Other than the pope and his papal court, the occupants of the Vatican are some of the most famous artworks in the world. The palace consists of an estimated 1,400 rooms, chapels, and galleries and has been the residence of the popes since 1377. 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'll only be able to skim the surface, but few will want to miss out on the great antique sculptures, Raphael Rooms, the Sistine Chapel, and the old master paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome.
The gems of the Vatican's sculpture collection are in the Pio-Clementino Museum. 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 Raphael Rooms
Rivaling the Sistine Chapel for artistic interest—and for the number of visitors—are the 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.
Downstairs are the 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 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.
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 Sunday 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 start at €32, 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 Sistine Chapel will bar entry to people with bare knees or bare shoulders.