Nothing else in Rome quite lives up to the awe-inspiring collections of the Vatican Museums, a 15-minute walk from St. Peter’s out of the north side of Piazza San Pietro. It’s a vast treasure store of art from antiquity and the Renaissance gathered by the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries, filling a series of ornate Papal palaces, apartments, and galleries leading to one of the world’s most beautiful interiors, the justly celebrated Sistine Chapel.
Note that the Vatican dress code also applies to its museums (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed), though it tends to be less rigorously enforced than at St. Peter’s.
Obviously, one trip will not be enough to see everything here. Below are previews of the main highlights, showstoppers, and masterpieces on display (in alphabetical order).
Appartamento Borgia (Borgia Apartments) ★—Created for Pope Alexander VI (the infamous Borgia pope) between 1492 and 1494, these rooms were frescoed with biblical and allegorical scenes by Umbrian painter Pinturicchio and his assistants. Look for what is thought to be the earliest European depiction of Native Americans, painted little more than a year after Columbus returned from the New World and Alexander had “divided” the globe between Spain and Portugal.
Collezione d’Arte Contemporanea (Collection of Modern Religious Art) ★—Spanning 55 rooms of almost 800 works, these galleries contain the Vatican’s concession to modern art. There are some big names here and the quality is high, and themes usually have a spiritual and religious component: Van Gogh’s “Pietà, after Delacroix” is here, along with Francis Bacon’s eerie “Study for a Pope II.” You will also see works by Paul Klee (“City with Gothic Cathedral”), Siqueiros (“Mutilated Christ No. 467”), Otto Dix (“Road to Calvary”), Gauguin (“Religious Panel”), Chagall (“Red Pietà”), and a whole room dedicated to Georges Rouault.
Musei di Antichità Classiche (Classical Antiquities Museums) ★★★—The Vatican maintains four classical antiquities museums, the most important being the Museo Pio Clementino ★★★, crammed with Greek and Roman sculptures in the small Belvedere Palace of Innocent VIII. At the heart of the complex lies the Octagonal Court, where highlights include the sculpture of the Trojan priest “Laocoön” ★★★ and his two sons locked in a struggle with sea serpents, dating from around 40 B.C., and the exceptional “Belvedere Apollo” ★★★ (a 2nd-c. Roman reproduction of an authentic Greek work from the 4th c. B.C.), the symbol of classic male beauty and a possible inspiration for Michelangelo’s “David.” Look out also for the impressive gilded bronze statue of “Hercules” in the Rotonda, from the late 2nd century A.D., and the Hall of the Chariot, containing a magnificent sculpture of a chariot combining Roman originals and 18th-century work by Antonio Franzoni.
The Museo Chiaramonti ★ occupies the long loggia that links the Belvedere Palace to the main Vatican palaces, jam-packed on both sides with more than 800 Greco-Roman works, including statues, reliefs, and sarcophagi. In the Braccio Nuovo ★ (“New Wing”), a handsome Neoclassical extension of the Chiaramonti sumptuously lined with colored marble, lies the colossal statue of the “Nile” ★, the ancient river portrayed as an old man with his 16 children, most likely a reproduction of a long-lost Alexandrian Greek original.
The Museo Gregoriano Profano ★★, built in 1970, houses more Greek sculptures looted by the Romans (some from the Parthenon), mostly funerary steles and votive reliefs, as well as some choice Roman pieces, notably the restored mosaics from the floors of the public libraries in the Baths of Caracalla.
Museo Etnologico (Ethnological Museum) ★★—Founded in 1926, this astounding assemblage of artifacts and artwork is from cultures around the world, from ancient Chinese coins and notes, to plaster sculptures of Native Americans and ceremonial art from Papua New Guinea.
Museo Gregoriano Egizio ★★—Nine rooms are packed with plunder from Ancient Egypt, including sarcophagi, mummies, pharaonic statuary, votive bronzes, jewelry, cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, inscriptions from Assyrian palaces, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco ★★—The core of this collection is a cache of rare Etruscan art treasures dug up in the 19th century, dating from between the 9th and the 1st centuries B.C. The Romans learned a lot from the Etruscans, as the highly crafted ceramics, bronzes, silver, and gold on display attest. Don’t miss the Regolini-Galassi tomb (7th c. B.C.), unearthed at Cerveteri. The museum is housed within the palazzettos of Innocent VIII (reigned 1484–92) and Pius IV (reigned 1559–65), the latter adorned with frescoes by Federico Barocci and Federico Zuccari.
Pinacoteca (Art Gallery) ★★★—The great painting collections of the Popes are displayed in the Pinacoteca, including work from all the big names in Italian art, from Giotto and Fra Angelico to Perugino, Raphael, Veronese, and Crespi. Early medieval work occupies Room 1, with the most intriguing piece a keyhole-shaped wood panel of the “Last Judgment” by Nicolò e Giovanni, dated to the late 12th century. Giotto takes center stage in Room 2, with the “Stefaneschi Triptych” (six panels) painted for the old St. Peter’s basilica between 1315 and 1320. Fra Angelico dominates Room 3, his “Stories of St. Nicholas of Bari” and “Virgin with Child” justly praised (check out the Virgin’s microscopic eyes in the latter piece). Carlo Crivelli features in Room 6, while decent works by Perugino and Pinturicchio grace Room 7, though most visitors press on to the Raphael salon ★★★ (Room 8), where you can view five paintings by the Renaissance master. The best are the “Coronation of the Virgin,” the “Madonna of Foligno,” and the vast “Transfiguration” (completed shortly before his death). Room 9 boasts Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome with the Lion” ★★, as well as Giovanni Bellini’s “Pietà.” Room 10 is dedicated to Renaissance Venice, with Titian’s “Madonna of St. Nicholas of the Frari” and Veronese’s “Vision of St. Helen” being paramount. Don’t skip the remaining galleries: Room 11 contains Barocci’s “Annunciation,” while Room 12 is really all about one of the masterpieces of the baroque, Caravaggio’s “Deposition from the Cross” ★★.
Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms) ★★★—In the early 16th century, Pope Julius II hired the young Raphael and his workshop to decorate his personal apartments, on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace. Completed between 1508 and 1524, the Raphael Rooms now represent one of the great artistic spectacles inside the Vatican.
The Stanza dell’Incendio served as the Pope’s high court room and later, under Leo X, a dining room. Most of its lavish frescoes have been attributed to Raphael’s pupils. Leo X commissioned much of the work here, which explains the themes (past Popes with the name Leo). Note the intricate ceiling, painted by Umbrian maestro Perugino, who was Raphael’s first teacher.
Raphael is the main focus in the Stanza della Segnatura, originally used as a Papal library and private office and home to the awe-inspiring “School of Athens” ★★★ fresco, depicting primarily Greek classical philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Many of the figures are thought to be based on portraits of Renaissance artists, including Bramante (on the right as Euclid, drawing on a chalkboard), Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato, the bearded man in the center), and even Raphael himself (in the lower-right corner with a black hat). On the wall opposite stands the equally magnificent “Disputa del Sacramento,” where Raphael used a similar technique; Dante Alighieri stands behind the pontiff on the right, and Fra Angelico poses as a monk (which in fact he was) on the far left.
The Stanza d’Eliodoro was used for the private audiences of the Pope and was painted by Raphael immediately after he did the Segnatura. His aim here was to flatter his papal patron, Julius II: The depiction of the pope driving Attila from Rome was meant to symbolize the contemporary mission of Julius II to drive the French out of Italy. Finally, the Sala di Costantino, used for Papal receptions and official ceremonies, was completed by Raphael’s students after the master’s death, but based on his designs and drawings. It’s a jaw-dropping space, commemorating four major episodes in the life of Emperor Constantine.
Sistine Chapel ★★★— This important chapel, where the Papal Conclave still meets to elect new popes, is the Vatican Museum’s artistic showstopper. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo labored for 4 years (1508–12) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it is said he spent the entire time on his feet, paint dripping into his eyes. But what a result! Thanks to a massive restoration effort in the 1990s, the world’s most famous fresco is today as vibrantly colorful and filled with roiling life as it was in 1512. The “Creation of Adam,” at the center of the ceiling, is one of the best known and most reproduced images in history, the outstretched hands of God and Adam—not quite touching—an iconic symbol of not just the Renaissance but the Enlightenment that followed. (It is somewhat ironic that this is Michelangelo’s best-known work: The artist always regarded himself as a sculptor first and foremost.)
The ceiling frescoes primarily depict nine scenes from the Book of Genesis (including the famed “Creation of Adam”), from the “Separation of Light and Darkness” at the altar end to the “Great Flood” and “Drunkenness of Noah.” Surrounding these main frescoes are paintings of 12 people who prophesied the coming of Christ, from Jonah and Isaiah to the Delphic Sibyl. Tip: Staring at the ceiling frescoes tends to take a heavy toll on the neck. To relieve your neck (and your tired feet), make your way to one of the benches that line both long sides of the gallery. As soon as someone gets up, grab a seat so you can gaze upward in relative comfort.
Once you have admired the ceiling, turn your attention to the altar wall. At the age of 60, Michelangelo was summoned to finish the chapel decor, 23 years after he finished the ceiling work. Apparently saddened by leaving Florence, and depressed by the morally bankrupt state of Rome at that time, he painted these dark moods into his “Last Judgment,” where he included his own self-portrait on a sagging human hide held by St. Bartholomew (who was martyred by being flayed alive).
The Sistine Chapel isn’t all Michelangelo, however. The southern wall is covered by a series of astonishing paintings completed in the 1480s: “Moses Leaving to Egypt” by Perugino, the “Trials of Moses” by Botticelli, “The Crossing of the Red Sea” by Cosimo Rosselli (or Domenico Ghirlandaio), “Descent from Mount Sinai” by Cosimo Rosselli (or Piero di Cosimo), Botticelli’s “Punishment of the Rebels,” and Signorelli’s “Testament and Death of Moses.” On the right-hand northern wall are Perugino’s “The Baptism of Christ,” Botticelli’s “The Temptations of Christ,” Ghirlandaio’s “Vocation of the Apostles,” Perugino’s “Delivery of the Keys,” Cosimo Rosselli’s “The Sermon on the Mount” and “Last Supper.” On the eastern wall, originals by Ghirlandaio and Signorelli were painted over by Hendrik van den Broeck’s “The Resurrection” and Matteo da Lecce’s “Disputation over Moses” in the 1570s.
Seeing the Vatican at Night . . . or for Breakfast
Vatican Museum visitors now have an extraordinary opportunity to stroll through the galleries after sunset, at least on Friday nights from 7pm to 11pm (last entrance at 9:30) during the high tourist season, from the last Friday in April through July and the first Friday in September through the end of October. These twilight visits allow access to important collections, including the Pio-Clementine Museum, the Egyptian Museum, the Upper Galleries (candelabra, tapestries, and maps), the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, the Collection of Modern Religious Art, and the Sistine Chapel. Tickets are 21€.
Early birds should consider booking a breakfast tour of the museums. Starting at 7:15am (before the official opening time), breakfast visits cost 68€, including a buffet breakfast and access to all galleries. It’s a far more tranquil visitor experience than daytime visits.
For either of these visits, book online at biglietteriamusei.vatican.va.
Strategies for Visiting the Vatican Museums
The sheer size of the collections and vast crowds mean that seeing one of the greatest museums of art in the world isn’t a leisurely, or even pleasant, experience. Visitors tend to get herded through room after room of galleries as they make their way to the Sistine Chapel, and lack of descriptive labels means they often don’t know what they’re looking at. Here are some tips to make sense of it all:
- Book “skip the line” tickets in advance through the Vatican Museums website. Once you see the entrance line stretching around the walls of Vatican City, the 4€ booking feel will feel like money well-spent.
- Buy the Guide to the Vatican Museums and City book (14€) sold at the Vatican Tourist Office, on the left side of Piazza San Pietro (also, for a higher price, on Amazon.com).
- Once you’re in the museum, take a few minutes to review the galleries map and decide which collections or works of art are a priority for you.
- If your priority is to see the Sistine Chapel, follow signs for the “Percorso Breve” (short route) to the Cappella Sistina.
To shake the daily herd of visitors and have a deeper experience, consider a breakfast or after-hours visit, or spring for a private tour of the collections. These are a great way to get the most out of a visit, especially if you have limited time. They’re also the only way to visit the Vatican Gardens. Booking online is mandatory; visit the ticketing website for information.