Vatican museums

Best Vatican museums

On the west bank of the Tiber, directly across from Rome’s historic centre, the Vatican City has been an independent sovereign state (and the world’s smallest country) since 1929. Looking for holidays near the Vatican? East of the Vatican, the well-heeled Prati district has some of the city’s best restaurants and is at walking distance from the Vatican. And its Vatican Museums is one of the largest, most compelling, and perhaps most exhausting museum complexes in the world.

  1. Start at the Pinacoteca
  2. Visit the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco
  3. Take in the Museo Pio-Clementino
  4. Marvel at The Sistine Chapel
  5. Wander around Museo Chiaramonti
  6. Gaze at the Raphael Rooms

Rather like Rome, the Vatican Palace complex wasn’t built in a day. It’s a patchwork of palace buildings constructed over many decades, interwoven with purpose-built museum spaces, dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

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Rough Guides

1. Start at the Pinacoteca

Of all the museums in the Vatican, make the Pinacoteca your first. This is Rome’s best picture gallery, with works from the early primitives up to the 19th century. Once you’ve taken in the Gothic period and Umbrian School collection, mooch along to Room VIII which is dedicated to Raphael; three vast paintings hang here (Coronation of the Virgin, Transfiguration and Madonna of the Foligno). A few rooms later Caravaggio gets more attention, as well as Poussin’s gruesome Martyrdom of St Erasmus.

Where: After you’ve entered the entrance hall, just turn right at the top of the stairs.

Look out for: There are great views over the nearby Vatican Gardens, with the dome of St Peter’s in the background.

2. Visit the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco

The grand Simonetti Staircase leads up to this museum, which holds sculpture, funerary art and applied art from the sites of southern Etruria. The second room houses finds from the 7th-century BC Regolini-Galassi tomb, which contained the remains of three richly-decorated Etruscan nobles (two men and a women). Beyond here are Etruscan bronze items (weapons, candelabra, barbecue sets), sarcophagi and stone statuary. Heading up some stairs from this room, you come to a series of large rooms which house a magnificent terracotta statue of Adonis lying on a lacy couch; but don’t miss the Greek krater, which depicts a scene from the Trojan War.

Where: Upper floor, northern end

Look out for: The rooms provide stunning views of the Monte Mario hill.

3. Take in the Museo Pio-Clementino

The Museo Pio-Clementino is home to some of the Vatican’s best classical statuary, and - if we’re being totally honest - is the only must-see apart from the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms. The Animal Room and Gallery of Masks displays animal sculptures, although the ancient floor and wall mosaics (from Emperor Hadrian’s villa) are more impressive. The frescoed Hall of the Muses has at its centrepiece the so-called Belvedere Torso, which is generally thought to be a near-perfect example of male anatomy. A short corridor leads to the Sala Rotonda, displaying classical statuary, busts of the emperor Hadrian and a white marble statue of Claudius, the Roman emperor who successfully invaded Britain.

Where: Lower floor, northern end.

Look out for: Brush up on your ancient Roman knowledge, as there’s a whole lotta emperors and their wives (and lovers) on display here.

4. Marvel at The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, a huge, barn-like structure, serves as the pope’s official private chapel. The ceiling paintings here, and The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, make up arguably the greatest masterpiece in Western art and the largest body of painting ever planned and executed by one man - Michelangelo. It’s essentially one of the best museums in the Vatican. His ceiling frescoes depict scenes from the Old Testament, while the wall paintings were completed by several prominent Renaissance painters such as Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandalo. But it’s not just the ceiling frescoes to gaze at, but their central and side panels, too. As you crane your neck skywards to take in the details, keep an eye out for the figure of the prophet Jerimiah - a brooding self-portrait of an exhausted-looking Michelangelo. We don’t blame him.

Where: lower floor, southern end.

Look out for: Intricate details - take a pair of binoculars with you. Oh, and you’re officially forbidden to speak

5. Wander around Museo Chiaramonti

The three-hundred-metre-long Chiaramonti gallery is especially unnerving, lined with the chill marble busts of hundreds of nameless, blank-eyed ancient Romans, and the odd deity. Take a leisurely wander as there are some real characters here: thin-lipped matrons, sulking kids and wrinkly old men - some things never change. A great deal of these are ancestral portraits, and in some cases family resemblance can be picked out.

Where: Lower floor, southwestern end.

Look out for: The head of Athena, glass eyes intact.

6. Gaze at the Raphael Rooms

Looking for the big-hitters of the Vatican Museums? Don’t miss the Raphael Rooms, the Vatican’s greatest work of art (apart from the Sistine Chapel). Pope Jullius II commissioned Raphael to redecorate them; the two rooms that were completed by him, as well as others by his pupils, are among the highlights of the Renaissance. Start at the Stanza di Costantino, completed by Raphael’s pupils, Giulio Romano, Francesco Penni and Raffaello del Colle between 1525 and 1531. It depicts scenes from the life of the emperor Constantine, who made Christinaity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Move onto the Stanza di Eliodoro for the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple fresco, the neat-composition of the Mass of Bolsena and the allegory of Leo I Repulsing Attila the Hun. Stanza della Segnatura is the best known room - and with good reason. The School of Athens, on the near wall as you come in, steals the show, in which all the great minds of antiquity are discussing the triumph of scientific truth. The final room, the Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo, was the last to be decorated; the most striking fresco in here is the Fire in the Borgo, which faces the main window.

Where: Upper floor, southern end.

Look out for: In the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, the fleeing horsemen look as if they’re almost jumping out of the painting and into the room.

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