico (1395–1455) frescoes of episodes from the life of St. Stephen (above) and St. Lawrence (below). If it weren't under the same roof as Raphael's and Michelangelo's works, it would undoubtedly draw greater attention.
Downstairs, enter the recently restored Borgia apartments, where some of the Vatican's most fascinating historical figures are depicted on elaborately painted ceilings. Pinturicchio designed the frescoes at the end of the 15th century, though the paintings were greatly retouched in later centuries. It's generally believed that Cesare Borgia murdered his sister Lucrezia's husband, Alphonse of Aragon, in the Room of the Sibyl. In the Room of the Saints, Pinturicchio painted his self-portrait in the figure to the left of the possible portrait of the architect Antonio da Sangallo. (His profession is made clear by the fact that he holds a T-square.) The lovely St. Catherine of Alexandria is said to represent Lucrezia Borgia herself.
In the frescoed exhibition halls, the Vatican Library displays precious illuminated manuscripts and documents from its vast collections. The Aldobrandini Marriage Room contains beautiful ancient frescoes of a Roman nuptial rite, named for their subsequent owner, Cardinal Aldobrandini. The Braccio Nuovo (New Wing) holds an additional collection of ancient Greek and Roman statues, the most famous of which is the Augustus of Prima Porta, in the fourth niche from the end on the left. It's considered a faithful likeness of the emperor Augustus, who was 40 years old at the time. Note the workmanship in the reliefs on his armor.
The Vatican Pinacoteca
Equally celebrated are the works on view in the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery). These often world-famous paintings, almost exclusively of religious subjects, are arranged in chronological order, beginning with works of the 12th and 13th centuries. Room II has a marvelous Giotto triptych, painted on both sides, which formerly stood on the high altar in the old St. Peter's. In Room III you'll see Madonnas by the Florentine 15th-century painters Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. Room VIII contains some of Raphael's greatest creations, including the exceptional Transfiguration, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the Foligno Madonna, as well as the tapestries that Raphael designed to hang in the Sistine Chapel. The next room contains Leonardo's beautiful (though unfinished) St. Jerome and a Bellini Pietà. A highlight for many is Caravaggio's gigantic Deposition, in Room XII. In the courtyard outside the Pinacoteca you can admire a beautiful view of the dome of St. Peter's, as well as the reliefs from the base of the now-destroyed column of Antoninus Pius. A fitting finale to your Vatican visit can be found in the Museo Pio Cristiano (Museum of Christian Antiquities), where the most famous piece is the 3rd-century AD statue called the Good Shepherd, much reproduced as a devotional image.
The best way to avoid long lines into the museums, which can be three hours long in the high season, is to arrive between noon and 2, when lines will be very short or even nonexistent, except Sundays when admissions close at 12:30. Even better is to schedule your visit during the Wednesday Papal Mass, held in the piazza of St. Peter’s or at Aula Paolo Sesto, usually 10:30 am. Also consider booking your ticket in advance online (biglietteriamusei.vatican.va); there is a €4 surcharge.
For those interested in guided visits to the Vatican Museums, tours are €26 to €37, including entrance tickets, and can also be booked online. Other offerings include a regular two-hour guided tour of the Vatican gardens and the semiregular Friday night openings, allowing visitors to the museums until 11 pm; call or check online to confirm. For more information, call 06/69884676 or go to mv.vatican.va. For information on tours, call 06/69883145 or 06/69884676; visually impaired visitors can arrange tactile tours by calling 06/69884947. Wheelchairs are available (free) and can be booked in advance by emailing email@example.com or by request at the "Special Permits" desk in the entrance hall.
Ushers at the entrance of St. Peter's and sometimes the Vatican Museums will bar entry to people with bare knees or bare shoulders.
Viale Vaticano, near intersection with Via Leone IV, Rome, 00165, Italy
Jun 8, 2003
This isn't just more boring art. This is a collection of masterpieces all of which culminates to the Sistine Chapel. But don't skip this museum for the Sistine Chapel. While it can wear you out, see the masterpieces (especially if you're a first time visitor). It is well worth your time.