The Vatican Museums (Italian: Musei Vaticani), one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, are located in the Vatican Palace, which with 1400 rooms form an extremely important museum complex, both because of the number and value of masterpieces collected by various popes for centuries, as well as the rooms in which they are located. The Vatican Palaces are a magnificent collection of buildings with many rooms, halls, museums, galleries, libraries, chapels, corridors and gardens, rich in all kinds of artistic treasures.
It contains the world’s largest collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, the Vatican Library, a large Egyptian and Etruscan collection as well as a significant collection of Italian masters of painting (Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Bellini, Giotto …) and sculptures from the 15th and 18th centuries of which many works were commissioned by the ruling popes.
The founding of the museum is connected to the sixteenth century and Pope Julius II, who exhibited his collection of sculptures in today’s octagonal courtyard of the museum. The future popes additionally supplemented and enriched the collection, which is why today visitors can enjoy not only the works of art in the collection, but also the masterpieces of all time, such as: the Sistine Chapel, the Map Gallery, the Tapestry Gallery, etc.
The entire museum complex consists of 26 sections, of which the most important is to point out:
Pinacotheca – art gallery:
The largest collection of Italian and European paintings is kept in 18 rooms and consists of works of art by the most famous Italian painters: Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Titian, Giotto and others.
The Pinacotheca collection was gathered by Pius VI and enriched by his successors Pius VII and Pius X in 1936. Pius XI had today’s building built (Luca Beltrami).
In the Vatican’s “Gallery of Paintings”, which is organized in chronological order, one can follow the development of painting through the centuries:
• Byzantine style and pre-Renaissance paintings
• Giotto and supporters of his direction. Here it is possible to trace the gradual emergence of the Italian Renaissance.
• 15th century painters including the Fra Beato Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Leonardo, Giovanni Bellini and others.
• In one hall there are paintings by foreign painters from the 15th century, and in the other polyptychs (Carlo Crivelli). Titian’s works are from the 16th century.
• The Perugino and Umbrian schools are in a separate gallery. Our Lady of the sill (Pinturicchio) and St. Benedict (Perugino) are from 1495.
• Raphael’s rooms contain several paintings of Raphael. The coronation of the Virgin was painted by Raphael for Maddalena Oddi in 1503 as a nineteen-year-old. He painted the fabulous virtues in 1507 as a forerunner of the Removal from the Cross in the Borghese Gallery. The Transfiguration, made by Raphael in 1512, is one of the most famous paintings in the world.
• The gallery also contains Baroque works by artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Pietro da Cortona, Nicolas Poussin and the excellent “The Entombment of Christ” (Caravaggio) (1604).
Collection of Contemporary Art:
Pope Paul VI opened the Museum of Contemporary Sacred Art in 1973. Mario Ferrazza is responsible for collecting works of art. The collection consists of almost 800 works by 250 international artists. The Museum of Modern Art has paintings by artists such as: Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Vasily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Maurice Utrillo, Giorgio de Chirico , Giorgio Morandi, Georges Rouault, Oskar Kokoschka, Bernard Buffet, Renato Guttuso, Giacomo Balla, Francis Bacon, Giacomo Manzà, Eduardo Chillida, Salvador Dali, Henry Mathis and Pablo Picasso.
The Sistine Chapel was built during the mandate of Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it was named. The chapel contains the most significant frescoes of Western civilization. The first frescoes on the side walls represent, on the one hand, the life of Moses, and on the other hand, the life of Jesus Christ. The famous Michelangelo was in charge of painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel (area of 800 m2), while he was later hired to make one of the most beautiful frescoes of today, “The Last Judgment”.
Through three hundred characters, the artist painted the second coming of Jesus Christ and the last judgment of God of all humankind. This revolutionary work of art, in which all other frescoes show figures dressed according to rank and social position, while Michelangelo painted his characters without clothes, naked.
As soon as the “Last Judgment” was done, the more conservative Popes demanded that the intimate, “shameful” parts of the body be covered with cloth. The painters who were engaged in this task were nicknamed “braghettone” by the people. Even during the restoration of the fresco in the twentieth century, not all the cloths were removed from the intimate parts of the body.
Saint Bartholomew represents a grotesque figure in the fresco “The Last Judgment”. He is skinned alive and, on this fresco in his left hand, he holds his peeled skin, while in his right hand he holds a knife, an object with which he was skinned. According to many theories, the distorted face on the skinless lifeless skin is actually Michelangelo’s self-portrait.
The Sistine Chapel is closed for visits during the conclave (elections for a new Pope). The chapel became the site of the conclave as soon as it was completed at the end of the fifteenth century. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the site of the election was moved to the Quirinale Palace, but after 1870, when Italian forces occupied Rome, the Sistine Chapel again became a permanent site of the conclave.
On the request of Pope Gregory XIII, in the 16th century, the construction of a gallery began, in which topographic maps of Italy painted by Ignazio Danti are exhibited today. He painted a total of 40 panels (120 meters long) in this gallery that are located on the west side of the Belvedere courtyard. The artist spent three years completing them all.
These rooms were painted by the famous Italian painter Raphael, after whom they were named. Pope Julius II stayed in them because he did not want to occupy the private chambers of his predecessor. The walls of the rooms were previously painted by Raphael’s teacher Perugino, but Raphael had to repaint them according to the Pope’s wishes.
Here is one of his most famous works, the fresco of the Athenian school, which depicts famous Greek thinkers and scientists gathering around Plato and Aristotle.
Pio Clementino Museum:
The museum is named Pio Clementino after two popes who oversaw its founding, Clement XIV Ganganelli (1769-1774) and Pius VI Braschi (1775-1799). It was originally used to collect ancient and Renaissance works. In the 18th century it was significantly expanded, thanks to donations from collectors and excavations from Rome and Lazio.
The museum fills several large exhibition halls that were obtained by adapting existing rooms with new constructions both in and near small Belvedere Palace of Innocent VIII (1484-92). Here are ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, on which the missing parts are often completely restored. By the Treaty of Tolentino (1797), the Vatican was forced to hand over the main masterpieces to Napoleon and they were transferred to Paris. Much later, after the defeats of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (1815), and thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Antonio Canova, most of the works were recovered.
The Room of the Immaculate Conception:
Pope Pius IX was officially proclime the dogma of the Imaculate Conception on December 8, 1854. It was decided to celebrate this event with a cycle of frescoes. A large room next to Raphael’s rooms was chosen, and the task was assigned to Francis Podesti (1800-1895), a painter originally from Ancona.
The picturesque decoration starts from the ceiling, and ends on the east wall, with the Coronation of the Image of Mary. That is the event after the Proclamation, which took place in St. Peter. Podesti included a self-portrait here.
Gregoriano Profano Museum:
This part of the museum contains original Greek sculptures and Roman copies of the best-preserved mosaics dating from the period between the first and third centuries of the new era.
It is the oldest part of the museum located in a long corridor between the small Belvedere Palace and the Vatican Palaces was opened in 1806. The museum is named after Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti (1800-1823). The arrangement of the museum was dictated by Canova, who aimed to show “three sister arts” together: sculpture, architecture and painting (on frescoes).
The Chiaramonti Museum, with over a thousand exhibited examples of ancient sculpture, is one of the most important collections of Roman portrait busts, and is rich in examples of idealistic sculpture, statues of divinities, altars and architectural ornaments, urns and sarcophagi.
The new wing of the Chiaramonti Museum is a building built in the 19th century between the galleries of the Chiaramonti Museum and the Vatican Apostolic Library. Raffaele Stern was hired to build this facility by order of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823). This building is considered one of the most important works of neoclassical architecture in Rome.
In order to idealize the space and achieve the goal of creating an original atmosphere in which the sculptures were placed, luxurious colored marble, original Roman mosaics, walls decorated with famous reliefs from antiquity by Francesco Massimiliano Laboureur were used. The building is a gallery 68 meters long, in the wall of which there are twenty-eight niches in which with statues larger than life size with depictions of emperors and Roman replicas of famous Greek statues. The busts shown on the baskets and semi-columns represent a gallery of famous names from antiquity.
A good copy of famous sculpture Augustus Prima Porta is permanently exposed in the New Wing (Braccio Nuovo).
Augustus Prima Porta is a marble sculpture of the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus. This sculpture was found in 1863 in the villa of Livy (the emperor’s wife). The sculpture is barefoot, which in the time of ancient Rome was associated with gods and heroes. This masterpiece is exhibited in the Vatican Museum from time to time.
Gregorian Egyptian Museum:
Founded by Pope Gregory XVI, it houses a large collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt, the exhibition includes papyrus, mummies, the famous Book of the Dead and the Grassi collection.
Gregorian Etruscan Museum:
This part of the Vatican Museum shows objects of the ancient Etruscans who lived in central and northern Italy and produced various useful things from baked clay. Founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836, this museum has eight galleries and contains important Etruscan archaeological finds, including bust and statue of human body made of bronze and gold.
Pius IX founded this museum in the Lateran Palace in 1854. It was originally intended to preserve evidence of the Christian communities of the first centuries. There are various works, some taken from the collection of the Museo Sacro (Benedict XIV, Vatican Apostolic Library, 1756), and others brought from churches and other locations in Rome. Some sculptural and epigraphic works discovered in Roman catacombs (1852) are also transferred here.
By order of Pope John XXIII, this museum, along with the Gregoriano Profano Museums and the Missionary Ethnological Museum, was moved from the Lateran Palace to a new building in the Vatican, completed by Paul VI. The exhibition was organized by Enrico Josi with the aim of preserving the previous look.
Room of the Chiaroscuri:
This room has been used for various purposes throughout history. Originally, there were cubicolarii here, which were responsible for carrying the Pope’s chair on their shoulders. In the 16th century, it was used for secret meetings of the pope with cardinals. It is also known as the “Parrot” room, because it was used to traditionally house this bird.
The room is in the medieval core of the Apostolic Palace. It kept the look from the 16th century, when a wooden coffered ceiling was made according to Rafael’s design. He also made a series of apostles and saints in 1517. for Pope Leo X Medici, which was severely damaged in the mid-16th century. The Zuccari brothers repainted it, but numerous traces of the original decoration remained with the figures of St. John the Evangelist, St. Lawrence and St. Matthew.
Chapel of Urban VIII:
The chapel was built in 1631, on the request of Pope Urban VIII Barberini. It is located in the southwest corner of the Borgia Tower. This small space became a private chapel of the “old apartment”, which corresponds to Raphael’s Rooms and which the pontiffs used in the 16th century as a papal residence.
The picturesque decoration was painted by the Florentine painter Alessandro Vaiani, most likely with the help of his daughter Anna Maria. The chapel was completed by Pietro da Cortona.
The walls are covered with antique leather of goats, lambs, sheep or calves, specially treated with plant elements, and then with silver or tin.
Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding:
The room was built by Flaminio Ponzio between 1605 and 1608, during the reign of Pope Paul V. Formerly known as Samson’s Room, because of the frescoes that preach the story of Samson on the ceiling painted by Guido Reni.
The floor dates from the mid-19th century, consists of fragments of mosaics from Roman times. Since 1838, the room has been used to display paintings from the Roman era.
Chapel of St. Peter Martyr:
It is located on the southwest corner of the Tower built in the Vatican Palaces between 1566. and 1570, the central of three built. Made by order of St Pius V.
The frescoes that decorate the chapel are the work of Georgio Vasari and Jacopo Zucchi. They are inspired by stories about the saint after whom the chapel is named.
The chapel houses the precious relics of Sancta Sanctorum, the ancient chapel of the Pope’s Palace in the Lateran.
Profane Museum is the first museum of profane antiquities in the Vatican. Created 1761, under the reign of Clement XIII. Sumptuary arts, the instrumentum domesticum (cameos, ivories, rock crystals and small bronzes) and, until the beginning of the 19th century, the papal numismatic collections are exhibited here.
The current appearance is inspired by the arrangement of objects from the beginning of the 19th century. The room contains the Carpegna, Vettori and Assemani collections that were present in the museum at the time of its founding, as well as various objects of unknown origin.
Objects from catacombs and artifacts are on display here. Over time, the collection expanded into works of art, and began to occupy more space along the south side of the Belvedere corridor. It currently consists of the Papyrus Hall, designed by Clement XIII, the so-called Room of the Tributes (“Sala degli Indirizzi”) and the hall of the Christian Museum.
This chapel is located in the heart of the Apostolic Palace, near Raphael’s Lodge. It was named after Pope Nicholas V, who ordered its construction.
The sumptuous decorations of the chapel are one of the famous works of fifteenth-century Italy and the culmination of the Christian humanism of the Florentine painter Fra (Beato) Angelico.
The ceiling, the ribs of the vault divided into four parts in the shape of a sail, is dominated by the depiction of the Four Evangelists. There are numerous associations with antiquity in architecture and poses. Nevertheless, the renaissance character can be seen in the moral strength of the frescoes, heroic and dignified as the protagonist of classical history.
The Borgia apartments, downstairs from Raphael’s rooms, were occupied by the infamous Spanish Pope Borgia Alexander VI. They were closed by Julius II, who refused to live in the rooms where his predecessor lived and covered his frescoes with black crepe.
The apartments were reopened in 1889. to serve as exhibition spaces for the Vatican’s collection of modern religious art. The Vatican also uncovered the walls and ceilings to reveal the rich frescoes, painted by Pinturicchio. He tended to incorporate fake gems and things like metal saddle wedges into his frescoes, instead of painting these details in order to get an intriguing effect – call it Renaissance 3D.
The frescoes have been restored over the last few years, and the cleaning revealed something incredible: the first European depiction of the natives. So, we can conclude that although Columbus’ discovery was a state secret at the time, Alexander VI could not resist a small boast through a fresco.
The Vatican Museums are entered from the Vatican Alley. The largest collection of priceless antiques and works of art in the world is housed in the Pio Clementino Museum and the Chiaramonti Museum.
In 2019, the Vatican Museums were visited by 6,882,931 people, making it the third most visited museum in the world, just after Louvre and Hermitage.
Only appropriately dressed visitors are allowed to enter the Vatican Museums.
Sleeveless clothes, shorts above the knee, miniskirts and hats are forbidden. This also applies to all visible personal items and signs that may offend Catholic morality, religion and customary decency.
Vatican Museums (Rome)
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