The Vatican Museums boast one of the world's greatest art collections. They're a gigantic repository of treasures from antiquity and the Renaissance, all housed in a labyrinthine series of lavishly adorned palaces, apartments, and galleries leading you to the real gem: the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museums occupy a part of the papal palaces built from the 1200s onward. From the former papal private apartments, the museums were created over a period of time to display the vast treasure trove of art acquired by the Vatican.
To reach the ticket windows, you take an escalator, although you exit down a magnificent spiral ramp. Signs will direct you on your way to the highlights. Obviously, 1, 2, or even 20 trips will not be enough to see the wealth of the Vatican, much less to digest it. With that in mind, we've previewed only a representative sampling of the masterpieces on display (in alphabetical order).
Borgia Apartments: Frescoed with biblical scenes by Pinturicchio of Umbria and his assistants, these rooms were designed for Pope Alexander VI (the infamous Borgia pope). They might be badly lit, but they boast great splendor and style. At the end of the Raphael Rooms is the Chapel of Nicholas V, an intimate room frescoed by the Dominican monk Fra Angelico, the most saintly of all Italian painters.
Chiaramonti Museum: Founded by Pope Pius VII, also known as Chiaramonti, the museum includes the Corridoio (Corridor), the Galleria Lapidaria, and the Braccio Nuovo (New Side). The Corridor holds more than 800 Greek and Roman works, including statues, reliefs, and sarcophagi. In the Galleria Lapidaria are about 5,000 Christian and pagan inscriptions. In the Braccio Nuovo, built as an extension of the Chiaramonti, you can admire The Nile, a magnificent reproduction of a long-lost Hellenistic original and one of the most remarkable pieces of sculpture from antiquity. The imposing statue of Augustus of Prima Porta presents him as a regal commander.
Collection of Modern Religious Art: This museum, opened in 1973, represents American artists' first invasion of the Vatican. Of the 55 rooms, at least 12 are devoted to American artists. All the works chosen were judged on their "spiritual and religious values." Among the American works is Leonard Baskin's 1.5m (5-ft.) bronze sculpture of Isaac. Modern Italian artists such as De Chirico and Manzù are also displayed, and there's a room of paintings by the Frenchman Georges Rouault. You'll also see works by Picasso, Gauguin, Gottuso, Chagall, Henry Moore, Kandinsky, and others.
Egyptian Gregorian Museum: Experience the grandeur of the pharaohs by studying sarcophagi, mummies, and statues of goddesses, vases, jewelry, sculptured pink-granite statues, and hieroglyphics.
Etruscan Gregorian Museum: This was founded by Gregory XIV in 1837 and then enriched year after year, becoming one of the most important and complete collections of Etruscan art. With sarcophagi, a chariot, bronzes, urns, jewelry, and terra-cotta vases, this gallery affords remarkable insights into an ancient civilization. One of the most acclaimed exhibits is the Regolini-Galassi tomb, unearthed in the 19th century at Cerveteri. It shares top honors with the Mars of Todi, a bronze sculpture probably dating from the 5th century B.C.
Ethnological Museum: This is an assemblage of works of art and objects of cultural significance from all over the world. The principal route is a .5km (1/3-mile) walk through 25 geographical sections, displaying thousands of objects covering 3,000 years of world history. The section devoted to China is especially interesting.
Historical Museum: This museum tells the history of the Vatican. It exhibits arms, uniforms, and armor, some dating from the early Renaissance. The carriages displayed are those used by the popes and cardinals in religious processions.
Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery): The Pinacoteca houses paintings and tapestries from the 11th to the 19th centuries. In room no. 1, note the oldest picture at the Vatican, a keyhole-shape wood panel of the Last Judgment from the 11th century. In room no. 2 is one of the finest pieces -- the Stefaneschi Triptych (six panels), by Giotto and his assistants. Bernardo Daddi's masterpiece of early Italian Renaissance art, Madonna del Magnificat, is also here. You'll see works by Fra Angelico, the 15th-century Dominican monk who distinguished himself as a miniaturist (his Virgin with Child is justly praised -- check out the Madonna's microscopic eyes).
Raphael Salon: In room no. 8, you can view three paintings by the Renaissance giant himself: the Coronation of the Virgin, the Virgin of Foligno, and the massive Transfiguration (completed shortly before his death). There are also eight tapestries made by Flemish weavers from cartoons by Raphael. In room no. 9, seek out Leonardo da Vinci's masterful but uncompleted St. Jerome with the Lion, as well as Giovanni Bellini's Pietà and one of Titian's greatest works, the Virgin of Frari. Finally, in room no. 10, feast your eyes on one of the masterpieces of the baroque, Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross.
Pio Clementino Museum: Here you'll find Greek and Roman sculptures, many of which are immediately recognizable. The rippling muscles of the Belvedere Torso, a partially preserved Greek statue (1st c. B.C.) much admired by the artists of the Renaissance, especially Michelangelo, reveal an intricate knowledge of the human body. In the rotunda is a large gilded bronze of Hercules from the late 2nd century B.C. Other major sculptures are under porticoes opening onto the Belvedere courtyard. From the 1st century B.C., one sculpture shows Laocoon and his two sons locked in eternal struggle with the serpents. The incomparable Apollo Belvedere (a late Roman reproduction of an authentic Greek work from the 4th c. B.C.) has become the symbol of classic male beauty, rivaling Michelangelo's David. Some members of the Vatican staff once discovered Michelangelo in front of the Belvedere Apollo "publicly aroused in defilement." He was caned and shamed accordingly and had to promise to "create something grand" to compensate for his "shocking" behavior.
Raphael Rooms: While still a young man, Raphael was given one of the greatest assignments of his short life: to decorate a series of rooms in the apartments of Pope Julius II. Raphael and his workshop carried out the commission from 1508 to 1524. In these works, Raphael achieves the Renaissance aim of blending classic beauty with realism. In the Stanza dell'Incendio, you'll see much of the work of Raphael's pupils but little of the master -- except in the fresco across from the window. The partially draped Aeneas rescuing his father (to the left of the fresco) is attributed to Raphael, as is the surprised woman with a jug balanced on her head to the right.
Raphael reigns supreme in the next and most important salon, the Stanza della Segnatura, the first room decorated by the artist, where you'll find the majestic School of Athens [SSS], one of his best-known works, depicting such philosophers from the ages as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Many of the figures are actually portraits of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, including Bramante (on the right as Euclid, bent over to draw on a chalkboard), Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato, the bearded man in the center pointing heavenward), and even Raphael himself (looking out at you from the lower-right corner). While he was painting this masterpiece, Raphael stopped work to walk down the hall for the unveiling of Michelangelo's newly finished Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was so impressed that he returned to his School of Athens and added to his design a sulking Michelangelo sitting on the steps.
The Stanza d'Eliodoro, also by the master, manages to flatter Raphael's papal patrons (Julius II and Leo X) without compromising his art (although one rather fanciful fresco depicts the pope driving Attila from Rome). Finally, there's the Sala di Constantino, which was completed by his students after Raphael's death. Raphael designed the loggia, which is frescoed with more than 50 scenes from the Bible, but his students did the actual work.
Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. While in his 30s, he was commanded by Julius II to stop work on the pope's own tomb and to devote his considerable talents to painting ceiling frescoes (an art form of which the Florentine master was contemptuous). Michelangelo labored for 4 years (1508-12) over this epic project, which was so physically taxing that it permanently damaged his eyesight. All during the task, he had to contend with the pope's incessant urgings to hurry up; at one point, Julius threatened to topple Michelangelo from the scaffolding -- or so Vasari relates in his Lives of the Artists.
It's ironic that a project undertaken against the artist's wishes would form his most enduring legend. Glorifying the human body as only a sculptor could, Michelangelo painted nine panels, taken from the pages of Genesis, and surrounded them with prophets and sibyls. The most notable panels detail the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the creation of man. Tip: Bring along binoculars so you can see the details better.
The Florentine master was in his 60s when he began the masterly Last Judgment on the altar wall. Here, Michelangelo presents a more jaundiced view of people and their fate; God sits in judgment and sinners are plunged into the mouth of hell. A master of ceremonies under Paul III, Monsignor Biagio da Cesena, protested to the pope about the "shameless nudes" painted by Michelangelo. Michelangelo showed that he wasn't above petty revenge by painting the prude with the ears of a jackass in hell. When Biagio complained to the pope, Paul III maintained that he had no jurisdiction in hell.
On the side walls are frescoes by other Renaissance masters, such as Botticelli, Perugino, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Roselli, and Ghirlandaio. Unfortunately, because they compete with Michelangelo's artistry, they're virtually ignored by visitors.
The twisting ignudi or male nudes that decorate the corners of the ceiling were terribly controversial when executed.
The restoration of the Sistine Chapel in the 1990s touched off a worldwide debate among art historians. The restoration took years as restorers used advanced computer analyses in their painstaking and controversial work. They reattached the fresco and repaired the ceiling, ridding the frescoes of their dark and shadowy look. Critics claim that in addition to removing centuries of dirt and grime -- and several of the added "modesty" drapes -- the restorers removed a vital second layer of paint as well. Purists argue that many of the restored figures seem flat compared with the originals, which had more shadow and detail. Others have hailed the project for saving Michelangelo's masterpiece for future generations to appreciate and for revealing the vibrancy of his color palette.
Vatican Library: The library is richly decorated, with frescos created by a team of Mannerist painters commissioned by Sixtus V. The library is open only to qualified researchers.
- © Frommer's 2013
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