About 500 years ago the religious fervor of the Vatican was matched only by its love of art and all things beautiful. It was the golden age of Italy’s artistic output, the Italian Renaissance, and the highest representatives of this artistic genius received commissions from the Vatican. Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Masaccio, Perugino, Botticelli and Signorelli all left their permanent marks on those walls and ceilings. With such a repertoire of artists how could the Vatican go wrong and what better place to leave their unmistakable marks then in classical Rome?
Amidst controversy and fascination surrounding the wealth and magnitude of the Vatican it was the renovation (and funding) of Saint Peter’s Basilica that sent Martin Luther running off to the Castle Church, Wittenberg in 1517 to post his well-articulated 95 theses against the practices of the Church. It was during this time that the Vatican saw its vast collection grow from its infancy at the expense of the Roman-Catholic Church.
Throughout the centuries varies popes gradually built what would become one of the largest collections in the world containing paintings, sculptures, archeological artifacts and other antiquities. In 1503 Pope Julius II put together the first collection of sculptures. This collection grew rapidly thanks to acquisitions and donations the popes received from innumerable visitors. Among the main contributors are Julius II (1503-13), Clement XIV (1769-74), Pius VI (1775-99), Pius VII (1800-1823), Gregory XVI (1831-46) and Pius IX (1846-78). Each pope added or enriched a section, a collection or a room and made the Vatican Museums what they are today.
Vatican Museum Sections
The Pinacoteca has 18 rooms with over 460 paintings alone and sculptures dating from the 12th to the 19th centuries. From Russian art, to the sacral art of Giotto and Perugino. Then there is Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome, apparently found in several pieces by Napoleon Bonaparte’s uncle in a second-hand shop in Rome where it was being used as table cover. Luckily someone noticed it and bought it as a gift for Pope Pius IX. Lovers of Bernini’s work throughout the city of Rome can view his graceful 17th century white marble angel statues. The art collection also includes Caravaggio’s Deposition from the Cross and Titian’s Madonna. During the Napoleonic era many of these works were seized by imperial order only to be returned to the State of the Church in 1817 after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte.
This museum was first inaugurated in 1927 in the Lateran building until 1973 when, under the papacy of Paul VI, it was moved to its present location. The museum initially had 40,000 pieces, today the collection of archeological objects and relics from Asia, Oceania, the Americas totals over 100,000 objects.
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 its monuments and other artifacts come from Rome and from Villa Adriana. This section contains hieroglyphics dating back to 2600 B.C., Mesopotamian plates, bronzes and other objects from Syria-Palestine. The collection also contains 1st century artifacts from Egypt and Rome and objects from the Pharaohs that go back 4000 years.
Gregorian Etruscan MuseumThere are 22 rooms holding objects which had been dug up in 1827 in the archeological sites of the ancient cities of Etruria, which had been part of the Pontifical State. Terracotta and ceramic vases, gold objects and jewelry, bronzes, glass and ivory artifacts narrate the history and evolution of the civilizations from Rome’s neighboring Etruria. Another section of the museum, Antiquarium Romanum, holds ancient bronzes, glass and terracotta vases from Rome and Latium.
The Vatican Buildings include the Pius-Clementine Museum, Saint Pius V Apartment, Room of the Immaculate Conception, Sala delle Dame (room of the ladies) the upper galleries which include the Biga Room, Galleries of the Candelabra, tapestries and maps, The Raphael Rooms which include the chapels of Nicholas V and Urban VIII, The Sistine Chapel includes the Borgia Apartment, room of the Aldobrandini Wedding, the lower galleries including Urban III, Alexandrine, Clementine, and the Sistine rooms.
The Vatican offers (two-hour) guided tours of its museums, gardens, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica for individuals and groups. Those wishing to enrich their religious faith through culture can take the Art and Faith Itinerary tour which lasts three hours. All tours are conducted by expert Vatican staff and, if you’re lucky, they can take place during papal mass and other events or ceremonies. Ticket prices range from 31-36 euros to 25-30 euros for groups. Booking a tour guide for private groups will cost you 250 euros (for the guide) plus 19 euros per person or 12 euros for the reduced ticket with a maximum number of 15 people. Children from 6 to 18 years of age and students up to 26 years are entitled to the reduced price tickets.
If you want to go all out or are looking for something truly special you can contact the Vatican museums and arrange private visits that take place after public visiting hours. Ad hoc group tours and school visits can also be booked online, like the others.
Information for Vatican Visitors
Inside the Sistine Chapel the following are not permitted: taking photos with flashes, video recording, using cell/mobile phones. Please keep in mind that this is a rigorous rule and all such equipment will be confiscated by Vatican staff as they are authorized to do so. The dress code follows a rule of common sense and it is always best to show more cloth than skin. Anyone wishing to bring sketching materials must ask permission to reproduce anything inside the Vatican Museums. Resist the temptation to touch paintings, it’s out of the question, as is the use of camera flashes, but photos can be taken where there is adequate light. For security reasons all suitcases, and other large handbags, large backpacks, umbrellas, tripods, sharp or objects that are potentially harmful must be left with the Vatican wardrobe staff. Food and drinks must also be left here. Everything will be returned at the end of the tour. There is a tight surveillance system – at the Vatican someone from above is always watching. It is prohibited to enter the Vatican Museums with fire arms, even for individuals who are part of the armed forces. Baby and children’s strollers are permitted inside.