“I've been to the Vatican more than anyplace else outside this country in the world. I am mesmerized by it.” - Rush Limbaugh
When you visit Rome, you pretty much have to visit the Vatican just like when you visit Paris, you have to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign state, is 0.44km2, home to 799 inhabitants, 3,000 foreign workers, and welcomes 5 to 6 million tourists. In addition to the remains from the Roman Empire, there’s also Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint Peter’s Square, and the Vatican Museums. Here’s why you should visit the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums and Their Collections
The Vatican Museums are famous for their incredible collections. This is one of the most important collections in the art world.
The Vatican is the home of the Holy See and Roman Catholic institutions. While the Vatican as a state was only created on 11 February 1929, following the Lateran Treaty signed by Mussolini and Cardinal Gasparri. The Vatican has been the seat of the Papacy since the end of the Roman Empire under the reign of Emperor Constantine.
Throughout the centuries, successive popes have collected works of art, paintings, frescoes, sculptures, and other objects from the Antiquity to the Modern Era. Most of this was collected during the time of the Papal States (752-1870), lasting 13 centuries when the popes collected sacred and profane art from all over the world.
The size of the galleries continued to increase over the centuries. Nowadays, the Vatican is home to masterpieces from ancient and modern civilisations covering miles of corridors. All types of art and eras are represented.
The Vatican Museums include 12 different museums that are visiting by up to 6 million tourists a year, making them the 4th most popular museums in the world.
So why should you visit the Vatican museum?
Firstly, for the incredible collections. The museum complex includes:
- The Pinacotheca
- The collection of modern religious art
- The Pio Clementino Museum
- The Ethnological Museum
- The Gregorian Egyptian Museum
- The Gregorian Etruscan Museum
- The Gregorian Profane Museum
- The Christian Museum
- The Vatican Apostolic Library
- The Carriage Pavilion
- The Chiaramonti Museum
- The Philatelic and Numismatic Office
In addition to museums, there are three chapels:
- The Sistine Chapel
- The Pauline Chapel
- The Niccolini Chapel
The Vatican is also, like large parts of Rome, home to plenty of Roman and Etruscan remains.
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The Vatican Museums: The Apostolic Palace
The Apostolic Palace is the official residence of the popes from the return from exile in Avignon in 1377. Also known as the Palace of Sixtus V, the building was constructed in 1589 and was home to residences for the pope as well as the pope’s private chapels.
The building has 1,400 rooms across 55,000m2, making it the largest fully-inhabited palace in the world. At the heart of the two chapels in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and the Nicoline Chapel, the Raphael Rooms and the Borgia Apartment.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel gets its name from Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) who restored the Capella Magna.
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Built it in 1475, it was inaugurated on 15 August 1483 and altered several times afterwards. It’s famous for its frescoes covering the life of Christ and Moses. The most famous part of the building is the ceiling painted by Michaelangelo in 1508. There are 9 scenes from the Book of Genesis divided into three groups: the origin of the universe, man, and evil.
The Sistine Chapel is also visited for The Last Judgment by Michaelangelo. This is where the cardinals also elect new popes. In addition to Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, there are also frescoes from Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Biagio di Antonio, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Luca Signorelli, and Pier Matteo d’Amelia.
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The Nicoline Chapel
Less famous, but just as ornate, the Nicoline Chapel is named for Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455). The paintings and frescoes were made by Fra Angelico between 1447 and 1451 that show the lives of the Deacons Saint Stephen and Saint Laurent, linking the two saints’ cities of martyrdom, Jerusalem and Rome.
The Raphael Rooms
The four Raphael Rooms are reception rooms in the papal apartments. The frescoes were painted by Raphael himself and are masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. Ordered by Pope Julius II in 1508, the frescoes are located on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace to the south of Cortile del Belvedere.
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The Vatican Museums: Art History
The Vatican Museums are home to plenty of art from the Antiquity to today. It’s a great way to experience the history of art!
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum, for example, is home to pieces from the Neolithic age to the age of the Roman Empire across six rooms.
The Gregorian Etruscan Museum is home to objects found in archaeological digs from Etruria across 22 rooms. The works date from the 9th century BCE to the 1st century BCE. Don’t miss Laocoon and His Sons in the Pio Clementino Museum. The largest part of the Vatican Museums complex, there are 12 rooms with collections from the Greek and Roman Antiquity. There’s the Apollo Belvedere, Hermes, and Laocoön.
To learn even more about art history, head along to the Ethnological Museum. There are over 80,000 pieces from prehistory to now from all over the world. There are objects from Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe, and the Americas.
The collection of modern religious art has 800 pieces from 250 different international artists including Rodin, van Gogh, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Chagall, Otto Dix, Dali, and Picasso.
You also need to visit the Pinacotheca. Canvases date back to the 11th and 12 centuries. There are works from Giotto, Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, and Caravaggio.
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The Bramante Staircase
How can you visit the Vatican without seeing the Bramante Staircase?
If you have the Omnia Vatican and Rome Card, you can visit the Vatican Museums.
Wrongly attributed to Donato Bramante (1444-1514), the current double-spiral staircase was made in 1932. There are two spiral staircases on top of one another with one for going upstairs and the other for going downstairs. You’ll never pass anyone on the staircase. Despite how busy it is, there’s never any traffic.
Pretty ingenious, isn’t it?
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Visiting the Vatican Museums for Archeological Sites
Finally, here’s our last good reason for visiting the Vatican Museums, archaeological treasures. There are two archaeological sites from the Roman Empire:
- The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis
- The Excavations of St. John Lateran
The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis is a Roman cemetery with remains from the Antiquity. Under Roman law, cremation and burial within the city were illegal. Romans created “cities for the dead” outside cities known as a “Necropolis” from the Greek “necro” meaning “dead” and “polis” meaning “city”. The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis allows you to discover how Romans honoured the dead. Vatican Hill was a muddle of individual and collective graves and tombs. They’ve survived incredibly well over 2,000 years.
Finally, in the Excavations of St. John Lateran, there are remains of buildings built before the current Saint Peter’s Basilica. If you love ancient history and art, the Vatican’s the place to go.
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