Museums can be quite overwhelming, especially when they have eras of artifacts on display. The Vatican Museum is one of the best in the world and filled with collections from various civilizations. Every wall, ceiling, nook, and corner of this place has something to tell and one can get quite dizzy with the plethora of exhibits here. Fortunately, the Vatican Museum is very well cataloged and a visitor-friendly place with good displays and a good audio tour. My first visit to the Vatican was absolutely mesmerizing and I found myself getting lost in the Roman and Greek history – recollecting the various stories that I have had. And if you are an ardent fan of the Angels and Demons, you will find yourself equating each space with the ones in the story.
Here are the quick highlights of the museum- a short tour of the Vatican Museum :-).
1) Octagonal Courtyard at the Vatican Museum
What greets you when you enter this courtyard is the giant ball or globe called the Sphere within Sphere. Made by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, this is one of the many spheres that he has made. A complex design with many sphere and a clock-work like working within the main sphere.
Alongside the same, there is a detailed explanation of the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is recommended that you spend a little time understanding the same so that when you finally come to the grand finale of the Museum at the Sistine Chapel, you can understand and appreciate the 3D ceiling. Remember, once in the Sistine Chapel, you may not have enough time owing to the crowd as well as you will be unable to capture any pictures owing to the ban on photography within the chapel.
As you look around the courtyard, you will notice numerous beautiful sculptures – some of which are recognizable, some a little alien. Amongst them all, let me point out to the key one – the Laoccon. What makes it interesting is that this sculpture was the first amongst the entire collection of the Pope that prompted the start of the Vatican museum.
Note the amazing muscular features and the anatomy captured in the sculpture. This piece was a part of the Greek history and was considered to be a symbol of the Greek victory. Once the Romans defeated the Greeks, this sculpture was taken by the Romans. The precision and the art of this statue is said to have inspired many other Renaissance artists like Michelangelo.
There are plenty of other sculptures of interest here and many more as you get into the halls. Watch out for the famed Apollo Belvedere sculpture. As you can see, I could not get too close to it 🙂
2) Round Room (Sala Rotunda) at Vatican Museum
Further on into the museum, while you admire the various other sculptures, you will reach a peculiar red colored room called as the Round Room. As you can see in the picture below, it seems like an obvious name.
As you can see, a large basin occupies the center of the room – this belonged to Emperor Nero. Check out the rich mosaic flooring of this room.
Amongst the various sculptures around the room, watch out for the Bronze Hercules. This statue, besides being unique from the marble statues, was discovered in Pompeii where it was struck by lightning and was buried. If you look at it from different angles, you can actually see the split made by the lightning near the head of the statue.
There are two very unique things in this room that you need to watch out for – the Frescoed ceiling and the dome shaped ceiling akin to the Pantheon – both within the round room.
You will notice the Frescoed ceiling as you enter the Round Room. A piece of art itself, if you look close enough, there is a story in every picture that has been painted.
The other feature, which is the grand Pantheon like ceiling was created to have a unique play of light and space in this room by one of the Popes. The ceiling is so stunning that you cannot, but help look up at it.
3) Etruscan Section
Before the Romans, existed the Etruscans – a civilization that was quite forward when it came to their way of living, their clothing, crafts and arts. This section of the Vatican museum is sometimes not included in the regular Vatican tours but if you get a chance, you must pop into see the 3 – 4 rooms filled with the Etruscan vases, jewelry and statues.
One of the famed statue is as in the picture below. It is called the Mars of Todi and is made of bronze. The man seems to be toasting to the God of War- Mars. This 6th Century BC statue was discovered on the banks of the River Tiber and was added to the Vatican collection later.
Aside for this, what I found fascinating were the Sarcophagus. Each coffin has a beautiful sculpture attached to the top – possibly representing the body inside. Here is one such Sarcophagus
4) Gallery of Tapestries at the Vatican Museum
As you head to the Gallery of Tapestries, you will pass by this amazing mosaic on the floor. An apt entrance to a Gallery that will literally make you gasp with an awe. The gallery is filled with Tapestries showcasing scenes from the massacre of the innocents, the birth of Jesus and his resurrection. Each tapestry is a work of art and all of them have been done by followers of Raphael.
Watch out for the Tapestry with the image of Jesus shown in the picture about. I could not capture the entire tapestry but let me explain why I have specified this particular picture. As you move along the tapestry, you will find that Jesus follows your movement. Stunning, right? And I actually freaked when I found that really happens! Difficult to capture the same on camera – but make sure you note that when you are here.
Here is a capture of a portion of the ceiling of this lovely gallery. You would say Lovely Sculptures right? But note that these are not sculptures but actual 3D painted part of the ceiling. Fascinating!!!
5) Gallery of Maps
Ornate ceilings is the first thing that you notice when you enter the Gallery of Maps. Alongside on either ends are frescoes of maps of Italy. The ceiling on the top depict the land represented in the maps. One cannot avoid this gallery as this leads to the Sistine Chapel.
6) Raphael Rooms
These are a series of 4 rooms that were decorated by Raphael and his pupils. The rooms were used by Pope Julius II and are quite ornate and colorful. The plethora of paintings can overwhelm you as well. However, let me point out to one that I remember and found interesting.
The piece above is called Stanza Dela Segnatura and this painting depicts a gathering of various philosophers. Aristotle and Plato are central to the painting while Socrates, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael himself make an appearance in the painting.
Vatican Museum tour ends with the ever-popular Sistine Chapel, the famed work of Michelangelo. While one will always retain the memories of the Sistine Chapel, a complete walk of the Vatican will bring in novel memories of classic Roman art. No pictures are allowed here and which is all well for you need to be distraction-free when you are here. While your official museum tour ends here, a new one also begins. This one leads you to one of the most beautiful churches in Europe – St. Peter’s Basilica. More on that in another post. For now, just revel in the glory of the museum.
Vatican City is located and surrounded by Rome. There are plenty of flights into Rome.
From Rome, there are plenty of buses that take you to the Vatican City. Metro too, is a convenient option from Rome. And so is Tram. Here is a useful site on how to get around to Vatican from Rome. The site also, has some handy tips for a first-timer to Vatican.
Vatican museum is generally closed on Sundays and hence, avoid the same while planning your trip.
There is a lot of walking here and hence, remember to wear comfortable footwear.
It is advisable to take a guide here at the Vatican who can point out some interesting facts related to various exhibits. There are group walking tours also, available for the Vatican Museum. These are cost-effective but the caveat here would be that you will have to move with the pace of the group – which may not always be to your advantage.
There are downloadable audio guides available for the Vatican Museum. You could consider the same if you want to do the tour by yourself.