One cannot visit the Vatican and ignore the Vatican Museums (technically you can obviously, but why go all the way to the Vatican and not the museums?).
The museums (yes plural) are most known for the Sistine Chapel, but contain so many more masterpieces and monumental works.
The collections in the museums were built up gradually by the various popes from the Renaissance onwards and now constitute the biggest museum complex in the world. The popes were among the first sovereigns who opened the art collected in their palaces to the public. The Vatican Museums are made up of different museums and galleries which began life under Pope Clement XIV and Pope Pius VI; among them are the Etruscan Museum, the Egyptian Museum, the Lateran Profane Museum, the Gallery of Tapestries, and the Gallery of Maps to name but a few.
The most famous part, and the reason why most people visit (around 25,000 a day actually), is the Sistine Chapel. As photography is not allowed in the chapel I don’t have any photographs to show you, however, if you go the museums’ website (www.museivaticani.va) you will be able to take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. This space is without a doubt the piece de resistance. I remember, after shuffling through the different corridors that lead you through to the chapel, getting into this space and not being able to take it all in. We stood there in the center, squashed in by all the other people around us, looking up and around, trying to comprehend the beauty of it all. There is so much to see that you just don’t know where to look first. As you walk into the space the guards make it clear that no photography or filming is allowed. We had some rather noisy people following us in and one of the guards actually shouted for people to be silent. After all, this space is a chapel and you should behave accordingly. The woman next to us blatantly ignored the “no camera” rules and after a few minutes suddenly a guard appeared next to her side, telling her to delete the photos and switch the camera off. She had no choice but to obey the order. So be warned, follow the rules!
The Sistine Chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (1471-84). It was his decision to build a large room to house the assemblies of the Papal Court, as the current hall was no longer able to hold the vast numbers the court was made up off at that time. Additionally, this hall was also going to be a defensive structure, mainly to keep the Medici family out, as tensions between the rulers of Florence and the Pope continued. Work started in 1475 and was completed in 1481. The walls were painted by a number of artists (Botticelli being one of them) and Michelangelo was not summoned until 1508 by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) to paint the vault. This alone took Michelangelo four years of hard work (think standing up on top of a scaffold painting a ceiling with intricate details, it’s a myth that he lay on his back). The Vault is undoubtedly the masterpiece in this room, which includes the famous “Creation of Adam” detail, but “The Last Judgement”, which was not painted by Michelangelo until a little later on between 1536 and 1541, should not be overlooked. Specifically look out for St. Bartholomew, who is on the bottom right of Christ the Judge, holding a fleshless skin which is said to be a self-portrait of the great artist.
The Sistine Chapel is also the place where a new pope is elected by those cardinals that are eligible to elect a new pope (i.e. any cardinal under the age of 80). The chapel has been the sole venue for this since 1870, prior to this other locations were also used. Cardinals are required to leave all electronic devices outside and are swept for bugs prior to entering. Cardinals have to swear an oath of secrecy with the promise of hellfire and damnation if they break their vow. Once all the cardinals are in the chapel the doors are closed with the words “Extra omnes” (Everyone out); the doors are locked and conclave begins (conclave comes from the words cum clave “closed with key”). The doors are guarded during conclave by two Swiss Guards. In the Middle Ages conclave consisted of around 12 cardinals, the last conclave held on 12 March 2013, which resulted in the election of Pope Francis, included 115 cardinals. Food and drink is served in the nearby Sala Borgia by nuns, who are among a handful of non-cardinals allowed into this space during conclave. The only others are two sacristans and two masters of ceremonies. In days gone by cardinals would sleep in nearby rooms and nooks and crannies during conclave, these days they use the spartan Domus Sanctae Marthae on the far side of St. Peter’s from the chapel.
Secret ballots have only been in place since 1621 and they begin on the first evening of conclave and are then followed by four a day until a candidate receives a majority of two-thirds plus one vote. Pope Francis was elected in 5 ballots, but if more than 34 ballots are required, cardinals move to vote only between the two cardinals who received the most votes in the last ballot.
We have all seen the news coverage back in March 2013 showing the black smoke rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signifying no pope, and white smoke and bells when a pope has been elected. In order to avoid any confusion chemicals are these days used to create the black and the white smoke in the specially installed burner. Once elected, the new pope will be led to the Room of Tears in the Sistine Chapel, so-called after the emotion he is thought to likely feel. The room is to the left of the altar and below The Last Judgement.
Another great attraction is Raphael’s Rooms, four to be precise, which are known as the Stanze of Raphael. The Room of the Segnatura is probably my favourite of the four rooms; it contains the School of Athens painting. This painting includes all the famous philosophers of ancient times; Plato in the center pointing upwards, Aristotle to one side of him; Pythagoras at the front explaining the diatesseron, Diogenes lying on the stairs. Raphael even included Michelangelo, who at the time was working in the nearby Sistine Chapel. He is the little fellow at the back right, leaning against a marble pillar, with one leg crossed over, scribbling on a piece of paper. Raphael also appears in this scene, he is the fellow on the far right with the black beret.
One thing you cannot escape from when you walk around the different areas of the Vatican Museums is that almost every ceiling is decorated in beautiful paintings. One of the prettiest, in my view, aside from the Sistine Chapel, is the Apostolic Library.
This library was founded in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV, although there is evidence that a library/archive has existed as part of the Roman Church since the 4th century, and was constantly enlarged by his successors. In order for scholars to gain access to the 80,000 manuscripts, 8,600 incunabula (books printed in the 15th century), thousands of prints and about 1.6 million printed volumes, they must present a letter of recommendation and fulfil certain criteria. This library, which is situated in the Vatican palace, is the world’s richest manuscript depository. Now, don’t confuse this with the Vatican Secret Archives, which were separated from the Vatican Library in the 17th century. By the way, the word “Secret” does not denote the modern meaning of confidentiality, its meaning is more along the lines of “private”. Access to this archive is more stringent than the library’s access restrictions.
As ever, there is so much more that I could write about, but I fear it might just bore you readers to death. So let’s get to the practical matters of visiting these museums.
The museums are open Monday to Saturday, 09:00 to 18:00, and rooms have to be exited half an hour prior to closing time. Note that the museums are closed on Sundays, the exception being the last Sunday of every month when entrance is free from 09:00 to 12:00, with the building closing at 14:00. This is the day to avoid visiting, as it is hugely popular and the Sistine Chapel will feel more like the Sardine Chapel. The other day to avoid is Wednesdays, as St. Peter’s Basilica is often closed on Wednesdays due to the papal audience, tourists go the museums, and are later joined by those who had tickets to the papal audience in the morning.
Admission price for most people is 16 Euros, there are reduced tickets, visit their website for more info. In order to avoid standing in line to gain entry to the museums, and I mean a long line that snakes along the wall of the Vatican, buy your tickets online from the website; the 4 Euro reservation fee is well worth it, as you will be avoiding the queues. I recommend that you book your tickets as soon as you have firm travel dates to ensure you are not disappointed.
Bulky backpacks, walking sticks, large umbrellas, and tripods must be handed in at the cloakroom. As well, note that there is a dress code to visit the museums, no sleeveless tops, miniskirts, shorts and no hats, just as there is at St. Peter’s Basilica. The museums also forbid the use of “selfie sticks” (apologies if you own one of these, but I am not a fan) and flash photography.
Although the Vatican Museums are not accessible with the Roma Pass, you might still do well to buy one of these, as I am sure you will be visiting more than just the Vatican. They give you free entry to the first 2 visited museums and/or archaeological sites of your choice (so the Colosseum for instance – but more of that in next week’s post), and after that concessionary tickets for all other attractions covered by this pass, but they also give you free use of the city’s public transport network (it does not include connections to and from the airports). The pass is available as a day pass at 36 Euros or a 48 hours pass at 28 Euros. For more information on the pass, which museums and sites are included and to buy it online go to www.romapass.it.
If you are planning a trip to the Vatican soon, I hope the information I have provided here has helped you a little with your planning. If you have already been, hopefully this will have taken you back to the Eternal City; and for those of you who are unlikely to ever make it, I hope I have given you a tour you enjoyed from the comforts of your armchair.