Entrance to Vatican Museums
Arco di Druso
School offering language courses.
Up to half the Vatican is covered by the perfectly manicured Vatican Gardens, which contain fortifications, grottoes, monuments and...
Small and intimate, Rome's top jazz joint attracts top Italian and international performers and a respectful, cosmopolitan crowd. Book a...
Ideal for a pre- or post-Vatican pick-me-up, this tiny ice cream parlour has been cheerfully dishing up huge portions of delicious...
Vatican Museums information
Lonely Planet review
Founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and enlarged by successive pontiffs, the Vatican Museums contains one of the world’s greatest art collections, amassed by the popes over the centuries. Exhibits range from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to Old Masters and modern paintings, but the main drawcards are the spectacular classical statuary and Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Housing the museums are the lavishly decorated halls and galleries of the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano. This vast 5.5-hectare complex consists of two palaces – the Vatican palace (nearer to St Peter’s) and Belvedere Palace – joined by two long galleries. On the inside are three courtyards: the Cortile della Pigna, the Cortile della Biblioteca and, to the south, the Cortile del Belvedere. You’ll never cover it all in one day – there are about 7km of exhibits – so it pays to be selective.
On the whole, exhibits are not well labelled, so consider hiring an audioguide (€7) or buying the Guide to the Vatican Museums and City (€14) .
The museums are well equipped for visitors with disabilities with suggested itineraries, lifts and specially fitted toilets. Wheelchairs are available free of charge from the Special Permits desk in the entrance hall, and can be reserved by emailing email@example.com. Parents with toddlers can take pushchairs into the museums.
Often overlooked by visitors, the papal picture gallery boasts Raphael’s last work, La Trasfigurazione (Transfiguration; 1517– 20), and paintings by Giotto, Bellini, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Guido Reni, Van Dyck, Pietro da Cortona and Leonardo da Vinci, whose San Gerolamo (St Jerome; c 1480) was never finished.
Museo Gregoriano Egizio (Egyptian Museum)
Founded by Gregory XVI in 1839, this museum contains pieces taken from Egypt in Roman times. The collection is small but there are fascinating exhibits including the Trono di Rameses II , part of a statue of the seated king, vividly painted sarcophagi dating from around 1000 BC, and some macabre mummies.
Museo Chiaromonti & Braccio Nuovo
The Museo Chiaramonti is effectively the long corridor that runs down the lower east side of the Belvedere Palace. Its walls are lined with thousands of statues representing everything from immortal gods to playful cherubs and ugly Roman patricians. Near the end of the hall, off to the right, is the Braccio Nuovo (New Wing), which contains a famous sculpture of Augustus and a statue depicting the Nile as a reclining god covered by 16 babies.
This stunning museum contains some of the Vatican Museums’ finest classical statuary, including the peerless Apollo Belvedere and the 1st-century Laocoön , both in the Cortile Ottagono (Octagonal Courtyard). Before you go into the courtyard take a moment to admire the 1st-century Apoxyomenos, one of the earliest known sculptures to depict a figure with a raised arm.
To the left as you enter the courtyard, the Apollo Belvedere is a 2nd-century Roman copy of a 4th-century-BC Greek bronze. A beautifully proportioned representation of the sun god Apollo, it’s considered one of the great masterpieces of classical sculpture. Nearby, the Laocoön depicts a muscular Trojan priest and his two sons in mortal struggle with two sea serpents.
Back inside the museum, the Sala degli Animali is filled with all sorts of sculpted creatures and some magnificent 4th-century mosaics. Continuing through, you come to the Galleria delle Statue , which has several important classical pieces; the Sala delle Buste , which contains hundreds of Roman busts; and the Gabinetto delle Maschere , named after the floor mosaics of theatrical masks. To the east, the Sala delle Muse is centred on the Torso Belvedere , another of the museum’s must-sees. A fragment of a muscular Greek sculpture from the 1st century BC, it was used by Michelangelo as a model for his ignudi in the Sistine Chapel.
The next room, the Sala Rotonda , contains a number of colossal statues, including the gilded-bronze figure of an odd-looking Ercole (Hercules) and an exquisite floor mosaic. The enormous basin in the centre of the room was found at Nero’s Domus Aurea and is made out of a single piece of red porphyry stone.
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco
On the upper level of the Belvedere Palace (off the 18th-century Simonetti staircase), the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco contains artefacts unearthed in the Etruscan tombs of northern Lazio, as well as a collection of Greek vases and Roman antiquities. Of particular interest is the Marte di Todi (Mars of Todi), a full-length bronze of a warrior dating from the 4th century BC.
Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery)
The last of three galleries – the other two are the Galleria dei Candelabri (Gallery of the Candelabra) and the Galleria degli Arazzi (Tapestry Gallery) – this 120m-long corridor is hung with 40 16th-century topographical maps of Italy.
Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms)
These four frescoed chambers were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. Raphael himself painted the Stanza della Segnatura (1508–11) and the Stanza d’Eliodoro (1512–14), while the Stanza dell’Incendio (1514–17) and Sala di Costantino (1517–24) were decorated by students following his designs.
The first room you come to is the Sala di Costantino , which features a huge fresco depicting Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge.
The Stanza d’Eliodoro , which was used for private audiences, takes its name from the Cacciata d’Eliodoro (Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple), an allegorical work reflecting Pope Julius II’s policy of forcing foreign powers off Church lands. To its right, the Messa di Bolsena (Mass of Bolsena) shows Julius paying homage to the relic of a 13th-century miracle at the lakeside town of Bolsena. Next is the Incontro di Leone Magno con Attila (Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila) by Raphael and his school, and, on the fourth wall, the Liberazione di San Pietro (Liberation of St Peter), a brilliant work illustrating Raphael’s masterful ability to depict light.
The Stanza della Segnatura , Julius’ study and library, was the first room that Raphael painted, and it’s here that you’ll find his great masterpiece, La Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens) featuring philosophers and scholars gathered around Plato and Aristotle. The seated figure in front of the steps is believed to be Michelangelo, while the figure of Plato is said to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and Euclide (the bald man bending over) is Bramante. Raphael also included a self-portrait in the lower right corner – he’s the second figure from the right.
The most famous work in the Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo is the Incendio di Borgo (Fire in the Borgo), which depicts Pope Leo IV extinguishing a fire by making the sign of the cross. The ceiling was painted by Raphael’s master, Perugino.
Sistine Chapel (Capella Sistina)
This is the one place in the Vatican Museums that everone wants to see, and on a busy day it can attract up to 20,000 people. Home to two of the world’s most famous works of art – Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes and the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment) – this 15th-century chapel also serves an important religious function as the place where the conclave meets to elect a new pope.
The ceiling frescoes , which are best viewed from the chapel’s main entrance in the east wall (opposite the visitor entrance), are centred on nine panels depicting scenes from the Creation, the story of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the plight of Noah.
As you look up from the east wall, the first panel is the Drunkenness of Noah , followed by the Flood, and Noah’s Sacrifice . Next, the Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden famously depicts Adam and Eve being sent packing after accepting the forbidden fruit from Satan, represented by a snake with the body of a woman coiled around a tree. The Creation of Eve is then followed by the Creation of Adam . This, one of the most famous images in Western art, shows a bearded God pointing his finger at Adam, thus bringing him to life. Completing the sequence are the Separation of Land from Water ; the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets ; and God Separating Light from Darkness , featuring a fearsome God reaching out to touch the sun. Set around the central panels are 20 athletic male nudes, known as ignudi .
Opposite, on the west wall is Michelangelo’s mesmeric Giudizio Universale , showing Christ – in the centre near the top – passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are torn from their graves to face him. The saved get to stay up in heaven (in the upper right), the damned are sent down to face the demons in hell (in the bottom right).
Near the bottom, on the right, you’ll see a man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him. This is Biagio de Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, who was a fierce critic of Michelengelo’s composition. Another famous figure is St Bartholomew, just beneath Christ, holding his own flayed skin. The face in the skin is said to be a selfportrait of Michelangelo, its anguished look reflecting the artist’s tormented faith.
The chapel’s walls also boast superb frescoes. Painted in 1481–82 by a crack team of Renaissance artists, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Perugino and Luca Signorelli, they represent events in the lives of Moses (to the eft looking at the Giudizio Universale ) and Christ (to the right). Highlights include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ and Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter .