Frescoes, paintings, mosaics, sculptures and statues of inestimable beauty created by great artists and collected by the popes over the centuries, are preserved and exhibited in the various rooms of the Vatican Museums and represent the largest art collection in the world.
This immense heritage was made possible through the progressive enrichment with masterpieces from the Renaissance up to the twentieth century. The Vatican museum complex, with 54 museums in total and 70,000 works, of which only 20,000 on display, is spread over 1400 rooms, chapels and galleries, and is the custodian of an extraordinary legacy of masterpieces, beauty and history as well as a symbolic place of dialogue between cultures and religions.
One of the most cultured popes of the church, Pope Nicholas V , in the first year of his pontificate, 1447, decided to have his own chapel frescoed by Friar Giovanni da Fiesole, in the century Guido di Pietro, called Beato Angelico .
The famous Franciscan painter painted a cycle of frescoes on the life of Saints Stephen and Lorenzo thus giving birth to the construction of the Niccolina Chapel , the first nucleus of the future Vatican Museums.
In 1470, Pope Sixtus IV began work on the famous Sistine Chapel erected by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci , commissioning the decorations from important Renaissance artists such as Botticelli and Perugino who made the frescoes on the walls.
Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), successor of Niccolò V, followed his example and entrusted the decoration of his private chapel to the painter Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio who in 1494 completed a enchanting cycle of frescoes in the various rooms.
Vatican Museum: the birth
But the one who is believed to be the true founder of the Vatican Collections is Pope Julius II Della Rovere who in 1506, with significant changes, brought his large private collection of classical sculptures as a dowry by placing them in the Courtyard of the Statues, today the Cortile Ottagono .
He then added other works to the palace by purchasing the most famous ancient sculptures of the time to create the Cortile del Belvedere, of which he entrusted the project to Donato Bramante .
The most important event of Pope Julius II in 1508 was the decision to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by commissioning Michelangelo who made them from 1508 to 1512 depicting facts and characters from the Old Testament.
Pope Paul III completed the cycle of decorations by always commissioning Michelangelo from the fresco of the Last Judgment on the west wall behind the altar, a long work carried out in the period from 1534 to 1541.
The Pope Sixtus V was the last to perform major construction projects, giving the task to the architect Domenico Fontana including the new headquarters of the Apostolic Library and the new papal palace which is the current residence of the pope.
The building was completed during the pontificate of Clement VIII by Taddeo Landini , to whom we owe the splendid Sala Clementina , decorated by Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti and Paolo Bril . In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Gallery of Maps on the west side of the Belvedere courtyard.
From the seventeenth century to today
The Scala Regia, one of the most important masterpieces by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was the only major 17th-century work carried out in the Apostolic Palace, under Alexander VII and connects the Basilica of San Pietro with the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
In 1807, the construction of the Chiaramonti Museum, consisting of the Chiaramonti Gallery, the Lapidary Gallery and the Braccio Nuovo , was started by the classical sculptor Antonio Canova . Pope Gregory XVI opened the Etruscan Museum in 1837 with finds from the excavations from Etruria and in 1839 the Egyptian Museum with excavations and monuments from Egypt.
The definitive return of the Pope to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican will take place only with Pius IX (1846 – 1878) following the political unification of Italy and the capture of Rome in 1870.
Even if Pope Julius II granted only to artists, nobles and scholars the privilege of admiring some masterpieces of art exhibited in the Palazzetto del Belvedere (now part of the Pio-Clementino Museum), the Vatican Museums were opened to the public only in 1771 by will by Pope Clement XIV .
What to see: the Museums
The Museums, before telling the story of the prestigious collections, symbolize the representative environments of the popes who have followed one another over the centuries. The immense collection accumulated by the Roman Catholic Church boasts some of the most famous Roman sculptures and the greatest masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.
Vatican picture gallery
In the 18 large rooms of the Vatican Pinacoteca, one of the most important art galleries in Europe, you can admire masterpieces of art from the period between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. Of course, the predominant space is dedicated to the Renaissance with the artists who have most distinguished it.
Around the end of the eighteenth century Pope Pius VI created the collection with only 118 magnificent paintings, some of which were transferred by Napoleon to Paris for the Treaty of Tolentino (1797). After the fall of Napoleon in 1817, the paintings returned to the possession of the Church also thanks to the commitment of the sculptor Antonio Canova. and hence the idea of setting up a modern art gallery open to the public.
Pope Pius XI in 1932, with the aim of enhancing and making known the huge historical and artistic heritage of the popes, inaugurated the new art gallery created by the architect Luca Beltrami with works ranging from the Middle Ages to the 1800s.
In the following years the collection continued to expand with donations from private individuals and purchases reaching today’s nucleus of 460 canvases, divided chronologically and according to the school: from the so-called Primitives of the twelfth to the nineteenth century.
Great artists of the history of Italian art are present in the collection with their masterpieces: Giotto , Beato Angelico , Perugino , Pinturicchio , Raffaello , Giovanni Bellini , Leonardo , Tiziano , Veronese , Caravaggio , Peter Wenzel and the tapestries of Pieter van Aelst .
Among the most famous paintings we mention:
- Giotto: Stefaneschi Polyptych
- Raphael: Madonna of Foligno, Oddi Altarpiece and Transfiguration
- Leonardo da Vinci: Saint Jerome in the desert
- Caravaggio: The Burial of Christ
- Perugino: Madonna and Child with Saints and Resurrection of San Francesco al Prato
- Filippo Lippi: The Marsuppini Inconoration , tempera on wood
- Olivuccio di Ciccarello: Works of Mercy
- Jan Matejko: John III Sobieski frees Vienna from the siege of the Turks, the largest museum painting.
Founded by Pope Clement XIV in 1771 and enlarged from 1775 to 1799 by his successor Pius VI, the museum originated to enhance and promote the most important Greek and Roman works of art from the Vatican.
It is the largest of the Vatican museums with its fourteen exhibition rooms, divided on two levels which present works and archaeological finds from the third century BC to the nineteenth century. Among the most famous statues: Apollo del Belvedere , a Roman bronze copy based on the Greek original, which was probably made by Leochares (330-320 BC) and the Apoxyomenos (1st century AD), in marble, Roman copy from an original bronze of Lysippus (third quarter of the 4th century BC).
The most famous work of the museum, found in 1506 among the ruins of the Baths of Titus in Rome, is the sculptural group of Laocoonte, a Roman copy of the first century AD from the Greek bronze original of the second century BC, by Aghesandro , Polydoro and Athenodoro , sculptors of Rhodes.
The exceptional masterpiece received the admiration of Michelangelo who called him “a portent of art” and was purchased by Pope Julius II for the Vatican. The museum itinerary starts from the Greek Cross Room and is completed with the Candelabra Gallery in this order:
- I Greek Cross Room : Sarcophagus of Saint Helena, Sarcophagus of Constance both in red porphyry
- II Round Hall : colossal statue of Antinous (130 AD), marble statue of the goddess Demeter, colossal head of Hadrian (early 2nd century), colossal statue of Hercules
- III Hall of the Muses : Belvedere Torso (1st century BC), Statues of the Muse Talia, of the Muse Calliope, of Apollo playing the zither (3rd century BC), all in marble.
- IV Hall of the Animals : Sculptural group with marine Centaur, Statue of Meleager (ca. 150 BC), Sculptural group with Mithra kills the primeval bull (2nd century AD), all in marble. Jaguar statue (1795) in alabaster
- V Gallerie delle Statu e: Statue of sleeping Ariadne, (2nd century BC), Pair of candelabra (2nd century AD), Eros of Centocelle, (4th century BC), Statue of Apollo sauroktonos, Statue of wounded Amazon, Roman copy from the Greek bronze urinal of Phidias (ca. 330 BC), dedicated to the Artemis of Ephesus.
- VI Sala dei Busti : Statue of Jupiter Verospi (III century AD), Portrait of Menelaus with parade helmet (II century), Portrait of Julius Caesar (30 – 20 BC), Bust of Trajan (108 – 111 AD ca. ), Portrait of Antoninus Pius (around 148 AD), Bust of Marcus Aurelius (around 164 – 166 AD), Bust of Commodus in his twenties (around 180 AD), Portrait of Caracalla, all marble works
- VII Cabinet of Masks : Statue of Venus crouching, (III century BC)., Marble statue of Aphrodite Cnidia (half of the IV century BC), made by Praxiteles, sculptural group of the Three Graces (II century AD)
- VIII Cortile Ottagono : Apollo of the Belvedere (130-140 AD), statue of a river god (2nd century AD), sculptural group of Laocoon with his children wrapped in the coils of two snakes (first half of the 1st century AD), Statue of Hermes (beginning of the 2nd century AD), Statue of Happy Venus (ca. 170 AD), Statue of Triumphant Perseus with the head of Medusa (1800 – 1801), by Antonio Canova, Sarcophagus with Roman general and sarmats (ca. 180 AD) , all works in marble.
- IX X, Round vestibule and Cabinet of the Apoxyomenos : Statue of the Apoxyomenos (1st century AD), marble, Roman copy from a bronze original of Lysippos (ca. 4th century BC), Portrait of the so-called “Ennio” with the head girded from a laurel wreath (mid 2nd century BC), Ara Casali (early 3rd century AD) with scenes of Trojan and Roman legends
- XI Vestibule : here is one of the entrances to the Scala del Bramante (early 16th century), built by Pope Julius II, to create an external entrance to the building. Of particular interest: Relief with a war bireme, in marble
- XII Square vestibule : Sarcophagus of Lucio Cornelio Scipione Barbato (mid 3rd century BC), in nephro (gray variety of tuff)
- XIII Sala della Biga : Cassa di biga (I sec. DC), in marmo, Discobolo (II sec. DC), copia romana da un originale bronzeo che di Mirone (560 – 550 aC)
- XIV Galleria dei Candelabri : Sarcophagus with reliefs with Scenes from the myth of Protesilaos (170 AD), Pair of candelabras (early 2nd century AD), Sarcophagus with reliefs depicting the Massacre of the Niobids (160 AD), Statue of child choking goose, Tyche (Fortuna) of Antioch on the Oront, sitting on the rock, Statue of Atalanta (1st century BC), attributed to Praxiteles, Persian warrior statue, all marble works.
Pio Cristiano Museum
The works exhibited in the Pio Cristiano Museum which houses sarcophagi and statues dated between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD come from the Lateran palace, papal residence until 1304. Its foundation in 1854 was the work of Pope Pius IX who decided to build a few years after the beginning of the excavations entrusted to the Commission for Sacred Archeology.
The museum is divided into two large sections: the section that shows architectural, sculptural and mosaic monuments, and the section that collects epigraphic material, divided by age and subjects.
The most famous archaeological find of the Pio Cristiano Museum is the statue of the ” Good Shepherd with lamb “, dated 300-350 ca. AD made by an anonymous sculptor. The white marble sculpture was found in the Catacombs of San Callisto, and is the oldest statue in the world of Jesus Christ, the first representation of Christ ever.
The work depicts a young shepherd with long curly hair with a sleeveless tunic, a shoulder bag and a lamb on his shoulders. The statuette is the only piece found of a bas-relief originally decorated on a particularly rich sarcophagus.
The Chiaramonti Museum takes its name from Pope Pius VII (Barnaba Niccolò Chiaramonti), who commissioned the project from Antonio Canova and was inaugurated in 1807. The canons for the arrangement of the works were established by Canova himself, who aspired to jointly exhibit the three arts sisters :
The section of sculpture rich in miles of ancient finds, including portraits of emperors, gods, friezes and reliefs of sarcophagi. The architecture section characterized by the shelves obtained from ancient architectural frames and the painting in the cycle of frescoes made by young artists of the time with Canova himself as patron.
There are three galleries that make up the museum:
- The Chiaramonti Gallery
- The New Arm
- The Lapidary Gallery
The collection of the Chiaramonti gallery, a large arched construction, contains about a thousand sculptures, imperial portraits, sarcophagi and friezes. A colonnade 300 meters long and 6.70 meters wide, designed by Bramante, has marble works from the Roman Empire on both sides of the long corridor, mostly copies of Greek originals. Heracles with his son Telephus, Dionysus with Satyr, a copy of the cloaked Niobe.
The Braccio Nuovo houses famous statues, imperial portraits and Roman copies of famous Greek originals in the 28 large arched niches on each side, 15 rectangular niches for statues and 32 pedestals for busts. The barrel vault, decorated with stucco rosettes, is interspersed with 12 windows that illuminate the works of art on display. Of significant importance is the colossal statue of the Nile, a Roman copy of Greek sculptures of the first century AD and the statue of Augustus found at Prima Porta, a Roman copy of Doriphorus , on the original by the Greek sculptor Polycletus (440 BC) and two splendid peacocks in gilded bronze.
In the Lapidary Gallery there is the largest collection of this type in the world. There are about 3400 “pages” engraved on slabs, stones, macaws, sarcophagi from the 1st to. C. to the VI century AD. C. distributed in 48 walls according to the theme: religion, emperors, army, professions, family, Christianity etc … The gallery is an invaluable source for getting to know the ancient world, peoples, nations, social classes and international relations.
Egyptian Gregorian Museum
The vestiges of the ancient pharaohs acquired by the popes at the end of the 18th century are housed in rooms decorated by the sculptor painter Giuseppe De Fabris in an Egyptian retro style.
It was Pope Gregory XVI who founded the Egyptian Gregorian Museum in 1839. The structure houses monuments and artifacts from ancient Egypt coming in part from Rome and Villa Adriana near Tivoli as well as the rich finds and statues that had been transported to Rome during the dominion of the emperors.
The museum occupies nine rooms, the last two of which house finds from ancient Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine. The second room has some sarcophagi of painted mummies, jewels and other funeral ornaments. The fine black basalt statues of a fountain that decorated the villa of Emperor Hadrian are in the third room.
In room 5 there are wonderful statues of pharaohs, queens and deities dating back to the 21st century BC. Sculptures, inscriptions and reliefs of ancient Assyria, Anatolia and other Middle Eastern cultures are located in the other rooms.
Etruscan Gregorian Museum
The Gregorian Etruscan Museum founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1837, presents archaeological finds from southern Etruria such as vases and bronzes from Hellenized Italy with finds from the Roman era. The collection also includes a large collection of finds discovered in 1828 during excavations carried out on the sites of some of the most important cities of ancient Etruria and in the tombs near Vulci.
In the rooms you can admire the original sixteenth-century pictorial cycles, including frescoes by the painters Federico Barocci and Federico Zuccari, Santi di Tito and Niccolò Circignani called il Pomarancio , as well as tempera murals of great interest dating back to the end of the eighteenth century.
The famous Mars of Todi is a technically perfect lost wax bronze figure, but not yet at the spirit level of the unsurpassed Greek models. It is one of the very rare relics of the ancient Italic statuary that has survived to the present day and depicts a warrior dressed in armor and originally also wearing a helmet that was lost but was lost. A very famous Greek amphora by the painter and ceramist Exekias showing Achilles and Ajax playing dice.
Originally located in the Lateran Palace , it was then transferred to the Vatican in 1926 by decision of Pope Pius XI . The over one hundred thousand works, preserved, restored and cataloged in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of the Vatican, are witnesses of respect for the cultural and spiritual diversity of the world.
It contains works of art and historical evidence of all the areas on earth where the pope carried out his missions. A human-centered narrative tool where the works stand out as ambassadors of peoples, stories and territories.
There are two paths in which the exhibition develops: the first, which focuses on thematic insights, provides a modular, modular structure, with display cases and video projections, easily transportable. The second, testifies to the values of the Museum through the vastness of its collections, among which excel:
the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the Confucius Altar and the Shinto temple of the ancient Japanese capital Nara; Cult statues, mainly Buddhist, testimonies of religious life in Tibet, Indonesia and India, as well as from the Far East; finds from Islamic culture and Central Africa; objects and works of art from the American continent, in particular Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua ..
Many were the popes who had their chapel built in the inhabited palaces, a private place of meditation and prayer often embellished with decorations and frescoes of inestimable value made by famous artists of the time and decorated with memorabilia and ancient statues.
Among these chapels the most famous is the Sistine Chapel which boasts a cycle of frescoes unique in the world both on the walls and on the vault.
The Sistine Chapel is one of the chapels of the Apostolic Palace and owes its name to Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere who had it built using the foundations and walls of the old Cappella Magna , a fortified hall of the Middle Ages. The project of the architect Baccio Pontelli aimed to use the medieval walls up to a third of their height.
Construction began at the beginning of 1475, and the works were completed in 1483. The rectangular building is 40.9 meters long, 13.4 meters wide and 20.7 meters high, while the ceiling is flat.
The frescoes on the walls respectively show oriental scenes from the life of Jesus and Moses and were made by great Renaissance painters such as Sandro Botticelli , Pietro Perugino , Domenico Ghirlandaio , Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli .
The chapel has gained international fame especially for the frescoes painted in the vault by Michelangelo Buonarroti from 1508 to 1512 commissioned by Pope Julius II which represent important episodes from the Old and New Testaments .
Above all, the most famous and iconic scene ” The Creation of Adam ” is a work of world renown and frequently reproduced. Show how God the Father gives life to Adam by touching him with his outstretched finger. The frescoes were shown to the public in November 1512 and depict scenes from Genesis for a total of 520 sq m painted with 115 real characters.
Twenty five years after the frescoes on the vault, Pope Clement VII asked the Florentine genius to decorate the wall behind the altar by sacrificing the existing works of Perugino. Michelangelo thus created, from 1535 to 1541, the Last Judgment, painting the large wall with 300 figures, almost all the males and angels shown in their nakedness.
It is possible to deepen the topic of the Sistine Chapel on the dedicated page:
Chapel of Niccolina
The Niccolina Chapel, one of the chapels of the Apostolic Palace, was devoted to a private place for the prayer of Pope Nicholas V who had it frescoed by Friar Beato Angelico who used the gold of the Americas as a decorative element in the rich architectural details.
The first two Christian martyrs were the subject of the frescoes, with San Pietro , San Lorenzo and Santo Stefano, following the biblical story of the Acts of the Apostles. Unfortunately, the Deposition of Christ, once placed above the altar, has been lost , but most of the works of the Angelic Brother are fortunately still well preserved, in particular the lunettes in the arches of the room and the wonderful vault with the four Evangelists.
The visit to the chapel is not included in the usual tourist tours, but can be seen by special groups with reservations.
There are numerous rooms in the Vatican palaces which over the centuries have been the homes of popes or private studios. These places have always hosted collections of paintings or frescoes. Among the rooms of the Vatican museum, Raphael’s are the most famous.
Realized by Raphael and his students between 1508 and 1524, the four rooms were inside the second floor apartment of the Pontifical Palace that Pope Julius II della Rovere (1503 to 1513) had chosen as his own residence .
At the death of Julius II, only two of the rooms were completed. It was Pope Leo X to continue the project which, after Raphael’s death in 1520, was completed by his assistants Gianfrancesco Penni , Giulio Romano and Raffaellino del Colle completing the cycle of frescoes in the Sala di Costantino. The four rooms represent historical events divided as follows:
- Room of Constantine : with the frescoes of the Vision of the Cross, Battle of POnte Milvio, Baptism of Constantine, Donation of Rome, Triumph of the Christian religion
- Room of Heliodorus : with the frescoes of The expulsion of Heliodorus from the temple, Mass in Bolsena, The meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, the Liberation of St. Peter
- Room of the Segnatura : with the frescoes of the Dispute of the Blessed Sacrament, Parnassus, the school of Athens, the cardinal virtues
- Borgo’s Fire Room : with the frescoes of The Oath of Leo III, The Coronation of Charlemagne, Fire in the Village, The Battle of Ostia.
The Borgia apartments
Bernardino di Betto, also known as Pinturicchio, together with his assistants had the task of designing the private apartments of Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Describing legends and stories from the Old and New Testaments, the artist frescoed six rooms from 1492 to 1495. The main rooms are named after the motifs of their frescoes:
- Sala delle Sibille
- Hall of Creed
- Madonna room
- Hall of Saints
The decoration of the Pontifical Hall of the 16th century is the work of Giovanni da Udine and Pierin del Vaga, pupils of Raphael. Pope Leo XIII after a complete restoration of the rooms by the painter Ludwig Seitz opened them to the public.
Today part of the modern art collection is on display in the Borgia apartment, although in most of these rooms there is a collection of modern religious art commissioned by Pope Paul VI in 1973. The collection includes about six hundred paintings, sculptures and graphics by Italian and international artists such as Gauguin , Chagall , Klee and Kandinskij .
The monumental entrance
The Vatican Museums, following the example of historical museums such as the Uffizi , the Louvre , the Prado and the Hermitage have been organized and structured as a model of a large museum system since the late 1930s for a correct and profitable reception of visitors.
In order to visit the splendid collections of art, archeology and ethnology created by the various popes over the centuries, in February 2000 another entrance was opened with the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI flanked by the statues of Raphael and Michelangelo, in the part north of the Vatican walls, next to the old one in viale del Vaticano, not far from the oldest one from the courtyard of San Damaso.
To facilitate the exit of the huge flow of daily visitors from the museum complex there is the futuristic double helical spiral staircase on the ramp with its railing designed by the architect Giuseppe Momo in 1932, embellished by the bronze reliefs created by the Roman sculptor Antonio Maraini .
How to get there:
Metro A (Ottaviano and Cipro stop) – BUS 34, 46, 64, 98, 190F, 881, 916, 916F, 982, N5, N15, N20 (Cavaleggeri / San Pietro stop) 590 (Risorgimento stop) 23, 492, N11 (Risorgimento / Porta Angelica stop) 23, 49, 492, 982, 990, N10 (Crescenzio / Risorgimento stop) 32, 81 (Risorgimento stop) 49 (Viale Vaticano / Vatican Museums stop) 31, 33, 180F, 247 (Cipro stop / Metro A) 23, 492 (Michelangelo’s Bastioni stop) – Tram 19 (Risorgimento / San Pietro stop) – FL3, FL5 (Roma San Pietro station).