What makes the Vatican Museums different from the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museums?
The answer is that the Vatican City is a private collector, a centuries-long patron of the arts, and the driving force behind the creation of some of humanity's finest art.
Not only are the Vatican's collections sublime in scale and scope, but the buildings that houses them are architectural artworks in themselves.
Visitors to the Vatican should see its many sections as a series of time capsules. Each one reflects the endeavours of whichever pope extended it, adding to the collection, enriching the history, adding another layer to the unique style of the state centered around Saint Peter's Basilica.
The Vatican Museums spans an extraordinary historical period, stretching from 319 AD to the present day. Composed of hundreds of lavishly decorated rooms within the collection of palaces, galleries, chapels, and apartments, the Vatican Museums are home to over four miles of exhibitions.
In addition to Michelangelo’s famous The Last Judgement and the Creation of Adam frescos within the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican has a notable treasure-chest of splendid masterpieces. These include the enviable Renaissance collection in the Vatican Art Gallery, Nero’s Bath or “The Porphyry Basin” in the Rotunda, Raphael Rooms with the “School of Athens,” and the magnificent Gallery of Tapestries.
But there are many more magnificent frescoes ornamenting the walls of the Vatican Museums. Some were executed by the hands of names like Botticelli, Pinturicchio, and Perugino. Others might bear less illustrious signatures, but still contribute invaluably to an unmatched collection guaranteed to enthral all visitors.
As the church’s wealth has grown over the years, so has the state’s museum and collection, with each Pope making a contribution as listed below:
1447 – 1455: Nicholas V
1492 – 1503: Alexander VI
Fra Angelico & Pinturicchio decorate the private apartments of the Popes.
1503 – 1513: Julius II
The beginnings of the Vatican Museums sculpture collection in the Octagonal Court.
1572 – 1585: Gregory XIII
“Most Noble” Italy represented in the Gallery of Maps.
1769 – 1774: Clement XIV
1775 – 1799: Pius VI
The founding of the Pio Clementino Museum.
1800 – 1823 Pius VII
The inauguration of the Chiaramonti Museum and the New Wing.
1831 – 1846: Gregory XVI
The opening of 3 new museums: the Etruscan, the Egyptian, and the Profano Lateranense.
1846 – 1878: Pius IX
1903 – 1914: Pius X
The Pius-Christian Museum and the Jewish Lapidarium are created in the Lateran Palace.
1922 – 1939: Pius XI
The founding of the Missionary-Ethnological Museum and the new Vatican Pinacoteca.
1958 – 1963: John XXIII
1963 – 1978: Paul VI
The Lateran collections come to the Vatican Museums.
1978 – 2005: John Paul II
From major restoration of the Sistine Chapel to the Jubilee of the year 2000.
2005 - 2013: Benedict XVI
2013 - Present: Francis I
First, we should clarify that the Vatican Museums is comprised of many smaller museums. Their collection is extensive with 20,000 pieces on display, has 9 miles of art, worth an estimated $15 billion. Undoubtedly, the size and depth can be overwhelming, but there are a few must-see sections and masterpieces as listed below:
The Cortile del Belvedere, the Belvedere Courtyard, designed by Donato Bramante from 1506 onward, was a major architectural work of the High Renaissance at the Vatican Palace in Rome; its concept and details reverberated in courtyard design, formalized piazzas and garden plans throughout Western Europe for centuries. Conceived as a single enclosed space, the long Belvedere court connected the Vatican Palace with the Villa Belvedere in a series of terraces connected by stairs, and was contained on its sides by narrow wings.
Bramante did not see the work completed, and before the end of the sixteenth century it had been irretrievably altered by a building across the court, dividing it into two separate courtyards.
These Flemish tapestries, realized in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s School from drawings by Raphael’s pupils during the pontificate of Clement VII (1523-1534), hang on the walls. Each tapestry, either showing the life of Jesus and Pope Urban VIII, took many years to make and were made from a variety of materials, including gold and silver thread. They were first shown in the Sistine Chapel in 1531, and then arranged for the exhibition in this Gallery in 1838.
As Liam Moloney of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “In the days when pontiffs rarely left Rome, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned giant maps depicting all of Italy—so that he could explore the peninsula without leaving the city’s safety. The paintings had an almost 3-D effect, with city landmarks, mountain valleys and the white crests of ocean waves clearly visible.”
It takes its name from the 40 maps frescoed on the walls, which represent the Italian regions and the papal properties at the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585). They were painted between 1580 and 1585 on drawings by Ignazio Danti, a famous geographer of the time. Considering the Apennines as a partition element, on one side the regions surrounded by the Ligure and Tyrrhenian Seas are represented; on the other, the regions surrounded by the Adriatic Sea. The map of the main city accompanies each regional map.
The nucleus of the pontifical collections of classical sculpture dates back to the original collection of Pope Julius II (1503-1513) which was housed in the Cortile delle Statue (today the Octagonal Court). During the second half of the 18th century the pontifical collections were enormously expanded both as a result of excavations being carried out in Rome and Lazio, and by donations from collectors and antiquaries.
The influence of Enlightenment thinking resulted in the inauguration of a museum in the modern sense, open to the public and explicitly charged with the task of safeguarding antique works of art, and promoting the study and understanding of them.
The Museum is called Pio Clementino after the two popes who oversaw its foundation, Clement XIV Ganganelli (1769-1774) and Pius VI Braschi (1775-1799). The museum fills several large exhibition halls which were obtained by adapting pre-existing rooms with new constructions both within and adjacent to the small Belvedere Palace of Innocent VIII (1484-92).
Antique sculptures were brought here and ancient Roman pieces often had their missing parts completely restored. The neo-classical architecture was realized under the direction of Alessandro Dori, Michelangelo Simonetti, and Giuseppe Camporese, embellished by the work of a large number of painters and decorators.
With the Treaty of Tolentino (1797) the Papal States were forced to give up the principal masterpieces in the Museum to Napoleon and they were transported to Paris. Much later, following the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (1815), and thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Antonio Canova, the greater part of the works was recovered.
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum occupies nine rooms, with a broad hemicycle that opens onto the terrace of the “Niche of the Pinecone”, in which various sculptures are located.
The collection is particularly interesting on account of its relationship with the territory, rich in material from Roman Egypt and Egyptian-influenced Rome. Indeed, many monuments from the most ancient nucleus were brought to Rome at the behest of the emperor in order to embellish buildings, shrines and villas, such as the statuary group of the Gardens of Sallust (Horti Sallustiani), now displayed in the hemicycle. There are also many Egyptian works of Roman production, which offer evidence of an important moment in the history of pharaonic culture, as in the case of the items from the splendid setting of Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.
The final three rooms of the itinerary are dedicated to artefacts from the Ancient Near East.
>>To discover more, read our attraction article for the Sistine Chapel.
>> To discover more, read out attraction article for the Raphael Rooms.
The Pinacoteca is arguably the best painting gallery in Rome. In room after room, there are so many masterpieces competing for space and by the greatest artists such as Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Raphael that it seems unfair to masters such as Titian, Bellini, Lorenzetti, Fra’ Angelico, and Pinturicchio.
Such density of expertly painted work requires the interpretation of an expertly trained guide from an exclusive partner of the Vatican such as Walks Inside Rome.
Among the major masterpieces are Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych (1320), a Perugino Madonna and Child with Saints (1496), Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished St. Jerome (1482), Guido Reni's Crucifixion of St. Peter (1605), and Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross (1604).
As a Roman copy of a Greek bronze, the Apollo Belvedere shows the Greek god Apollo just after shooting an arrow. Found in the 15th century, Pope Julius II moved the Apollo Belvedere to the Vatican, making it the first piece in the Vatican's art collection. This sculpture has long been one of the most influential sculptures in antiquity among Renaissance artists, and considered a supreme example of classical sculpture.
Another iconic work, Laocoön is an almost pristine marble sculpture that depicts in florid, almost baroque style the agonies of the Trojan priest and his sons who were killed by serpents sent by Athena. Displayed in the Imperial palace in the 1st century AD, it was rediscovered in 1506, identified by Michelangelo, who restored a missing arm, and bought by Pope Julius II. The original arm was found in 1905 and reattached in 1957.
From Monday to Saturday (with Walks Inside Rome only)
Opens at 7:30 am
From Monday to Saturday
9.00 am – 6.00 pm (final entry 4.00 pm)
8:00 pm – 11:00 pm but the Sistine Chapel closes at 10:30 pm
To be certain of getting the best experience, follow these tips:
Regularly inundated by up to 30,000 guests per day, visiting the Vatican Museums can seem more of an ordeal than a treat. Thankfully, because Walks Inside Rome enjoys Silver Partner status with the Vatican Museums, we can offer exclusive access available to only a handful of other operators.
The father of great American writing and an outspoken critic of the church, Mark Twain, once said of the Vatican Museums,
"I like to look at statues. . . and I like to look at pictures also--even of monks looking up in sacred ecstasy and monks looking down in meditation, and monks skirmishing for something to eat--and therefore I drop ill nature to thank the papal government for…guarding and…gathering up these things, and for permitting me, a stranger and not an entirely friendly one, to roam at will…among them, charging me nothing and only requiring that I shall behave myself simply as well as I ought to behave in any other man's house. I thank the Holy Father right heartily, and I wish him long life and plenty of happiness."
- Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad