Vatican Museum

by Aysha Griffin on March 26, 2017

Vatican Museum entry sculpture

Sculpture above the entry to the Vatican Museum; although a new, slick pavilion to the north has been added for processing the hoards of visitors.

It’s too big and too crowded… and you must go. Of course, this is The Vatican, the seat of the predominant religion and government of the western world for centuries, Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the skyline and, well, it houses some of the greatest art ever created.

St. Peters domeby Michelangelo

St. Peters dome designed by Michelangelo, taking clues from the Pantheon built 1,500 years before.

To skip the lines that wind for at least half a mile around the massive western and northern walls (and this is in mid-March… imagine summer!), your best bet is to sign up for a small tour. With some 5,000 official guides registered with the Vatican Museums, we felt fortunate to have randomly chosen Christiana Tittarelli, a charming Italian art historian with a good command of English and years of experience. Her insightful narrative was transmitted into our earbuds wirelessly, so even when slightly separated from the group of seven, we could hear her clearly.

Vatican Museum entry

We were told 20,000 people a day visit the Vatican Museum. Book a tour in advance!

Once fitted with headphones and tickets, the tour begins in the lemon garden and winds through room after room of magnificent architecture and art – collected, donated or stolen – to its end in the Sistine Chapel, where photos are not allowed and “Silencio!” is repeated to the crowd who cannot help whispering and talking about what they’re noticing in the 12 wall frescoes (by Botticelli, Ghirlandalo, etc., including Michelangelo’s creepy “Last Judgment”) and the 33 ceiling panels.

Even three exhausting hours of moving through the galleries (with throngs of others) does not begin to scratch the surface of the buildings and treasures of Vatican City.

Classical sculptures in Vatican Museum

Classical sculptures informed much of later work, specifically the Renaissance masters.

This ancient Greek torso is said to be Michelangelo’s inspiration for God’s body as he reaches out to Adam in the Sistine Chapel’s center ceiling panel. God also has his entourage and arm around a young girl, while Adam reclines seemingly indifferent to God’s extended reach.

God's torso

Gold and more gold, this in the ceiling of the Gallery of the Candelabras… I think, but there were so many rooms, so much to take in.
Vatican gold ceiling, gallery of candelabras

And then there was a long hall of enormous and stunning tapestries.

Vatican tapestry of the resurrection

A small segment of a tapestry I estimate to be 10 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Notice the almost whimsical presentation by the angel; a “ta-dah! He is risen!” and the bewildered look on the face of Christ.

There were the Rafael rooms, with his prolific big-scale paintings of life as he imagined it in the time of Christ; himself only living to age 39. The story goes that his funeral was attended by more women than men and most were presumed to have known him in the “Biblical sense.” We passed through the Borges’ opulent apartment; a pope so depraved that no future pope would inhabit his chambers. And finally, (although I am skipping many amazing bits), an area of  a modern art collection that was started in the 1990s and seems like filler for empty rooms before heading through passageways to the grand finale of the Sistine Chapel.

The tour ended at St. Peter’s Square. The Basilica, open to the public, proved too much for aching feet and minds reeling with art and history overload, so I peeked inside and vowed, “Another day.”

St Peters square

St Peters square. The size and scale is unfathomable… even in person it’s difficult to take it in.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Stormy March 26, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Wowza! You saw the best part for sure – I think a lifetime of gallery visits wouldn’t capture everything.

Aysha Griffin March 26, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Thank you for your kind comments and good suggestions (in your email). I agree that a lifetime in the Vatican galleries wouldn’t be enough to take it all in. I’m fascinated with the influence of the ancients on what we call “modern art.” More soon. Please keep in touch! xo

Anita March 27, 2017 at 9:42 am

Love, love the Vatican museums. There’s a lifetime of viewing there, for sure. Once you get past the Sistine Chapel, it’s astonishing how much awaits return viewing. Brilliant to save St. Peter’s for a day of renewed energy, too 🙂

judith fein March 27, 2017 at 5:25 pm

thank you for taking us all along with you to the vatican! love the juicy bits about raphael.

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