Besides the Colosseum, the one thing I was looking forward to the most on our trip to Rome was getting to explore inside the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums, along with the Louvre in Paris, have been on my to-see list for almost two decades now. Due to an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, we missed getting to go inside the Louvre on our trip to Paris, so I wasn’t about to let the same happen in Rome. The first morning after we arrived in the city, we woke up bright and early and were standing in the queue to enter the museums over half an hour before the doors even opened. And I’m certainly glad we were because I’ve never seen crowds in a museum like those inside the Vatican Museums!
Displaying over 20,000 works of art collected by several popes over the past few centuries, the Vatican Museums are made up of several different museums, galleries, and rooms, each featuring vast collections of world-renowned paintings and sculptures. There’s so much to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Even though you won’t be able to see everything on a single visit, if you plan it right and give yourself enough time, you’ll still be able to see quite a bit. The key is to determine ahead of time the things you absolutely must see inside the Vatican Museums, and then make sure to work those particular pieces or places into the path you take through the museums. (Don’t worry, there are free maps at the entrance to help you navigate the maze of galleries!)
So, what are the must-sees at the Vatican Museums? Naturally, the answer to that question will vary depending on who you ask – what I consider to be the top things to see inside the Vatican Museums may be different than yours. I’m more of a sculpture girl, myself, but you might think the only things worth seeing are paintings by the masters of the Renaissance. (In which case, you’ll appreciate the Raphael Rooms far more than I did!) That being said, I believe there are several highlights within the Vatican Museums that no one should miss (ahem, Sistine Chapel) and you’ll find these below, along with a few of my personal favorites!
The Gallery of Maps
The Gallery of Maps is one of the most visually stunning rooms within the Vatican Museums. Stretching down a long hallway, it’ll be a contest to see what grabs your attention first – the highly decorative ceiling or the 40 geographical frescoes depicting Italy and its provinces lining the walls. Take your time as you walk through here to check out the detail in these maps painted from drawings by Ignazio Danti, a famous geographer in the 16th century.
The Museo Chiaramonti is named after Pope Pius VII who founded the gallery in the early 19th century. Containing over 1,000 ancient sculptures, the Museo Chiaramonti is important not only because of the striking portrait busts and statues you’ll find here, but also because this gallery represents many of these sculptures’ return home. Having been seized by Napoleon and taken to France in the late 1700’s, it wasn’t until several decades later that these pieces were recovered and brought back to be displayed in this gallery. Be sure to check out the New Wing (Braccio Nuovo) before leaving this area, too.
Cortile della Pigna
Also known as the Pinecone Courtyard, the Cortile della Pigna gets its name from the gigantic bronze pinecone that sits at one end of the square. The thing I find most interesting about the Pinecone Courtyard, however, is not the pinecone so much as the unusual gold sphere found opposite it known as Sfera con Sfera, or Sphere within a Sphere. Looking slightly out of place surrounded by its much older counterparts, Sfera con Sfera is actually just one piece of a series by Arnaldo Pomodoro found in many locations around the world. (We were lucky enough to find another at Trinity College in Dublin!) Representing the fragility and complexity of the world, you won’t want to miss this one!
The Octagonal Courtyard
Located in the Museo Pio-Clementino, the Octagonal Courtyard is a beautiful open-air space featuring several of the museum’s most famous sculptures. One of my favorites here is Laocoön, a sculpture dating all the way back to 40 BC depicting Laocoön and his sons being killed by sea serpents during the Trojan War, an event which ultimately led to the founding of Rome. Another, the Apollo Belvedere, is famous for representing what the Romans once considered to be the perfect male form. While not quite as notable as the others, the elegant statue of the River God, once part of a fountain dating back to the times of Emperor Hadrian, is also worth a look.
Also located in the Museo Pio-Clementino is the Sala Rotonda, or Round Hall. Designed with the Pantheon in mind, the Sala Rotonda makes quite an impression from top to bottom. While certainly smaller in size, you won’t be able to miss the similarities in the ceiling of the Sala Rotunda and the Pantheon (e.g., the round oculus in the center and the square notches surrounding it), but there are differences, too, like the addition of the small rosettes that give the Sala Rotonda’s ceiling a much more delicate look. The floor in this room is made up of colorful ancient mosaics originally laid in the town of Otricoli back in the 3rd century. (How things like this survive so long amazes me!)
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The Spiral Staircase
Another highlight of the Vatican Museums modeled after something else, the museum’s legendary spiral staircase is actually designed after another staircase inside the museum that is no longer open to the public, the Bramante Staircase. You’ll find the newer spiral staircase, designed by Giuseppe Momo, near the main exit. This staircase, like the original, is a double spiral staircase made up of two staircases shaped like a double helix allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending. If you’re visiting the Vatican Museums on your own, you’ll likely exit this way, but if you’re part of a tour, you might have to make a side trip to check it out!
Hall of the Chariot
The Hall of the Chariot is a gallery that probably interests me more than it will the average museum visitor, but if you’re in the Museo Pio-Clementino anyway, you might as well drop by and check it out. Featuring statues and other sculptures depicting scenes from athletic games and competitions, this room of the museum is a fun departure from the usual busts and statues you’ll find throughout the Vatican Museums. The two-horse chariot in the center of the room is the most noteworthy piece in here, but you’ll also find a copy of the famous Discobolus out on display.
The Papal Apartments
So named because the popes once used this area as private residences, today the Papal Apartments are where you’ll find a large collection of rooms featuring some of the most famous frescoes in the Vatican Museums. The most well-known of these rooms are the Raphael Rooms, four separate rooms collectively known as Stanze di Raffaello and painted by Raphael and his school in the early 1500’s. The most famous piece here is the School of Athens, found in the Room of Segnatura. While I thought the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms were incredible, my favorite room in the Papal Apartments was actually the Room of the Immaculate Conception (pictured above) painted by Francis Podesti, which probably proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know nothing about art.
The Museum Itself
Isn’t it funny how the places we build to hold our works of art, often end up becoming one themselves? Walking through the Vatican Museums is a lot like walking through one gigantic 460,000 square foot masterpiece. As you’re making your way through the many rooms and galleries, don’t forget to look past the pieces displayed and see everything that surrounds them. You never know when you might be walking on a floor that was once a part of an ancient villa in central Italy! And definitely don’t forget to look up. The ceilings throughout the Vatican Museums are magnificent, which leads nicely into the absolute most important thing to see inside the Vatican Museums…
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel hardly needs an introduction, but just in case you’re not aware, the Sistine Chapel is where you’ll find one of the most famous works of art in the entire world – nine scenes from the book of Genesis painted onto the ceiling by none other than Michelangelo himself. The most iconic of these scenes is the Creation of Adam, but they all work together to create a pièce de résistance that you’re probably going to need some time to completely appreciate. The walls also contain some pretty impressive paintings, including The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, so make use of the benches along the chapel walls and take your time. This room stays busy, but there’s no limit on how long you can stay.
Speaking of that, besides buying your tickets online and being in the queue to enter before opening time, my only other piece of advice for visiting the Vatican Museums is simply not to rush. A visit to the Vatican Museums will be infinitely more enjoyable if you aren’t racing through to reach the Sistine Chapel so you can head to the next stop on your Rome itinerary. Guided tours are available, and while I personally didn’t feel it was necessary to take one, there are some that start before the museum opens to regular visitors, so it might be worth it simply to avoid the crowds! Entrance tickets can be purchased directly from the museum here. For more information about guided tours, please visit the website below.
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