I know there are many tips written about the Vatican. I hope my tip will add some value and you will find some helpful information.
There is a line to get into the Vatican whether you go on your own or opt to be included in a group tour. The line is EXTREMELY long but can move fast at times. Reservations is highly recommended. Depending on the tour you choose and your guide you may not have to wait in this line/queue. We were fortunate not to have to wait in line. We paid quite a bit for the individual tour (info below) which was well worth it!
Below is the link for the official website of the Vatican where you can buy tickets and obtain other information about your visit. Ticket prices range from €15.00 to €269.00 per person depending on if you purchase just an entrance fee or opt for an exclusive guide for a tour. There are also group tours you could join and you could selectively have a tour of just the museum, the gardens, St. Peter's Basilica and Sistine Chapel, as well.
We have opted for an individual guided tour. If we had purchased this option through the official website, the cost for two people would have been €546.00 or US$786.00 (in 2011). Whew! That is a lot of money! Instead, we booked our guided tour from this website (recommended to us by friends), visit my tip under favorites.The cost of our 4+ hour individual guided tour cost us €320.00 or US$449.50 (in 2011). This was a huge savings and definitely something to consider if you opt for a guided visit.
Our tour quide, Sandra, spoke English fairly well. She met us in the front of the Vatican entrance - no waiting in line. She was quite knowledgeable and took us to see all the main points of interest at the Vatican. Towards the end of our tour, I asked if we could enter the crypta and she noticed a huge line/queue to enter it. She asked a guard if there was another entrance we could take and they said yes. We went through an obscure staircase down and no line! Vatican City is huge and there is sooo much to see. Just amazing! If you visit Rome, Italy and have not been to the Vatican, this is a MUST DO! One drawback is the number of tourists that are there. They don't seem to regulate how many people are in any particular area of the Vatican so it can be cumbersome.
DRESS CODE is strictly enforced. Shoes are required. Men are to wear long pants and shirts with sleeves. Women must have their knees and shoulders covered. Long skirts or dresses are okay as long as it covers the knees. NO SHORTS. Paper pants are available for purchase along with T-shirts and scarves in the souvenir shops outside of St. Peter's. The dress code used to pertain to St. Peter's Basilica only but now applies to St. Peter's Square (the dress code in Thailand to visit a temple was much stricter).
Remember, Vatican City is a sovereign country regulated by it's own laws outside of Italy.
It was suggested to me to exchange money at the Vatican because I would get a good rate with little to no fees but I couldn't find where this was done. It turned out, just withdrawing money from the correct ATM (Bank of America partners with) was the best exchange (no fees).
Vatican City has their own post office. Many people like to send their postcards from there because you will use a Vatican City stamp and postmarked from there. I didn't have the time to do this because our first day in Italy was the tour of the Vatican.
You can see more photos on my travelogue.
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!).
NOTE: The photo of The Last Judgment was taken from Wiki Commons and is in the common domain; there is no copyright attached to this photo. I did not take the photo.
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 (not only the ceiling but the artwork all around the walls as well).
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.
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.
NOTE: The picture of the Last Judgment was taken from Wiki Commons. It is within the common domain and has no copyright attached to the photo. I did not take this photo.
Nothing quite prepares you for the magnificence of the Sistine Chapel. You may have heard a lot about it, read copious amount of literature on it, taken a virtual tour of this relatively small room measuring only 132 ft. (40.23 m) length, 44 ft (13.40 m) breath and 68 ft (20.70 m) height from the official website of the Vatican Museum. But when you do finally set foot on the chapel, you’ll still gasp at the wondrous achievement of Michelangelo.
The small side entrance from which you come in, does not quite prepare you for the paintings from the ‘Book of Genesis’ on the ceiling or the equally opulent paintings on the walls. When you do collect your breath and turn around, you simply gaze in awe at the huge Final Day Judgement painting above the altar and, perhaps, feel a sense of dread. Yes, the Sistine Chapel is a working religious place that requires the sanctity associated with a place of worship.
The Sistine Chapel derives its name from Pope Sixtus IV and his dream project of building a structure in the place where the 'Cappella Magna' once stood during the Middle Ages. He intended it as a court room for the Pope. The place would also double up as refuge from the powerful Medicini family of Florence as well as from the onslaught of the Turks.
Construction on the project began in 1475 and ended in 1483. It was formally inaugurated by the Pope and dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. It is from this room that the College of Cardinals elects the new Pope, the earthly successor of St. Peter. The architect was Baccio Pontelli, who, some suggest, used the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Roman in 70 AD, as his model.
The room is divided into the cordoned-off altar area, the main area and a smaller area with two steps separating the latter two areas. You have to be careful not to trip on these steps as you keep gazing at the paintings. There are seating arrangements along the walls, except in the altar portion. The intricate mosaic floor, intact today, dates back to the 1400's. Arched windows provide the only light into this Chapel.
While photography is usually banned, on this particular evening it was allowed and so ask before you shoot.
First Written: Sept. 22, 2012
In the opposite south wall (right of the altar), the first fresco is the 'Trail of Moses' (1481-82) by Sandro Botticelli. Moses is the figure in the golden-yellow robes. He is shown killing an Egyptian with a raised sword and then fleeing in the bottom right of the painting. In the centre, he gives water to the sheep, on the top left corner, God gives Moses the task to free the Jews from the clutches of the Pharaohs, while on the left, Moses is shown leading the Jews to the Promised Land.
Next is 'The Crossing of the Red Sea' (1481-82) by Domenico Ghirlandaio where the dominant element is the closing of the Red Sea over the pursuing Pharaoh’s army after the Moses and the Israelites have crossed. In the right background is Moses pleading with the Pharaoh to let his people go. A faint rainbow from the centre of the painting represents the promise of liberation of the Jews. On the left is Moses with the saved people.
'Descent from Mount Sinai' (1481-82) by Cosimo Rosselli shows Moses kneeling and receiving the Tables of the Law, Moses bring these Tables to the Israelites, the golden calf which the Israelites prayed to during the long absence of Moses, Moses breaking the tablets in anger, Moses receiving the new Tables of the Law. In the right foreground are two winsome ladies, a temptation the painter could not resist.
The next fresco is the 'Punishment of the Rebels' (1480-82) by Sandro Botticelli. The painting depicts God's punishment to Korah and his accomplices for rebelling against Moses. Also, it shows God's displeasure towards Korah, Dathan, and Abiram by afflicting them with plague for objecting to the destruction of Korah.
The 'Testament & Death of Moses' (1482) by Luca Signorelli and Gatta shows Moses receiving the authority to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, then descends from Mount Nebo to perform his duty. In the middle right is Moses reading from a Holy Book and speaking to the multitude. In the left foreground, we see Joshua with the baton, the successor of Moses, kneeling ready to take on the onerous duty. Behind and further up to the left is a shroud which covers the dead Moses.
First Written: Sept. 22, 2012
It was left to Pope Julius II to invite Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) to create his stupendous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a work that took four years of intensive labour (1508 to 1512) and has the history of mankind, before the coming of Christ, as its theme. Though only 8,611 sq. ft. (800 sq. m), the ceiling is Michelangelo’s masterpiece and one of the most important painting in the world. The paintings complement as well as expiate the stories taken from the Bible and represented in the side walls.
The gist of the paintings on the ceiling depicts the prophecies that adumbrated the coming of Christ, the interminable wait of humanity for this great event and the creation of the world. The first part has scenes of humanity's wait for Christ and the stories dealing with the deliverance of the people of Israel. The second part depicts the seven prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. The third part is in the central section of the ceiling and deal with the Creation, the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Noah.
As Goethe said: "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, it's not possible to have an idea of what one man is capable of doing".
First Written: Sept. 22, 2012
Leading painters of the time like, Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Umbria, decorated the side walls of the Chapel with various episodes taken from the Bible. Along the northern wall (left of the altar), the first painting is the 'Baptism of Christ' (c. 1482) by Perugino. The River Jordan flows along the centre of the painting touching the feet of Jesus and of John while a dove (Holy Spirit) flies above Jesus. In the background, the Pantheon and the Coliseum can be seen.
The next is 'The Temptations of Christ' (1480-82) by Sandro Botticelli which depicts the 'stones to bread' challenge of the Devil to Christ, the 'fling down from the cliff' challenge and the 'Get thee from behind me' response of Christ to the Devil. The leper healed by Christ is in the foreground of the painting.
'Vocation of the Apostles' (1481-82) by Domenico Ghirlandaio is the next fresco which depicts Christ calling Peter (yellow robe) and Andrew (green), who are kneeling, to follow him. Behind is Christ again on the shore calling out to James and John who are in the boat. There is also a motley collection of bystanders on both sides of the screen.
Next to this is the 'Delivery of the Keys' (1481-82) by Perugino which shows Christ handing over the key of the kingdom of Heaven to St. Peter while the other Apostles and others look on. Judas is the fifth figure behind Jesus on the left. His countenance is dark in comparison to the others. The artist has given depth to his painting through the use of converging broad lines in the background while the distant trees, hills and the limitless horizon, suggest infinity. The poses of the figures on either side of the painting complement each other.
The 'Last Supper' (1481-82) by Cosimo Rosselli shows Christ with 11 disciples on one side of a table facing the viewer, while Judas sits alone with his back to us. The halos of the 11 disciples are golden-coloured while that of Judas is dark. Also, a black-coloured Satan may be discerned sitting on the nape of Judas. The artist captures the Apostles’ moment of incredulous reaction when Christ foretells them that one of them will betray Him to the Romans. The three paintings of the prayer at Gethsemane, the capture of Jesus by the Romans and His crucifixion, dominate the higher area of this fresco.
First Written: Sept. 22, 2012
In 1532, twenty years after he had completed painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was again commissioned, this time by Pope Clement VII, to paint the far end wall above the altar. The painting is inspired by the Book of Revelation and the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri and depicts a scene where the few are chosen and the rest damned to perdition.
This 48 ft. by 44 ft. fresco, done between 1536 and 1541, will grab your attention easily. The ceiling may, perhaps, be more scintillating but after a while your neck starts hurting. This fresco, on the other hand, allows you to watch it at a more comfortable angle. To facilitate matters, it angles out from the top not only to prevent dust from settling on it but also to give it a proper perspective as well as sense of three-dimensionality.
Just below the left arch, at the top of the painting, there are the Cross and the Crown of Thorns and the Nails. Below the arch on the right hand side are the Column used for the scouring, the Stairs, the Spear and the Sponge. These are all the symbols of the intense suffering (passion) of Christ.
Below that is the central figure of Christ, right arm raised as He decides on the fate of humanity, condemning many to Hell and saving the souls of a few. The Virgin Mary is to His right, face turned away as if indicating non-participation in His decision. The pose of Christ is reminiscent of the Belvedere statue, earlier in the Vatican, a pose that the famed painter was particularly fond of. To the left, we see St. Andrew, with his back to us, holding his cross. John the Baptist is the muscular figure next to him who is looking at Christ. To the left is the figure of St Peter holding the keys to heaven, a golden one in his left hand and a silver one in his right. The face of this figure is supposed to represent Pope Paul III.
The saints are shown with the instruments used for their torture leading to their eventual martyrdom. Just below the right foot of Christ, sits St. Lawrence holding a frame of parallel metal bars like a gridiron signifying his martyrdom of being hauled over hot coal. Next to him and near the left foot of Christ is St. Bartholomew (same Belvedere statue pose), who holds his own skin in his left hand and a knife in his right hand. This is symbolic of his torture of being flayed alive. The painter painted his own portrait on this skin, perhaps to show his own unworthiness, his cynicism, his world-weariness, an expression of his tormented soul. Further on to the right, St. Blaise is depicted lying down and holding the iron combs used for his torture, St. Catherine is shown with a wooden arch with iron teeth while St. Sebastian is shown with a sheaf of arrows in his left hand.
In the third and last section of the fresco, which is also the bottom part, the colours are darker, the misery intense and the desperation acute. In the centre, we have the angels waking up the dead from their deep slumber through their trumpets. Archangel Michael reads out the names of souls to be saved from a small book while a larger volume to our right, contains the names of those condemned to Hell. This could indicate the painter’s view of how sinful the people in this world are. Next to this is a man attempting to cover his eyes as if unable to witness the terrible events unfolding before him, his face a study of intense trepidation. On his left is a swirling mass of figures as they hurtle towards eternal damnation. On the extreme left of the painting, at the same level, fewer figures are shown as they rise towards Heaven and are saved forever.
Below the trumpeting angels, Charon, a boatman from Greek mythology, is seen raising his oar to drive out all those condemned from his boat and send them on their way to hell. He is mentioned in the 'Aeneid' of Virgil as well as the 'Divine Comedy’ of Dante. To the left of the wall painting is the resurrection of the dead. Not to be missed is the bitterness and revenge of the great artist in the personification of Baigio da Cesena, a papal master of ceremonies, in the figure of Minos, one of the three judges of the underworld. He is depicted on the bottom right hand side of the fresco, entwined by serpents with a snake biting his genitals. Apparently, the Master of Ceremonies had roundly criticised Michelangelo’s 'Last Judgement' for its numerous nude figures and suggested that the fresco was better suited to a tavern than to a holy place. An apocryphal story goes that when Baigio complained to the Pope about this unceremonious depiction, the latter pleaded helplessness saying that the Pope had no jurisdiction over Hell.
First Written: Sept. 22, 2012
The exhibits within the Vatican Museums are simply amazing and so because of these it would be impossible for me to rate the place as any less than very good. It is a "must visit" place at least once. In fact it's not just the exhibits, but also the building itself which are worth seeing.
We visited on the day before the monthly "free" day (last Sunday of the month is free admission) becuase it was our last day in Rome. This may have explained the absence of the queue to get in as most tourist were probably waiting to go in free on the next day. The extent of the queue barriers did give us an idea of just how long the queues might get at times! We paid 15 euros to get in each and 7 euros each for the audio guide. You do need the audio guide as there are little if any descriptions of the items on display as you go around the museum. The audioguide was probably the best we had in Rome.
Clearly the key attraction bringing most people is the Sistine chapel and the presence of the large and noisy tour groups pushing quickly forward to reach that goal does ruin much of the rest of the museum for others. Most of these people don't even seem to be looking around them as they march onwards. That is their loss. It does mean however that some of the 'side' exhibitions which are not on the direct path from entrance to sistine chapel are much more relaxed places to visit, such as the Etruscan section.
The sistine chapel is one of those places most people want to go and see in their lives but it is suprising how small and dark it is after what you see on TV. Impressive all the same. It was a little amusing to see the signs as you go into the chapel telling people that it is a sacred place and asking for silence as the tours groups and their guides totally ignore this and so the Vatican has people who walk around the chapel saying "shhhh" all day. It doesn't work of course, which is a shame as the experience would undoubtedly be better if it were peaceful in there.
The Rafael rooms were, in my opinion, just as impressive as the Sistine Chapel and there is a very interesting display of modern art in the Bogia apartments.
What I had not been expecting was just how commercial the place is! Every few rooms you seem to be deposited into another gift shop. Some of the stuff seemed very tacky to me (Golden statues of the pope etc) but I suppose some people must like it or they wouldn't sell it.
The caffeteria is very noisy but not any more over priced than most of central Rome. The staff here did seem particularly grumpy and disinterested in their jobs though, although this did start to become a theme as we went round the museum.
During the last 2 hours of the day the tour groups start to disappear and so it becomes much easier to properly view and enjoy the exhibits so don't leave until you've made good use of this time.
The guide and I sat on a bench in the Sistine Chapel -- under God reaching out to Adam. We were alone, the 15 other people on our tour stood at the far end of the Chapel listening to the other guides. We were the only people in the room. The Chapel was quiet, befitting its status as a church. We were on an after hours tour of the Vatican museum arranged by Helen Donegan of Italywithus.com.
Quietly the Guide explained Michelangelo's feud with the Pope who hired him to do the ceiling and refused to pay when it was done. She pointed out the unflattering face of Pope Paul III's assistant in the Last Judgment and the painter's face on the hide St. Bartholomew is carrying. We saw the scorch mark on the beautiful Cosimatti marble floor from the stove that sends out the white smoke.
While the Sistine Chapel was the highlight, we saw hall after empty hall. Maps on the walls, early world globes, artifacts from Pompey, papal vestments, the Raphael rooms -- quietly and without hassle, we saw it all in awe and amazement!
Last year I read about Helen's tours, but they were fully booked. I tried to find others who provided after hours Vatican museum tours. One travel agent promised a tour for 5,000 Euros. Well beyond what we could afford, I contacted Helen again. She emailed me the 2007 tour dates. Off we went.
Our group of 16 had 5 guides, 4 of whom give daily tours during regular hours. Three guards accompanied us. The one we walked with pointed out special things, he was clearly proud of his job and the Vatican's amazing collection of treasures.
My husband and I are well-traveled, but this after hours tour is a highlight of our globetrotting: seeing the Vatican museum when no one else was there -- priceless.
The current 2007 rates are 250 Euros per person. Follow these links for some reviews of this amazing experience.
If you wish to Visit the Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel and you are not willing to be on a long line to get in, you have two options:
1) go there at lunch time 1-2pm when big groups are normally having lunch.
2) book a guided tour arranged directly by the Vatican Museums with highly professional guides.
Once you get to the museum(15 min. earlier) tell the sicuruty at the exit gate on Viale Vaticano, that you have the tickets booked and they will show you where to pay for the visit.
The visit cost 23.50 euro per person and group will be of about 30 people.The visit will last 2 hours.
Make sure you send the request well in advance (only by fax):
+39.06.69885100; You can also give them a ring to double check: +39.06.69884676 (with out +39 if you are already in Rome!!)
If you are going to visit the museum on your own I suggest to check the official opening times and closed dates on the Vatican Museums web site. Here is the link:
I have seen many wrong information on several guide books and other web sites.