One of the world’s largest museums is a sometimes overwhelming maze incorporating areas, like the incomparable Sistine Chapel, which were here long before you could buy a ticket. The museum began as a collection of ancient sculpture begun by Pope Julius II in his private summer palace in 1503, and it’s been added to ever since. The immense collection represents the accumulated fancies and obsessions of a long line of strong, often contradictory personalities. As well as the celebrated work of Michelangelo and Raphael, the collections include Etruscan grave goods, cut outs by Matisse, a piece of the moon donated by Nixon, and a 120m-long (390ft) gallery painted with the most accurate maps in the world from the late 16th century.
he following are selected highlights.
This six-room suite, known as the Borgia Rooms, was adapted for the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) and decorated by Pinturicchio with a series of frescoes on biblical and classical themes.
Founded by Pope Nicholas V in 1450, this is one of the world’s most extraordinary libraries, with 100,000 medieval manuscripts and books, and over a million other volumes. It is open to doctoral students and specialists on application to the Admissions office (06 6987 9403).
Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel)
The world’s most famous frescoes cover the ceiling and one immense wall of the Sistine Chapel, built for Sixtus IV in 1473- 84. For centuries it has been used for papal elections. In the 1980s and ’90s, the 930sq m (10,000sq ft) of Creation – on the ceiling – and the Last Judgement – on the wall behind the altar – were subjected to the most controversial restoration job of all time. The result is very blue.
In 1508 Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a simple decoration on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Julius II may have been egged on to employ a sculptor with no experience in fresco by his architect Bramante, who was jealous of the pope’s admiration for Michelangelo and desperately wanted to see him fail. Michelangelo responded by offering to do far more than mere decoration, and embarked upon his massive venture alone. He spent the next four and a half years standing (only Charlton Heston lay down on 18m-high (60ft) scaffolding with paint and plaster dripping into his eyes. Despite a fairly handsome payment (in four years he earned as much as a regular artist could expect to earn in 15), he complained to his brother in 1511, ‘I could well say that I go naked and barefoot.’
The ceiling work was completed in 1512, just seven months before the death of Julius, and is exemplary of the confident pursuit of beauty of the High Renaissance. Beginning at the Last Judgement end, scenes depict the Separation of Light from Darkness, the Creation of Sun, Moon and Planets, the Separation of Land and Sea and the Creation of Fishes and Birds; the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise; the Sacrifice of Noah (which should have appeared after the Flood, but for lack of space), the Flood and the Drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo painted these scenes in reverse order, beginning with Noah’s drunkenness. They are framed by monumental figures of Old Testament prophets and classical sibyls foretelling the birth of Christ.
Twenty-three years later, aged 60, Michelangelo was dragged back by Paul III in 1535. Between the completion of the ceiling and the beginning of the wall, Rome had suffered. From 1517, the Protestant Reformation threatened the power of the popes, and the sack of the city in 1527 was seen by Michelangelo as the wrath of God descending on the corrupt city. The Last Judgement dramatically reflects this gloomy and pessimistic atmosphere. Hidden among the larger-than-life figures that stare, leer and cry out from their brilliant ultramarine background, Michelangelo painted his own frowning, miserable face on the wrinkled human skin held by St Bartholomew, below and to the right of the powerful figure of Christ the Judge.
Before Michelangelo set foot in the chapel, the stars of the 1480s had created the paintings along the walls. On the left-hand wall (as you look at the Last Judgement) are: the Journey of Moses by Perugino; Events from the Life of Moses by Botticelli; Crossing the Red Sea and Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law by Cosimo Rosselli; the Testament of Moses by Luca Signorelli; and the Dispute over Moses’ Body by Matteo da Lecce. On the right-hand wall are the Baptism of Christ by Perugino; the Temptations of Christ by Botticelli; the Calling of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio; Handing over the Keys by Perugino; the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli; and the Resurrection by Hendrik van den Broeck. The portraits are by the same masters.
Founded by Pius VII in the early 19th century and laid out by the sculptor Canova, this is an eclectic collection of Roman statues, reliefs and busts. Don’t miss the replica of a Greek statue by Polyeuctos of stuttering orator Demosthenes or the copy of a Resting Satyr by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles.
Gallerie dei Candelabri & degli Arazzi
The long gallery studded with candelabra contains Roman marble statues, while the next gallery is home to ten huge tapestries (arazzi), woven by Flemish master Pieter van Aelst.
Galleria delle Carte Geografiche
Pope Gregory XIII (who was responsible for the introduction of the Gregorian calendar) had a craze for astronomy, and built this 120m-long (394ft) gallery, with its Tower of the Winds observation point. Ignazio Danti of Perugia drew the maps, which were then frescoed (1580-83), and show each Italian region, city and island with extraordinary precision.
Founded by Gregory XVI in 1839, in rooms that are partly decorated in Egyptian style, this is a representative selection of ancient Egyptian art from 3000 BC to 600 BC. It includes statues of a baboon god, painted mummy cases and a marble statue of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s lover, who drowned in Egypt and was declared divine by the emperor. There are a couple of mummies too.
Founded in 1837 by Gregory XVI, this collection contains Greek and Roman art as well as Etruscan masterpieces, including the contents of the Regolini-Galassi Tomb (c650 BC), the Greek-inspired fourth-century BC Mars, and the fifth-century BC Young Man and Small Slave. This section is usually only open in the mornings.
In the late 18th century Pope Clement XIV and his successor Pius VI began the world’s largest collection of classical statues; it now fills 16 rooms. Don’t miss the first-century BC Belvedere Torso by Apollonius of Athens; the Apollo Sauroctonos, a Roman copy of the bronze Lizard Killer by Praxiteles; and, in the octagonal Belvedere Courtyard, the exquisite Belvedere Apollo and Laocoön, the latter being throttled by the sea serpents Athena had sent as punishment for warning the Trojans to beware of the wooden horse.
Founded by Pius VI in the late 18th century, the Pinacoteca (picture gallery) includes many of the pictures that the Vatican hierarchy managed to recover from Napoleon after their forced sojourn in France in the early 19th century. The collection ranges from early paintings of the Byzantine School and Italian primitives to 18th-century Dutch and French old masters, and includes Giotto’s Stefaneschi Triptych; a Pietà by Lucas Cranach the Elder; several delicate Madonnas by Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Raphael and Titian; Raphael’s very last work, the Transfiguration; Caravaggio’s Entombment; and a chiaroscuro St Jerome by Leonardo da Vinci. The Pinacoteca usually closes at 3.30pm.
Stanze di Raffaello & Cappella di Niccolò V
The Raphael Rooms were part of Nicholas V’s palace, and were originally decorated by Piero della Francesca. Julius II then let Perugino and other Renaissance masters loose on them. He later discovered Raphael, and gave the 26-year-old carte blanche to redesign four rooms of the Papal Suite. The order of the visit changes from time to time; if possible, try to see the rooms in the order in which they were painted. The Study (Stanza della Segnatura) was the first one Raphael tackled (1508-11), and features philosophical and spiritual themes – the triumph of Truth, Good and Beauty. Best known is the star-packed School of Athens fresco, with contemporary artists as classical figures: Plato is Leonardo; glum Heraclitus with the big knees on the steps at the front is Michelangelo; Euclid is Bramante (note the letters RUSM, Raphael’s signature, on his gold collar); and Raphael himself is on the far right-hand side just behind a man in white, believed to be his pupil Sodoma. Raphael next turned his hand to the Room of Heliodorus (Stanza di Eliodoro) (1512-14), frescoed with The Expulsion of Heliodorus. The portrayal of God saving the temple in Jerusalem from the thieving Heliodorus was intended to highlight the divine protection that was enjoyed by Julius himself (the pope’s portrait is shown twice: both as the priest of the temple in the centre wearing blue and gold, and as the red-capped figure carried on a bier on the left).
The Dining Room (Stanza dell’Incendio, 1514-17), painted after Julius’s death, is dedicated to his successor, Leo X (the most obese of the popes, he died from gout aged 38), and shows other Pope Leos with the face of Leo X. The room is named after a fire in the Borgo, which Leo IV apparently stopped with the sign of the cross. (Note that the first church of St Peter’s is in the background.)
The Reception Room (Sala di Constantino, 1517-24) was completed by Giulio Romano after Raphael’s death in 1520, but was originally based on Raphael’s sketches of the Church’s triumph over paganism, and tells the legend of Constantine’s miraculous conversion.
The long Loggia di Raffaello (only open by special appointment) has a beautiful view over Rome. Started by Bramante in 1513, and finished by Raphael and his assistants, it features 52 small paintings on biblical themes, and leads into the Sala dei Chiaroscuri (Gregory XIII obliterated Raphael’s frescoes here, but the magnificent ceiling remains). The adjacent Cappella di Niccolò V (Chapel of Nicholas V, only open by special appointment) has outstanding frescoes of scenes from the lives of saints Lawrence and Stephen by Fra Angelico (1448-50).
Note that pre-booking through the Vatican website is always advised and reduces what can be a lengthy wait to get into the museums. You can book for the date and time of your choice, for up to ten people at a time. Bookings can be made up to 60 days in advance. There is a €4 surcharge for each ticket booked. Midweek is always less busy than Saturdays and Mondays. In high summer the Friday evening opening is a good option to minimise crowds.
It’s a brisk ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls from St Peter’s to the Vatican Museums. If you’re planning to purchase tickets on the day, note that the ticket office shuts two hours before closing time.
One-way routes cater for anything from a dash to the Sistine Chapel to a five-hour plod around the lot. There are also a number of itineraries for wheelchair users, with facilities en route. Wheelchairs can be borrowed at the museum: book them by phone or email (1196921703, firstname.lastname@example.org), though booking is not essential and they can almost always be picked up on spec.