Vatican Museums, Rome
The Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) contain one of the world's greatest art collections. Housed in the richly decorated galleries and apartments of the Vatican Palace, the Vatican Museums boast the largest collection of classical sculpture in the world, plus extensive artworks from the Etruscan, Egyptian, Early Christian, Renaissance and modern periods and the magnificent Sistine Chapel.
The first papal residence was the Lateran Palace, founded in the 4th century. Reflecting this early statues, the adjacent church of St. John Lateran is still the pope's official cathedral today.
But a temporary papal residence was built near St. Peter's Basilica as early as the 5th century, and by the early 6th century the area had become a thriving suburb. In the 9th century, a residence was attached to the north side of St. Peter's for the accommodation of state ceremonies and foreign rulers such as Charlemagne.
The first papal palace built on the present site was constructed by Pope Eugenius III (1145-53) and fortified by Innocent III in 1208. It was embellished by Nicholas III in 1280 and further enhanced and expanded by successive popes until it became the grand complex that stands today. After the popes returned from Avignon in 1378, the Vatican Palace replaced the Lateran Palace as the primary papal residence; the move became official in the 15th century.
The Vatican Museums are rooted in the Renaissance, a period of renewed appreciation for classical civilization. It all started with Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who displayed a collection of ancient sculptures in the Cortile Ottagono. Later popes, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, added their own galleries and museums, gradually making the Vatican Museums into one of the largest and most important displays of art in the world.
The Renaissance popes also hired the best artists in the western world, such as Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and Raphael, to decorate their palace apartments and chapels. These are now open to the public as part of the Vatican Museums, providing a unique experience in which some of the greatest art in the museum is part of the museum itself.
To accommodate the millions of visitors who throng the galleries every year, a grand new entrance to the Vatican Museums was added in 2000.
What to See
The Vatican Museums are entered through a gate in the north wall of Vatican City and stretch a long distance south to St. Peter's Basilica. Every morning before the doors open, long lines form along the city wall. Once inside, escalators carry visitors up to the new entrance hall (2000), with efficient ticket desks. (The lines can be avoided by booking a guided tour or buying tickets in advance.)
The north end contains the Pio-Clementino Museum, Egyptian Museum, Etruscan Museum and Vatican Picture Gallery; the south end is home to the Raphael Rooms, Borgia Apartments and Sistine Chapel.
In between are long, narrow galleries designed by Bramante, with beautifully painted walls and ceilings. The gallery that leads to the Sistine Chapel is almost always crowded with visitors and tour groups, but the others can be quite empty and peaceful.
Following is a guide to some of the major sections and artistic highlights of the Vatican Museums. Please see our separate article for the Sistine Chapel.
The Appartamento Borgia were the chosen residence of Pope Alexander VI, who commissioned Pinturicchio to decorate them with frescoes between 1492 and 1495. A major feature of these rooms are grotesques, a new trend in Renaissance art inspired by the decorations found in Nero's Domus Aurea around this time. Christian, Jewish, Roman pagan, and Egyptian elements can be seen throughout.
The greatest artworks are found in Room V (Room of the Saints), all by Pinturicchio. The ceiling depicts the Legend of Isis and Osiris and the Bull Apis, referring to the Borgia arms. The end wall shows the Disputation between St. Catherine of Alexandria and Emperor Maximian; the artist depicted himself standing behind the throne on the left. Despite the Egyptian setting of the event, the Arch of Constantine can also be seen in the background. The window wall depicts the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, in which the Colosseum makes an appearance.
While Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was hard at work decorating the walls and ceilings of several rooms nearby. Bramante suggested Raphael to Pope Julius II, who was so pleased with his work that he commissioned him for this extensive project. Raphael painted in several phases between his arrival in Rome in 1508 and his death in 1520. Despite the name, not all the rooms in this area were painted by Raphael himself, but all are notable examples of Late Gothic and Early Renaissance art.
Visitors first enter Room IV, known as the Sala di Costantino or Room of Constantine. This was painted after Raphael's death by Giulio Romano and his assistants, under the reign of Clement VII (1523-34). The paintings depict major events in the life of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, such as his vision of the cross, the victory at Milvian Bridge, and his legendary baptism by Pope St. Sylvester (whose face is a portrait of Clement VII).
Connected to this room is the Chapel of Nicholas V, frescoed by Fra Angelico in 1448-50. The main subjects are the lives and martyrdoms of St. Stephen (above) and St. Lawrence (below).
Room III (Stanza d'Eliodoro; Room of Heliodorus) was painted by Raphael in 1512-14 on historical subjects chosen by Julius II and Leo X. On the right wall is The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple at Jerusalem, which alludes to Julius II's freeing of the Papal States from foreign powers. The long wall depicts Leo I Repulsing Attila, partly painted by assistants. The pope is shown on a white mule, making reference to the Battle of Ravenna in 1512 that expelled the French from Italy. The impressive Liberation of St. Peter (alluding to the captivity of Leo X after the Battle of Ravenna) is depicted in three night scenes with remarkable use of light.
Room II (Stanza della Segnatura; Room of the Signature) is the room where popes signed important bulls and letters. The frescoes in this room, painted entirely by Raphael between 1508 and 1511, are the most celebrated in the Raphael Rooms. One wall bears the famous School of Athens, depicting ancient Greek philosophers in a Renaissance portico (inspired by Bramante) and featuring portraits of several Renaissance artists. Plato, who points skyward to represent speculative philosophy, is probably a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, while Raphael himself stands to one side. Michelangelo can be seen sitting in front of the steps. Raphael's other paintings in Room II are the Triumph of Theology (a counterpart of the School of Athens); the Disputa (a discussion of the Eucharist); and Parnassus (Apollo playing the violin under laurel trees, surrounded by poets and Muses).
The walls in Room I (Stanza dell'Incendio; Room of the Fire) were painted in 1517 by Raphael's students after the master's designs. As in Room III, the scenes depict historical events that also allude to events in the life of Leo X. Across from the entrance is the Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III (in 800 AD), which refers to the meeting of Leo X and King Francis I at Bologna in 1516. The pope and king in the painting are portraits of the latter personages.
The room is named for the painting facing the window: Incendio di Borgo, depicting a fire in Rome in 847 that was miraculously extinguished by Leo IV making the sign of the cross. It probably alludes to Leo X restoring peace to Italy. Some think the figure of Aeneas rescuing his father (left of the fresco) and the surprised woman with a jug balanced on her head (to the right) were painted by Raphael himself.
The ceiling of this room was painted by Perugino, Raphael's master. Depicting the Glorification of the Holy Trinity, it was the only existing work not destroyed when Raphael took over the decoration.
From here a door leads into the Chapel of Urban VIII, whose ceiling was painted by Pietro da Cortona.
This wonderful museum of Greco-Roman sculpture occupies two floors of the Belvedere Pavilion at the northwest end of the Vatican Palace. Founded in the 18th century by Clement XIV and expanded by his successor Pius VI, the Pio-Clementine Museum displays the extensive collections of the Renaissance popes as well as 18th- and 19th-century acquisitions. This museum was a major source of inspiration for Renaissance artists and an important stop for fashionable 17th- to 19th-century travelers on the Grand Tour. The museum consists primarily of Greek and Roman originals, as well as some 1st- and 2nd-century Roman copies of Greek originals. In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV ordered that the nudity of all the male statues be covered by a marble fig leaf. The rooms (or "cabinets") and their major highlights are as follows:
Occupying the west gallery of the lower floor next to the Sistine Chapel, the Museum of Christian Art (Museo Sacro) was founded by Benedict XIV in 1756 in part of the Vatican Library. His inscription over the entrance states his intention to "increase the splendor of the City and bear witness to the truth of religion through sacred Christian monuments." Most of the objects in the museum come from the Roman catacombs, but also included are religious artworks from the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum, the popes' private chapel in the Lateran Palace.
The treasures of the Sancta Sanctorum are displayed in the Chapel of St. Pius V at the start of the museum. Notable works include an enamel cross given by Pope Paschal I (817-24) depicting scenes from Christ's life and containing five pieces of the True Cross; a 9th-century gold filigree Greek cross, also containing a fragment of the Cross, decorated with precious stones and still bearing some of the balsams with which the pope anointed it every year; the 9th-century reliquary of St. Praxedes from Santa Prassede;and the ivory Ramboyna Diptych (c.900) with a depiction of the she-wolf of Roman legend.
Notable artifacts in the other rooms include the only surviving fragment of the 8th-century mosaic in the Triclinium of Leo III at the Lateran Palace, depicting the head of St. Paul; Early Christian glassware made in Cologne and elsewhere; gold-decorated glass from the 3th to 5th centuries; Christian and pagan terracotta lamps; Byzantine amulets, weights and crosses; and various Gnostic and pagan objects made of ivory and glass.
The Pio Christian Museum displays a collection begun by Pius XI (1846-78) two years after he founded the Commission for Christian Archaeology to oversee excavations in the Roman catacombs. The collection, which consists primarily of objects found in the catacombs, was housed in the Lateran Palace until 1963. The museum contains some of the finest Early Christian sarcophagi, mosaics and architectural fragments in Europe. Most of the sarcophagi date from the 4th century, while other artifacts range in date from the 2nd to 5th centuries.
Also housed here is the Christian and Hebrew Lapidary, which contains an extensive collection of Early Christian and ancient Jewish inscriptions.
Founded by Gregory XVI in 1839 and located at the northern end of the lower floor, the Egyptian Museum displays artifacts brought from Egypt primarily by Roman emperors. Notable among the collection are the statues from the Serapeum at Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, which he built after his journey to Egypt in 130-31; a sandstone head of Mentuhotep II (2010-1998 BC), which is the oldest portrait in the Vatican Museums; and a colossal statue of Queen Tuaa, mother of Ramses II, brought to Rome by Caligula. Also here are Egyptian sarcophagi, mummies, statues, vases, jewelry, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Founded by Gregory XVI in 1837 and located at the north end of the upper floor, the Vatican's Etruscan Museum contains one of the largest collections of Etruscan art in the world. Highlights include the Regolini-Galassi tomb, found in the 19th century at Cerveteri; and the Mars of Todi, a bronze sculpture dated to the 5th century BC. The remainder of the museum contains Etruscan sarcophagi, bronzes, urns, jewelry, a chariot, and terra-cotta vases.
Located in a large building west of the main lower galleries at the north end, the Vatican Picture Gallery displays a magnificent collection of mostly Italian paintings and tapestries from the 11th to the 19th centuries. Room 1 contains a wood panel of the Last Judgment from the 11th century; Room 2 is home to the Stefaneschi Altarpiece created by Giotto and his assistants for Old St. Peter's.
Other highlights include paintings by Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli and Filippo Lippi in Room III; three of Raphael's most famous paintings (Coronation of the Virgin, 1503; Madonna of Foligno, 1511; Transfiguration, 1520) in Room III; a remarkable portrait of St. Jerome by Leonardo da Vinci (1480) in Room IX; Caravaggio's dramatic Descent from the Cross (1608) in Room XII; and Bernini's clay models in Room XVII.
Quick Facts on the Vatican Museums
|Names:||Musei Vaticani; Museo Vaticano; Vatican Museums|
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|Coordinates:||41.905491° N, 12.454602° E (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of the Vatican Museums
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Vatican Museums. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visit (July 19, 2006).
- Alta Macadam and Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Central Italy with Rome and Florence, 1st ed. (Somerset: Blue Guides Limited, 2008), 90-103.
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 23-33.
- Brief History - Vatican Museums official website
- Frescoes in the Borgia Appartments of the Palazzi Pontifici in Vatican by Pinturicchio - Web Gallery of Art
- Catalogo del Museo Sacro Vaticano, 1959. This four-volumne work describes the objects in the Museum of Christian Art in detail, which is useful for scholars and enthusiasts disappointed by the minimal labeling in the museum itself.
- Vatican Museums, Rome - Go Historic
- Photos of Vatican Museums - here on Sacred Destinations
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