It may be the tiniest state in the world, but Vatican City has one of the largest and most spectacular museums you will ever see. Spread on over 43.000 m² and exhibiting more than 20.000 pieces of art collected by the Popes throughout the centuries, Vatican Museums – together with St. Peter’s Basilica – are a must-see during your time in Rome.
After Louvre, the Vatican Museums are the most visited museums in the world, so if you do not want to spend hours in the line outside the museums, I strongly recommend you purchase tickets online. The general admission ticket costs €16 and there is an additional charge of €4 for online reservation, but I would say that this fee is well worth, as you will be able to skip the extremely long queue. Just keep in mind that for the online purchase, you receive a voucher, which entitles you to skip the queue. Once inside the building, you will have to go to the counter and exchange your voucher for an entrance ticket. Only then, will you be able to enter the exhibition halls.
Having entered the museums doesn’t mean you have completely escaped the crowds. When we visited them, we purchased tickets for the earliest entrance and there were still thousands of people inside. Considering the crowds and the immensity of the museums, seeing the entire collection of art in a day is impossible, so you should make a little research and know beforehand what works of art you really want to see. Now I regret not doing that myself, as I missed some masterpieces (I only discovered later, when I looked at the pictures, that I didn’t pay enough attention to some of them). So here is a list with the most important rooms of the museums and the most famous and utterly impressive works of art, which you will find there:
The Pinacoteca is not on the main tour of the museums, so it is often overlooked by visitors. And this is a shame, as in these adjacent rooms you will find some of the greatest paintings of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Tiziano or Caravaggio.
Raphael’s last painting, the Transfiguration, which, according to Vasari, was his “most beautiful and divine” work is framed by two other creations of the same artist: Coronation of the Virgin and Madonna of Foligno. In any other museum, these would have been main acts, but here they are just set decoration for Raphael’s greatest masterpiece.
Other great works of art exhibited in Pinacoteca are: Caravaggio’s Deposition from the Cross, Leonardo Da Vinci’s unfinished St. Jerome, Wenzel Peter’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Bernini’s Models for St. Peter’s Chair.
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Those passionate about Egyptian antiquities can visit the Gregorian Egyptian Museum. In the rooms that once were part of Pope Pius IV Apartments you will find artefacts, sarcophagus, mummies and items that were part of the burial customs of Ancient Egypt. One of the most famous statues displayed is the Statue of the god Anubis, an important deity of the Egyptian pantheon, depicted as a man with the head of a jackal.
Pio Clementino Museum
Totaling 11 rooms, Pio Clementino contains a collection of classical ancient Greek and Roman statues, which come mainly from donations of collectors and antiquaries. The most important pieces of art displayed here are: Laocoön group – one of the most famous ancient sculptures, Belvedere Torso – a fragment of a male statue, which Michelangelo used as inspiration for several of the figures in the Sistine Chapel, the Porphyry Basin – a huge red stone basin, recovered from Nero’s Domus Aurea.
Chiaramonti Museum and the New Wing
The returned works of art, confiscated by Napoleon from the Papal States in the 18th century, are displayed in this newer area of the museums. The exhibition consists mostly of Roman statues and busts lined up on both sides of a long gallery. The best known sculpture displayed here is the 1st century AD Augustus of Prima Porta. The statue, discovered only in the 19th century, depicts the emperor in the act of addressing his troops.
Gallery of Maps
This 120-metre long hallway was my second favorite place from Vatican Museums. As we entered the gallery together with literally dozens of other people, we had to stop for a second, just to come in our senses again. The opulent and spectacular corridor is decorated with 40 geographical frescoes that depict Italy and Italian provinces and the ceiling has a stunning collection of paintings depicting religious scenes. What is even more impressive is the fact that these maps were created in the 16th century and are pretty accurate, considering that they couldn’t have used any aerial photos, but they had to rely solely on personal exploration, magnetic compass and telescope.
At the age of 25, Raphael was chosen by Pope Julius II to paint this Papal Apartments. From the 4 rooms that make the Raphael Rooms, two were entirely painted by him and for the other two he had the help of his students. His most famous fresco, which can be seen in the Signature Room, is School of Athens. In this painting, Raphael gathered famous philosophers of antiquity, whom he portrayed as his fellow artists: Leonardo da Vinci as Plato, Michelangelo as Heraclitus or Bramante as Euclid.
I think the Sistine Chapel doesn’t need much introduction, as the majority of tourists tour the museums just for this infamous place. The Chapel is mostly famous for the ceiling and Last Judgment fresco painted by Michelangelo. More than 25.000 people visit the chapel every day, so in order to preserve the invaluable frescos and paintings, you are not allowed to take pictures or spend too much time inside.
Although I read about this place and I saw photos with the frescos painted by Michelangelo, being there is a totally different thing. When I was inside the Chapel, looking up at the ceiling, I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. I could only stand in the middle of the room and marvel at those perfect paintings. And when I realized that I was inside one of the holiest places in the world, the place where the College of Cardinals gather to elect a new Pope, I could only feel extremely lucky and humbled for having the chance of being there. Visiting the Sistine Chapel truly is one in a lifetime experience and it was definitely my favorite place from the Vatican Museums.
Modern Bramante Staircase
A visit to the Vatican Museums couldn’t end in any other way, but by descending a staircase, that is yet another piece of art. Inspired by the 16th century original Bramante Staircase, the modern Bramante Staircase was designed in the 20th century and is a real architectural treasure. The staircase, built as a double helix, has two staircases, so that people that ascend won’t meet those who descend. The original Bramante Staircase is closed to the general public and can only be visited as part of some special VIP guided tours.
The Vatican Museums are so huge and there are so many breathtaking pieces of art there, that with my list of must-see masterpieces I barely scratched the surface. If you are not that into art, a tour of half-a-day will be suffice to see these best known works, but if you want to properly see everything the museums have to offer, you should plan at least a full day for your visit.