The Vatican Museums stand as one of the most complex sight to visit while in Rome. They also share, together with the Capitoline Museums, the reputation of the oldest museum venues in Italy, which is indicative of the wealth of masterpieces gathered in time and showcased here to the delight of all visitors who come here in millions each year. The Vatican Museums have come to be, after a 5-century long history of existence, one of the richest museums in the world, being deemed a genuine treasure-trove of fine art works.

The history of the Vatican Museums goes back to the early 16th century, when Pope Julius II made the decision of displaying the famed statue of Laocoon with his sons in the Vatican City, following the precious expertise of Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo in respect to the authenticity of the statue. But that was just the beginning of a long series of similar undertakings which finally led to the formation of one of the most reputed and visited museums in the world. The initiative of Pope Julius II was further continued by Pope Clement XIV, Pope Pius VI and Pope Gregory XVI, as well as by other popes who succeeded in the course of history.

The Sistine Chapel might be the most famed section, so to speak, of the Vatican Museums, but it is only one highlight one can admire while taking the tour of the venue. The Borgia Apartment, the Chiaramonti Museum, the Egyptian Gregorian Museum, the Ethnological Museum, the Collection of Modern Religious Art, the Picture Gallery, the Historical Museum, the Pio Clementino Museum and the Raphael Rooms, all these are just as fascinating to admire and to study in thorough detail.

The Borgia Apartment (Appartamento Borgia), for instance, is covered with frescoes by Pinturicchio of Umbria and his pupils, commissioned by the infamous Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) do adorn his rooms as majestically as possible. The splendor of the ceiling and wall paintings is unparalleled. All of the five rooms (it took Pinturicchio three years to finish his work, between 1492 and 1495) of the apartment are covered with scenes focusing on scenes inspired from the history of Christianity combined with topics specific of the ancient and Renaissance cultural spirit. The current Picture Gallery of the museum (Pinacoteca Vaticana) was first sheltered in the Borgia Apartment, but a better venue was built for the showcased masterpieces, by order of Pope Pius XI, in the first half of the 20th century.

Speaking of the Picture Gallery (Pinacoteca Vaticana), its collections include paintings (and tapestries, for that matter) as old as the 11th century, all the way to the 19th century. It was only in the first half of the 20th century, under Pope Pius XI, that the gallery was moved from the Borgia Apartment to its current building (designed, on the commission of the papacy, by Luca Beltrami). There are plenty of highlights to admire here, but the works of Raphael (Madonna of Foligno, Transfiguration, the Oddi Altarpiece), Perugino (the Resurrection of San Francesco al Prato, Madonna and Child with Saints), Leonardo da Vinci (Saint Jerome in the Wilderness), Giotto (the Stefaneschi Triptych), Caravaggio (Entombment) and Filippo Lippi (Marsuppini Coronation) stand out in sharp relief. Also worthy of attention are Fra Angelico’s Virgin with Child (a miniature painting) and Bernardo Daddi’s Madonna del Magnificat.

The Pio Clementino Museum (Museo Pio Clementino), founded by Pope Clement XIV in 1771, includes a wide ancient sculpture collection divided in several rooms. It is located in one of the buildings which surround Bramante’s magnificent Cortile del Belvedere. The sarcophagi of Helen and Constance, mother and daughter of Emperor Constantine, are displayed in the Greek Cross Gallery (Sala a Croce Greca), a gilded bronze rendering Hercules can be spotted in Sala Rotonda (an attraction in itself due to its Pantheon-like layout and to its mosaics), a Sleeping Ariadne (next to numerous other ancient statues) is on display in the Gallery of Statues (Galleria delle Statue), whereas the Muses’ Room (Sala delle Muse) is populated by a statuary of the muses joined by Apollo, and Sala degli Animali (Animals’ Room) exhibits sculptural representations of beasts, them too of ancient origin. Visits to the Cabinet of Masks (Gabinetto delle Maschere) and to the Gallery of Busts (Galleria dei Busti) are just as rewarding. The famed Laocoon is also part of this museum’s collection, even if displayed in the Belvedere courtyard.

By entering the Egyptian Gregorian Museum (Museo Egiziano), visitors step into the world of fascinating cultural horizon. Founded by Pope Gregory XVI in the first half of the 19th century, the museum showcases a range of miscellaneous exhibits, comprising highlights like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, mummies (animal mummies included), ancient papyruses, vases, jewels, statues of gods and goddesses, as well as sarcophagi.

The Etruscan Gregorian Museum invites visitors to discover yet another cultural horizon. Founded even before the National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia, that is, in 1837, under Pope Gregory IV, the Gregorian Etruscan Museum provides a comprehensive insight into the soul of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Bronze statues, terra-cotta vases, urns, jewels, tombs and sarcophagi, all these, while constituting one of the most complete collections of Etruscan vestiges in the world, hint on the magnificence of the Etruscans’ way of life.

The Chiaramonti Museum (Museo Chiaramonti) was founded by Pope Pius VII at the beginning of the 19th century, bearing the laic name of its founder. One of the most important sections of this museum, which, unfortunately, is not open to regular visiting tours, refers to Galleria Lapidaria. This gallery consists of a collection of more than 3,000 engraved stone tablets originated in both the pagan and the Christian cultures (unsurprisingly, it is the largest lapidarium in the world). The Corridor opens a landscape replete with sarcophagi, statues, relieves, amounting to more than 800 museum pieces, whereas the New Wing (Braccio Nuovo, the newest section of the museum) draws the attention by two monumental pieces of ancient art: Augustus Prima Porta and the Nile River (the latter is a reproduction of the Hellenic masterpiece).

The Collection of Modern Religious Art is just as much worth visiting. This is one of the newest branches opened within the Vatican Museums. Founded in 1973, the collection, spread in more than 50 rooms, displays works by national and international artists, chosen on the criteria of the religious coordinate of their masterpieces. A particular focus in on the American artists, more 12 rooms being filled with their works (Leonard Baskin is one of them, represented here by a robust statue of Isaac). De Chirico and Manzu are two of the Italian artists with works showcased at the Vatican, next to masterpieces by the likes of Sutherland, Dali, Rodin, Kadinsky, Matisse, Le Corbusier, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall and plenty others.

Another highlight of the Vatican Museums refers to the Raphael Rooms. These are, in fact, the rooms of the apartment of Pope Julius II who commissioned the great Renaissance artist to decorate the residence in the early 16th century. It took Raphael and his pupils 16 years to complete the work (between 1508 and 1524), but the result is generally deemed one of the greatest achievements of the Renaissance art. The School of Athens (in which the artist depicts the great philosophers of the Greek antiquity, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Euclid, but, in fact, he realizes the portraits of his contemporary fellow painters, sculptors and architects, namely, Bramante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and, of course, Raphael himself) is located in the so-called Stanza della Segnatura, and it stands out as one of the finest works done for the Vatican. In Stanza d’Elidoro and in Sala di Constantino there are plenty other scenes and portraits by Raphael and his apprentices. The Raphael Saloon is yet another repository of works by the giants of the Italian art: a Deposition by Caravaggio, Saint Jerome with the Lion by Leonardo da Vinci, the Virgin of Frari by Titian, a Pieta by Giovanni Bellini, and, of course, Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin.

The Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina, deriving from the name of Pope Sixtus IV) remains, however, the queen of all exhibits inside the Vatican Museums. It is located in the Apostolic Palace, which is the residence of the pope, and it is one of the heights of the Renaissance art (architecture and painting) ever registered on the continent. It took Michelangelo 4 years (between 1508 and 1512) to complete the task he was assigned to achieve by Pope Julius II, and, in fact, it was even one of the most challenging (the effort of painting the 9 ceiling panels affected, in the course of the 4-year project, his ability to see). Michelangelo’s contribution comes down to the scenes inspired from the book of Genesis and to the Last Judgment scene which, in the spirit of the Renaissance guidelines, reunites the divinity and the human physicality in a manner unparalleled by other artistic trends. Other frescoes which cover the chapel (the walls, in particular) refer to the scenes realized by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Roselli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. From an artistic point of view, they are just as valuable as Michelangelo’s monumental ceiling panels, but, from a tourist point of view, they are overshadowed by the work of the great Florentine.

But visitors should not leave Musei Vaticani without entering the Historical Museum (Museo Storico Vaticano). This one reproduces the history of the Vatican as state entity by means of exhibits of military nature: uniforms, armors, arms, and even carriages (on display on the Carriage and Automobile section of the Historical Museum). It is located in the Lateran Palace, which used to shelter the collections of the former Lateran Museum (Museo Lateranense, also known as Museo Greogoriano Profano and Museo Profano Lateranense), which ceased to exist in 1970. The Ethnographical Museum is just as interesting to explore, since it provides an overall picture of sundry cultural spaces of the world and of their evolution in the course of history, covering a period of some 3 millenniums. The Gallery of Maps and plenty other sights can easily complement a visit to the Vatican Museums, in case one can make time to actually study or even browse through all the attractions of the museums.

Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani)
Viale Vaticano, Vatican
Opening hours:
Monday to Saturday: 9am to 6pm (closed on Sundays, except the last Sunday of each month)