At the end of your visit to the Vatican Museum, you are led to the bookstore (don’t all museums have a bookshop at the end?) and from there you need to get down to street level. My favorite method is to walk down the double helix staircase that spirals in two directions with one way for people heading down and the other for people heading up (although I didn’t see anyone coming up this way).
The staircase was built in 1932 and is pretty amazing. It is richly carved on the outside of the steps facing the center of the space. Helical staircases do not have a central pole like a spiral staircase and typically have handrails on both sides of the steps. In the case of the Vatican Museum, the staircase is rather wide and not steep at all and the steps are not very tall, making for a smooth descent. The steps are wider apart at the top and become shorter and more frequent the closer to the bottom that you get. A double helix staircase is created by two separate staircases that are built within each other and share the same space – you can’t get from one to the other but have a clear view of the other staircase.
It is difficult to get a photo without people on it, but the photos with people are actually good to show how the downward spiral (which has people on it) versus the upward spiral without any people.
If you are unable to use the staircase, have a look at it before taking the elevators down. It is rather unique!
After marveling at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, look towards the altar of the room and notice the very large fresco on the wall. This painting was done by the same artist that did the ceiling – the 61 year old master Michelangelo. Times have changed since he did the ceiling at the age of 33: Rome has been sacked and the Counter Reformation has altered religious life. Michelangelo was a devout Catholic and it appears the events of the Church took a toll on his view of life. Perhaps he was also older, wiser, and a bit apprehensive of what happens after death now that he’s closer to that end of his life. The Last Judgment is darker and creepier compared to the light, bright ceiling overhead.
The painting was commissioned by Pope Clement VII and represents a common scene in religious artwork: the final judgment of the dead with the good going to Paradise and the bad going elsewhere. Typically, the good are on the right hand of Christ and the bad are on His left. This fresco follows this standard. Untypical to other works, when Michelangelo painted this work, he created most of the figures nude, including the Supreme Judge, Christ. Obviously this caused quite a stir in the Church, so what you see today is the modified version of Michelangelo’s work: after the artist’s death Pope Pious IV had draperies painted over the offensive parts of the painting.
The story is told by biographer Vasari that the pope’s master of ceremonies berated Michelangelo so heavily about the nudity that the artist memorialized the man in this painting – Biagio da Cesena can be found above the door on the far right side of the altar (the lower right corner of the fresco) – he’s the guy representing Minos (judge of the underworld) with the donkey ears and a serpent covering up his genitals with his mouth.
Michelangelo also created a self portrait in this fresco, albeit it is a rather eerie one. Look to the lower right of Christ (from your viewpoint) and you will see St. Bartholomew sitting on a cloud looking back at Christ. In his hand is the flayed skin (St. Bartholomew was skinned when martyred) and a knife. The skin in his hand is Michelangelo. Perhaps this is a powerful key to what Michelangelo was thinking at this point in his life – note he placed himself on the left side of Christ.
This is a somber work – no one, not even those on their way to Paradise – are smiling. Christ appears as a muscular and frightening Judge and even Mary, on Christ’s right side, is looking timid.
The Last Judgment is a powerful painting and worth some time to admire while in the Sistine Chapel (and you don’t get that crick in your neck like you do when admiring the ceiling!).
Photo from Wikipedia and used within rules of Wiki Commons.
This is the primary destination for most people visiting the Vatican Museum and it will be crowded – just prepare yourself now for that fact since even on slow days, the chapel is full of people. First of all, the chapel is not that big and it is THE place everyone seems to want to be. So prepare to be squished and lose that sense of personal space for the duration of your visit (make sure your valuables are safely tucked away from anyone who may want to get them). The crowds begin long before the chapel itself as people are all funneled into the Gallery of Maps to await their time in the chapel.
Once in the chapel, take some time to just be amazed. If you are lucky and can find a seat along the wall, grab the opportunity (it helps to be able to put your head on the wall as you look up). Take some time to just soak in the ceiling and the craftsmanship. Consider how Michelangelo painted the ceiling – there is some controversy on whether he stood and painted or laid down on the scaffolding as he painted. Either way – it was a tough job for a guy that would rather be chipping at marble than dabbling in paints!
The paintings reflect the beginning of the world from the book of Genesis – separation of light and dark, creation of land, moon, sun; God giving life to Adam, the flood and Noah’s later drunkenness. Along the sides of the ceiling are paintings of the prophets and sibyls with scenes from the Old Testament in the corners.
After you have looked at the ceiling, look towards the altar at the magnificent Last Judgment, also painted by Michelangelo many years after the ceiling. It reflects a difference in attitude for the artist, painted after the sack of Rome and the start of the Protestant Reformation when the Catholic Church was facing attacks. This is a solemn piece – no one is happy in it, including those that go to heaven. The creatures that pull the people into hell are creepy. And Michelangelo put a self portrait into this piece – he is the flayed skin being held by St. Bartholomew in the center right of the painting.
After you have admired all of Michelangelo’s work, be sure to take some time to look at the rest of the paintings that go around the walls. These were done by Perugino and others before the ceiling was done. These depict scenes from the life of Moses and the life of Christ.
Before you go to the Sistine Chapel, I highly recommend you read up on the ceiling so you can appreciate what you are seeing. A good book about the creation of the ceiling is Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. It is an easy read that will give you some ideas about the history, politics, and personalities during the time Michelangelo was painting in the Sistine Chapel.
Additionally, come armed with a good guide book, such as The Blue Guide – Rome that can describe the artwork you are seeing.
Finally, while I’m not always a fan of Rick Steves, he has a great audio series that can be downloaded from iTunes for free (yes, free!). There is a 30-minute audio tour of the Sistine Chapel that can provide you with enough history and interesting facts during your time in the chapel. Download before you leave for Rome (along with some of his other audio tours) and save yourself the money from the museums; be sure to print his accompanying maps for his audio guide as well, also on iTunes. I enjoyed all his audio tours while in Rome and the Sistine Chapel tour was one of my favorites.
Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II (at the suggestion of Bramante and to the frustration of Michelangelo) to paint the Pope’s rooms in the Vatican. Raphael was very young at the time, around 27 years old.
Each of the paintings in the Raphael Rooms represents a branch of knowledge; the School of Athens represents Philosophy, specifically Greek philosophy. Within the painting are many of the great Greek philosophers. It is thought that Raphael had a specific identify for each figure in the painting, although there are no notes by the artist left to tell us who all of the people are.
I have placed numbers on one of my photos that correspond to the list below which explains the possible identities of these people in the painting. Some were painted as a philosopher but in the likeness of a contemporary of Raphael, typically another artist. And Raphael painted himself in the painting as well.
1- PLATO (Leonardo da Vinci)
3- HERACLITUS (Michelangelo)
7- ALEXANDER THE GREAT
9- PLOTINUS (Donatello)
10- EUCLID or ARCHMEDES (Bramante)
12- PROTOGENES (Perugino)
13- PERSONIFICATION OF LOVE (Francesco Maria della Rovere)
R- APELLES (self portrait of Raphael – the one in the black cap looking at the viewer)
The architecture in the painting is thought to be a preview of Bramante’s plan for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Since Bramante was a friend of Raphael and actually assisted him with the architecture portion of this fresco, it is quite possible that this is true, especially since it does look like the current St. Peter’s.
I think the School of Athens was my favorite piece out of all I saw while in Rome. I had studied it before and was anxious to see it. And it did not disappoint me. I was rather surprised to find it in a room smaller than I thought, with a window shining light on it (I would think the light would damage the painting), and no barriers to keep people from touching it (although it is high enough up that if they did touch it, only the base would be reached).
We were at the Vatican on a day when it wasn’t very crowded, yet the room was rather full of people. I found a spot on the opposite side of the room in a corner from which I could just appreciate the artwork. Because the room is small, you need to be on the other side of the room to really see the entire piece.
The Raphael Rooms are located on the way to the Sistine Chapel and you need to turn off to get to them. Follow the signs and don’t miss them. There are four rooms in the Raphael Room section; the School of Athens is in Room II.
As you make your way through the Vatican Museum and head towards the Sistine Chapel, be sure to take the side track to the Raphael Rooms (located just before you get to the chapel and after the Gallery of Maps). These four rooms were designed and painted by Raphael for Pope Julius II (the same pope that was having Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel at the same time). Some of the rooms were designed by Raphael and carried out by his assistants, but inside are some pretty famous frescoes by the artist himself and well worth a visit.
Most famous would be the School of Athens, located in Room II. In this fresco, Raphael has depicted many great scholars through the ages but used the likenesses of many current individuals – his theme is the triumph of Philosophy. Raphael does quite a bit with the perspective as well – look at how the wall seems to go straight back, adding depth to the room by his use of architecture in the painting. In the center of the painting are two men - Plato and Aristotle. Plato (the white bearded man on the left) is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Others in the painting are Socrates (the bald guy to the left of Plato), Epicurus (with a leafy crown), Ptolemy (on the right side of the painting wearing a crown and holding the earth), Archimedes or Euclid (unclear which, but painted to look like the architect Bramante – the man who introduced Raphael to Pope Julius) bends over and creates geometric shapes on a board, and Diogenes is the lone figure in blue on the steps. The grumpy looking guy in the center is Heraclitus, which is considered to be a portrait of Michelangelo that Raphael painted as a tribute to the artist after he snuck into the Sistine Chapel and saw the ceiling work in progress. And finally, Raphael includes a self portrait – on the far right – the man with the red tunic and black cap that is looking out at the viewer.
In Room III, the fresco Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple at Jerusalem gives us a portrait of the patron of these works – Pope Julius II – who is pictured on the far left in the red outfit and being carried on a litter. This piece depicts an ancient scene but refers to Julius’ success in wars to free the Papal States. On the window wall there is a wonderful scene demonstrating the angel freeing Peter from jail. The mastery of the artist comes out in this piece!
In Rooms I and IV, the frescoes were designed by Raphael, but mostly painted by his assistants and pupils. In Room I there is a nice fresco of the Coronation of Charlemagne while Room IV had a massive fresco of Constantine’s victory near the Milvian bridge, again sketched by Raphael but actually painted by others. Raphael died young and was never able to complete the project. (If you plan to go to the Pantheon on your trip, be sure to find Raphael’s tomb located on the left side after you enter the building).
Someone had asked me after my trip to Rome what the highlight of my trip was. My answer was seeing the Raphael rooms, and especially the School of Athens.
The Laocoön group is a marble sculpture of a father and his two sons. The father is a priest from Troy during the time of the Trojan War who warns the Trojans not to accept the wooden horse from the Greeks. He and his family were punished by poisonous sea snakes, the scene depicted in the sculpture. Here you can see the agony in the father’s face as he is attacked by the snakes and realizes that not only will he die, but his sons also will die and his family line will end. The agony is expressed in the father’s contorted face and muscular body, while the sons don’t appear to be in as much pain as the snakes wrap around them.
This sculpture is Greek and thought to be created around 50 BC by Rhodes sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus; Pliny wrote about this sculpture and it was thought to not exist until it was found in a farmer’s field on Esquiline Hill in 1506. Pope Julius II purchased the sculpture and placed it in the Vatican where it has been viewed by artists since then, influencing such masters as Michelangelo.
An interesting note is that when the sculpture was found in 1506, the father’s arm was missing; however, 400 years later, in 1905, the original arm was found in a Roman antique shop and reattached in 1958. The piece, originally thought by Pliny to be one piece of marble, is actually comprised of three sections.
The Laocoön sculpture can be found in the Belvedere courtyard in one of the corner niches. When I visited, it was rather crowded with school groups, but I was patient until I could get up in front of the work. The area around the sculpture is limited so if the museum is very busy, you may have to wait quite a bit before getting too close. There is a good sign in front of the sculpture with the story of the piece in English (rare for the Vatican Museum to have such good signage).
There is so much to see in the Vatican Museum, you will get overwhelmed unless you pace yourself. I had a list of must-see pieces of art that we looked for and then enjoyed the rest of the museum casually along the way.
I highly suggest you bring along some sort of guide book that will tell you what you are looking at since the labeling is not the best. My guide book of choice for the art and architecture in Rome is The Blue Guide – Rome, by Alta Macadam. This book will easily take you from room to room in the entire museum and tell you what you need to know about the art.
First stop after entering the museum was to get to the Pinacoteca, which is the Vatican’s Picture Gallery. Here are works by Leonardo, Raphael, Bellini, Fra Angelico, Caravaggio, and many more. The rooms in the Pinacoteca are numbered (look above the doorways for the Roman numerals).
From there, let your interests guide you. Do your research in advance so you know what you want to see or you will wind up wandering and wasting precious time. There are lots of tour groups that seem to command the prime spots in front of the works, so you need to allow time to make your way to the front if you want to see some of these things up close.
Seeing the Laocoön sculpture was important to me, so we made our way around to that ancient piece that was found in the 15th century in a farmer’s field. It is located outside in a courtyard.
The closer you get to the Sistine Chapel, the more crowded it becomes. Apparently, some people skip the museum and head straight to the chapel. Wow – I can’t imagine since the museum is full of treasures.
Be sure to take time in the Raphael rooms (painted at the same time Michelangelo was painting the chapel ceiling).
The hallway with all the maps on the walls is an interesting walk through. At this point, however, the hallways are filling up with people waiting for the chapel. And the bookshop is taking advantage of people going slowly through this area with tables and displays set up for you to purchase items.
You really need several visits to this museum to see it all – there are more than 4 miles of galleries! Plan ahead and come prepared to get the most out of your visit. Create a list of the must-see pieces you want to view lest you be disappointed after you leave. Be sure to find those works of art but don’t ignore the rest along the way. Look up at the ceilings and down at the floors. The entire building is a work of art!
And before you leave, be sure to take advantage of the bathrooms!
My top tip to enjoying the Vatican is to order your tickets in advance online to avoid waiting in the lines.
We went during a time when Rome wasn't crawling with tourists and tour groups, but it was still full of people and the horror stories of hours waiting in line just doesn’t make sense – you have limited time here and don’t want to waste it in lines. So go online to the official Vatican site – listed below - (not the expensive other sites that charge you high fees) and purchase your tickets online, print up the ticket they email you, and walk past all those who didn’t plan ahead. You still have to go through security, but then you collect your tickets at the windows inside after showing them your online voucher.
You will need to select a day and time for your entrance. Pick a day when you have plenty of time and go for an early start time. The museum and Sistine Chapel get rather crowded.
We selected a Tuesday because Wednesdays are typically more crowded due to the audiences with the Pope. Not a fan of crowds, we felt this would be a better option to ensure maximum enjoyment of our time in the museum.
Oh – and don’t be suckered into one of the “tours” that people are trying to sell you between St. Peter’s Square and the museum. We must’ve been asked at least 5-10 times each time we walked that way if we wanted to join a tour. Just ignore them (or firmly say no) and keep going.
The Vatican Museums have one of the world's largest collection of sculpture, art, paintings, artifacts, etc. There are 4 miles of this stuff, including the the Sistine Chapel, to feast your eyes upon - IF you can get in and IF you can handle the crowds. The good news since our 2007 visit is that you may now pre-book tickets on the Vatican website that allow you to skip that queue and hop right into the security-check line. I strongly recommend doing that as, without a pre-purchased ticket in your miserable little hand, you might otherwise stand in the rain or the heat for hours during high season.
Your other option is to book a tour, which we did on our 2007 visit. Ours was through an independent company, lasted about two hours, and hit some of the highlights but only covered a fraction of the collection. Tours, as part of a group or individually, are now available through the Vatican website and you may choose from a variety of themes and prices. I would recommend at least one of these for the first-time visitor as navigating your way through the vast collection and bewildering one-way routes can be an exercise in frustration. At the very least rent an audio or buy a printed guide so you know what you’re looking at as pieces are not well labeled. Do not sign up for any tours offered by individuals hanging around outside the museums, OK?
The other good reason for a tour is that most of them end up at the Sistine Chapel - which usually allows for direct, backstairs access into St. Peter’s basilica. The chapel is at the very farthest end of the museums - about a 30-minute walk from the entrance - so it’s a long haul back if sightseeing on your own. That stairway is for tour groups ONLY and while some guidebooks will tell you that it’s possible to sneak out this door by pretending to be with a group, I'm reading that many of the guards have become cranky about that so don’t count any chickens there. You’ll also have to return to the entrance to return audio guides or collect any items you had to check.
A note about the Sistine: I’d seen it before restoration in 1973 and was looking forward to seeing it all cleaned up in 2007. We were dismayed to find people herded in shoulder-to-shoulder with guards and loudspeakers barking reminders that talking, filming and taking photos are forbidden. Too many people did all of that anyway - which just made the warnings louder and more frequent. All-in-all, not a quality experience. FYI: the photo ban is because a Japanese company that paid for a good share of the restoration holds the copyright to Sistine imagery.
No, there are no tickets JUST for the Sistine.
Pack along a small hand mirror to make exploring the ceiling less of a pain in the neck.
The museums really need to initiate some crowd control as it’s ridiculously mobbed in high and shoulder seasons. To make the experience bearable, don’t go on Mondays (when the Italian state museums are closed), the once-a-month ‘free’ days, or during any major holiday weekends - especially Easter. Book tickets or tours for early or later in the day, or just show up at those times to see what the queue looks like. This is not a good activity for small children; they’ll be crabby and miserable in the crush. Another option? Skip it altogether in favor of Galleria Borghese: a terrific collection in a fascinating villa with excellent crowd control.
I'm enclosing the Vatican website with hours, fees, ticket and tour-booking procedures, rules and regs and other info - which may occasionally change so check back often. St. Peter's dress rules (no bare knees or shoulders) apply to the museums as well, and you cannot enter the museums from the basilica: the entrance is on Via Vaticano, a 10-15 minute walk from the church depending on your speed.
“We are prepared to go to the gates of Hell, but no further.”
— Pius VII (1741-1823, ruled 1800-1823, his condition while attempting to reach an agreement with Napoleon)
Pius VII decided in 1806 to build the Braccio Nuovo, following the return of many works of art under the 1797 Treaty of Tolentino. Napoleon was responsible for shipping off to Paris the art work. Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Inspector General of the Antiquities in the Holy See, advocated for the construction of a gallery to showcase the Vatican’s Classical sculpture collection.
The new wing, a masterpiece of Neo-Classical design, was designed by the Roman architect Raffaele Stern. The new wing was unveiled in 1822.
The ancient floor mosaics (see photos #4 & #5) date from the second century A.D.; and were found during excavations near Tor Marancia, a suburb of Rome.
Amongst the 150 sculptures that can be seen in the Braccio Nuovo is Augustus of Prima Porta (see photo #1), discovered in 1863 at the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, near Rome.
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