Did you know that the Vatican Museums are the eighth-most visited museum in the world and the sixth most visited in Europe? Or that they’re the fifth largest museum in the world and the third-largest in Europe, with 43,000 m2 of exhibition space?
A visit to the Vatican Museums is highly recommended if you’re in Rome, so take this guide with you. You’ll have all the essential information about opening hours, prices and accesses, as well as the best tips and suggestions. You can also find the must-see works of art, including a brief description of them and their location!
So, do you want to know more about the Vatican Museums: Best Tips For Visiting In 2023? Keep reading!
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- Brief History of the Vatican Museums
- What to See at the Vatican Museums
- “Laocoön” (Octagonal Court, Pio Clementino Museum)
- “Vatican Naophoros” (Gregorian Egyptian Museum)
- Gallery of Maps
- “School of Athens”, by Raffaello Sanzio (Room of the Signature, Raphael’s Rooms)
- “Pietà”, by Vincent Van Gogh (Collection of Contemporary Art)
- Sistine Chapel Ceiling, by Michelangelo Buonarotti
- Practical Guide to the Vatican Museums
- More Posts about the Vatican City
- More Posts about Museum Guides
- More Posts about World Heritage
- What Photography Gear Do I Use?
Brief History of the Vatican Museums
The Musei Vaticani was first founded as a collection of works of classical archeology. In 1506, Pope Julius II decided to exhibit pieces such as “Gruppo del Laocoonte” and “Apollo del Belvedere” at the Cortile delle Statue. This pope also commissioned Michelangelo to renovate the Cappella Sistina two years later.
Moreover, Pope Julius II called Raffaello to decorate the future Stanze and Loggia di Raffaello. The painter worked on the Sala dei Chiaroscuri as well, at the request of Pope Leo X. Then, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche with Pope Gregory XIII arose. Opened in 1581, it contains forty maps of Italy created by Egnazio Danti.
With the Enlightenment, the Museo Pio Clementino was born, one of the most important in the complex. It was founded by popes Clement XIV and Pius VI, the latter responsible for the first collection of paintings of the papacy. Then, Pope Pius VII established the Museo Chiaramonti and the Braccio Nuovo, in addition to expanding the Galleria Lapidaria.
Under the papacy of Gregory XVI, three more museums were opened. In other words, the Etruscan, Egizio, and Profano Gregorian Museums opened in 1837, 1839, and 1844, respectively. Meanwhile, the Galleria degli Arazzi came to light, with Flemish tapestries. Soon after, Pope Pius IX inaugurated the Museo Pio Cristiano.
In 1927, Pope Pius XI created the Museo Missionario Etnologico, representative of extra-European cultures. This pope similarly founded the Pinacoteca Vaticana in 1932, one of the most visited buildings in the Vatican. And Pope Paulo VI added in 1973 the current Collezione Arte Contemporanea, with pieces from the last two centuries.
In the following years, Pope John Paul II coordinated the renovation of museums to commemorate the Great Jubilee of 2000. Furthermore, Vatican City was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Finally, the works continued with popes Benedict XVI and Francis.
Did you know that the Vatican Museums (in Vatican City) were part of Vatican City‘s second set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 8th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Buenos Aires (Argentina), between October 29th and November 2nd, 1984.
Nowadays, Vatican City is the fortieth country in Europe and the one-hundred-seventh country in the world with the most UNESCO sites, tied with other twenty-five countries. It has two cultural heritage assets inscribed on the world list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization!
What to See at the Vatican Museums
Unlike most, the Vatican Museums are several buildings with works of art and historical artifacts on display. And these buildings include not only museums but also galleries, pavilions, apartments, wings, rooms, and chapels, among others.
So when you’re looking for the must-see works of art in the Vatican Museums, guide yourself through the following collections:
- Antiquities from Egypt and the Near East: Museo Gregoriano Egizio;
- Art of the 12th-18th Centuries: Appartamento Borgia, Cappella di San Pietro Martire, Cappella Sistina, Gallerie delle Carte Geografiche, Pinacoteca, Stanze di Raffaello;
- Art of the 19th-21st Centuries: Collezione Arte Contemporanea, Sala dell’Immacolata, Sala Sobieski;
- Civilizations Throughout the World: Museo Etnologico Anima Mundi;
- Christian Antiquities: Museo Pio Cristiano;
- Decorative Arts (7th-20th Centuries): Appartamento di San Pio V, Museo Cristiano, Sala degli Indirizzi, Sala dei Papiri;
- Etruscan Italic Antiquities and Vase Collection: Museo Gregoriano Etrusco;
- Greek and Roman Antiquities: Braccio Nuovo, Gallerie dei Candelabri, Museo Chiaramonti, Museo Gregoriano Profano, Museo Pio Clementino, Sala della Biga, Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine;
- Philately and Numismatics: Museo Filatelico e Numismatico;
- Pontifical Carriages and Saloon Limousines: Padiglione delle Carrozze;
- Tapestries: Appartamento di San Pio V, Galleria degli Arazzi, Pinacoteca.
“Laocoön” (Octagonal Court, Pio Clementino Museum)
This work of art was found in the year 1506, buried on Esquiline Hill in Rome. It’s thought that it was created somewhere between 40 and 30 BC, by sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. The statue is also known by the names Laocoön Group or Laocoön and His Sons.
According to mythology, Laocoön tried to keep his Trojan countrymen from accepting the wooden horse offered by Greece. As a consequence, the Greek gods Athena and Poseidon sent sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his two sons.
However, the death of these innocents had another meaning to the Romans. Not only was it one of the reasons that led the Trojan hero Aeneas to flee, but it also led to the future foundation of Rome.
Due to its importance, Pope Julius II had it exhibited at the Cortile delle Statue, as the centerpiece of his collection. In the meantime, this courtyard was renamed Cortile Ottagono and is currently one of the most important areas in the Museo Pio Clementino.
“Vatican Naophoros” (Gregorian Egyptian Museum)
Udjahorresne (or Udjahorresnet) lived between the end of the 26th Egyptian Dynasty and the beginning of the 27th. As far as is known, he was an influential figure from the ancient city of Sais, working as a priest, admiral, and doctor.
This statue depicts Udjahorresne carrying a naos (sanctuary of ancient temples) representative of the Egyptian god Osiris. Constructed in green basalt, it was already known as Vatican Naophoros in the 17th century. The multiple inscriptions describe how the Achaemenid Kings respected Egyptian traditions, at a time when the Persians controlled Egypt.
The work of art was acquired without its head in 1738, but it’s not known exactly where it came from. It was probably in the Villa Adriana, the palace complex of Emperor Hadrian in Tivoli, near Rome.
And did you know that they added a “head” in 1783, in one of its first restorations? This addition ended up being reversed a few years later and, today, the sculpture is known exactly like this.
Gallery of Maps
First of all, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche was commissioned in the late 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII. His goal was, above all, to create a large gallery inside the Vatican Museums dedicated to Italian geography.
To this end, the pope turned to the famous cosmographer, geographer, and mathematician Egnazio Danti, who led this ambitious project. He was joined by numerous painters, such as Girolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia.
In the Gallery of Maps, the walls are filled with forty monumental maps! The frescoes depict not only the regions of mainland Italy but also the island territories. Some of these islands are Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Tremiti, Elbe, Corfu, and Malta.
Each of the “carte geografiche” highlights relevant events and characters from the region, as well as mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes. The walls at the exit also represent the four main ports of that time: Civitavecchia, Genoa, Venice, and Ancona. Finally, the opposite side reproduces the Siege of Malta (1565) and the Battle of Lepanto (1571). These two confrontations were fought against the Ottoman Empire and, therefore, were crucial to the history of European Christianity.
“School of Athens”, by Raffaello Sanzio (Room of the Signature, Raphael’s Rooms)
The Stanza della Segnatura houses those that are certainly the most famous frescoes by Raffaello Sanzio. This room was named after the highest court of the Holy See, that is, the Segnatura Gratiae et Iustitiae. The meetings were not only chaired by the pope but also used to take place in this room in the middle of the 16th century. Previously, Julius II used the Signature Room only as a library and private office.
The frescoes were painted between 1508 and 1511 and marked the culmination of the High Renaissance. Furthermore, the Stanza della Segnatura was the first of many works carried out by Raphael in the Vatican. On the walls and ceiling, four distinct branches of knowledge are depicted: Poetry, Philosophy, Justice, and Theology.
The “Scuola di Atene” represents the Academy of Athens (or Plato’s Academy) and was painted between 1509 and 1510. This fresco reveals, above all, how the philosophy of Ancient Greece was seen at the end of the Renaissance. In the center, Plato and Aristotle stand out from the rest, while the other characters are more difficult to identify.
Other intellectuals who probably integrate the fresco are Pythagoras, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Euclid, Zoroaster, and Ptolemy. Interestingly, it’s thought that the figure of Heraclitus – sitting next to a marble block – is a portrait of Michelangelo. The artist was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time!
“Pietà”, by Vincent Van Gogh (Collection of Contemporary Art)
Vincent van Gogh‘s “Pietà” is, undoubtedly, one of the most important contemporary works in the Vatican Museums. The artist painted it in 1890, just a few months before his tragic death.
Although not linked to religious painting, Van Gogh had the faith of his own. This work of art was inspired by Eugène Delacroix‘s “Pietà” (1850), which is located at Nasjonalgalleriet, in Oslo. From a lithograph of the original, the painter decided to create a mirror image and include Delacroix in the signature.
“Pietà” was offered to his sister Willelmina, although his brother Theo had already received the first version of this theme in the previous year. This painting, with more vivid colors and larger dimensions, is on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Even though it’s mere speculation, many people believe that the figure of Jesus is, in reality, a self-portrait of the artist! Well, I’m not sure if it is or not… what do you think?
Sistine Chapel Ceiling, by Michelangelo Buonarotti
The Cappella Sistina – formerly known as Cappella Magna – was rebuilt by Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it inherited the name. The works took place between 1477-1480 and included artists such as Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli.
However, at the beginning of the 16th century, the Sistine Chapel was suffering from severe structural damage. With the excavations and construction of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, a long crack in the ceiling made the building unusable. It was then that, in 1508, Pope Julius II hired Michelangelo Buonarotti to redecorate the Sistine Chapel.
The painter created nine episodes of Genesis in the central part of the ceiling, which are divided into three groups. The first portrays the origin of the Universe, the three follow the origin of Man, and the last is the origin of Evil. Of this section of frescoes, the most important ones are “The Creation of Adam” and “The Creation of Eve”.
It’s important to mention that the artist also painted twelve figures of Prophets and Sibyls, as a structural basis for these Central Stories. On the sides, the Prophets and Sibyls alternate with each other, while Jonah is above the altar and Zacarias occupies the other end.
Eight spandrels separate these Prophets from the Sibyls, reproducing groups of characters quite difficult to identify. It’s thought that they are ancestors of Jesus Christ, just as it happens on the fourteen lunettes that decorate the rest of the space.
Finally, there’s a pendentive in each corner, where Michelangelo Buonarotti reproduced episodes of Israel’s salvation. After the first renovation was completed in 1512, the artist returned to the Sistine Chapel between 1535 and 1541, to paint the “Last Judgment” (a monumental fresco, which occupies the entire altar wall)!
Practical Guide to the Vatican Museums
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Vatican Museums are among the largest and most visited in the world. So, it’s important to create an appropriate plan, which optimizes your visit time. This strategy involves buying the ticket in advance, visiting the museums early, and paying close attention to the collections.
I believe that these three recommendations will help you, above all, to make the most of the magnificent Vatican Museums. Therefore, take the whole day (or morning) to visit Vatican City and I promise you’ll love the experience!
1. Buy the Ticket in Advance
Currently, tickets to the Vatican Museums are divided into two prices: €17 (full fare) and €8 (reduced fare). Among those entitled to the reduced rate, are children between 6 and 18 years old (included) and students up to 25 years old.
This ticket includes a free visit to the museums and the Sistine Chapel, although there are options for guided tours. For example, there’s an alternative with a tour guide and headphones included, for €30 (full rate) or €21 (reduced rate).
Nevertheless, keep in mind that this type of visit, besides having limited time, doesn’t include the complete route. But even more important is to get your ticket through the online ticket office of the Vatican Museums. Don’t try to buy your ticket on-site, as queues can reach more than three hours of waiting time!
2. Arrive Really Early!
First of all, the Vatican Museums are open from Monday to Saturday, from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. When I visited them for the first time, I made sure to be there at 8 am and I’m glad I didn’t arrive later! The queues are long – even if you already have a ticket – due to strict security controls.
Another reason why you should arrive early is the fact that the museums are extensive. I didn’t know how long it would take me to visit all the collections and I ended up spending almost six hours inside the complex… Yes, you read that well!
In conclusion, if you want to save time between your accommodation and the Vatican, travel the subway line A. The Ottaviano – San Pietro station is just minutes away from the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
3. The Museums Map is Your Best Friend
Now that you have realized the monumental size of the Vatican Museums, it’s easy to value the importance of the map. First of all, this little booklet is completely free and is available at the entrance. Along with including all itineraries open to the public, the map indicates the most important services and information.
In my opinion, this map is very detailed and gives you advice that isn’t always common knowledge. Just to illustrate, few know that it’s not allowed to take photographs inside the Sistine Chapel and that the dress code in this space must be respectful.
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More Posts about the Vatican City
More Posts about Museum Guides
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What Photography Gear Do I Use?
- Camera Body: Fujifilm X-T4 Mirrorless (Silver)
- Camera Lens: Fujinon XF 18-55 mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS
- Tripod: Manfrotto Compact Action
- Small Tripod: Manfrotto PIXI Mini
- Smartphone Adaptor: Manfrotto PIXI Clamp
- Memory Card: SanDisk 128GB Extreme PRO SDXC
This blog post uses stock photographs (Getty Images)