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Founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and enlarged by successive pontiffs, the Vatican Museums boast one of the world's greatest art collections. Exhibits, which are displayed along about 7km of halls and corridors, range from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to ancient busts, old masters and modern paintings. Highlights include the spectacular collection of classical statuary in the Museo Pio-Clementino, a suite of rooms frescoed by Raphael, and the Michelangelo-painted 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 original Vatican palace (nearer to St Peter’s) and the 15th-century Palazzetto di Belvedere – 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, so it pays to be selective.
On the whole, exhibits are not well labelled, so consider hiring an audio guide (€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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Parents with toddlers can take prams into the museums.
Often overlooked by visitors, the papal picture gallery contains Raphael’s last work, La Trasfigurazione (Transfiguration; 1517–20), and paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Perugino, Titian, Guido Reni, Guercino, Pietro da Cortona, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, whose haunting San Gerolamo (St Jerome; c 1480) was never finished.
Museo Chiaromonti & Braccio Nuovo
The Museo Chiaramonti is effectively the long corridor that runs down the east side of the Belvedere Palace. Its walls are lined with thousands of statues and busts 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 statue of 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 Sala degli Animali is filled with sculpted creatures and some magnificent 4th-century mosaics. Continuing on, you come to the Sala delle Muse, centred on the Torso Belvedere, another of the museum’s must-sees. A fragment of a muscular 1st-century-BC Greek sculpture, this was found in Campo de’ Fiori and used by Michelangelo as a model for his ignudi (male nudes) in the Sistine Chapel.
The next room, the Sala Rotonda, contains a number of colossal statues, including a gilded-bronze 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 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 a fragmented statue of Ramses II on his throne, vividly painted sarcophagi dating from around 1000 BC, and a macabre mummy.
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco
At the top of the 18th-century Simonetti staircase, the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco contains artefacts unearthed in the Etruscan tombs of northern Lazio, as well as a superb collection of vases and Roman antiquities. Of particular interest is the Marte di Todi (Mars of Todi), a black bronze of a warrior dating to the late 5th century BC.
Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery)
The last of three galleries on the upper floor – the other two are the Galleria dei Candelabri (Gallery of the Candelabra) and 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, currently undergoing partial restoration, were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. Raphael himself painted the Stanza della Segnatura (1508–11) and 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 (Cappella Sistina)
Home to two of the world’s most famous works of art – Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508–12) and his Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment; 1536–41) – the Sistine Chapel is the one place everyone wants to see, and on a busy day you could find yourself sharing it with up to 2000 people.
Michelangelo's ceiling design, which is best viewed from the chapel’s main entrance in the far east wall, covers the entire 800-sq-m surface. With painted architectural features and a cast of colourful biblical characters, it's centred on nine panels depicting stories from the book of Genesis.
As you look up from the east wall, the first panel is the Drunkenness of Noah, followed by The Flood, and the Sacrifice of Noah. Next, Original Sin and Banishment 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 Sea; the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants; and the Separation of 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 Michelangelo’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 self-portrait 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 left looking at the Giudizio Universale) and Christ (to the right). Highlights include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ and Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys.
As well as providing a showcase for priceless art, the Sistine Chapel also serves an important religious function as the place where the conclave meets to elect a new pope.