The Vatican Museums, 1,400 rooms of secular art

Rome, Vatican City

Whatever the season, visiting the Vatican Museums (musei Vaticani) is never easy. What’s more, the entrances are sometimes closed during the day to regulate the flow of visitors. During peak periods, choose late morning, around 11:30 am, to avoid the long queues that form when the museum opens. Please note, however, that the last admission is an hour or more before closing time. An audioguide is available, as are a number of different tours.

The origins of these museums go back to Julius II, who in 1503 had ancient works deposited in the courtyard of the Belvedere palace. His successors followed suit, bringing together Greek, Roman, Paleo-Christian and Christian works. Two popes in particular, Clement XIV and Pius VI, contributed to their development and glory. The museums have continued to be enriched to the present day.

Ils sont immenses, et vous ne pourrez pas tout voir en une seule visite. Choose the places that interest you most. Unless you’re planning a multi-day visit, concentrate on these, especially as you’ll have a long way to go: the Sistine Chapel, for a start, is 500 metres from the main entrance.

Go past the brand-new entrance on Viale Vaticano, take the escalator to the top and climb the last few steps: on your right you’ll find the Pinacoteca (painting gallery). First-time visitors will want to get straight to Raphael’s chambers and the Sistine Chapel: turn left into the Vestibolo dei Quattro Cancelli (Vestibule of the Four Doors), and admire the Cortile delle Pigna (Courtyard of the Pine Cone), so named because it is dominated by a monumental pine cone, an antique bronze found near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Then turn left and take the stairs to the second floor, where you’ll arrive in the Greek Cross Room, part of the Pio Clementino Museum. Don’t miss the two extraordinary porphyry sarcophagi on display; in the one on the right, decorated with battle scenes, lies Saint Helena, mother of Constantine.

Take the stairs to the second floor, then walk along the corridor that houses three successive galleries: the Galleria dei Candelabri (candelabras), the Galleria degli Arazzi (tapestries) and the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche. The latter’s interesting frescoes depict the possessions of Italy and the Church in the 1580’s. From the windows on the right, you can see a charming Renaissance villa, the Casina di Pio IV, and the Vatican Gardens. The Salla dell’Immacolata at the far end leads to the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael’s rooms).

Stanze di Rafaello

Raphael’s four chambers were created at the request of Pope Julius II in 1508, on the grounds that the existing papal apartments reminded him too much of his hated predecessor, Alexander VI Borgia, and his family. The first two, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza di Eliodoro, are considered Raphael’s finest achievements. The Stanza dell’Incendio was created from Raphael’s drawings by the master’s pupils. The last, the Stanza di Costantino, was not completed until 1524, after the death of the painter, who probably made only a few preliminary sketches. The room was mainly decorated by Giulio Romano, Francesco Penni and Raffaellino del Colle. Its frescoes evoke episodes from the life of Constantine, the underlying theme being the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

La stanza delle Segnatura (the Signature Room) was Julius II’s library and study. It is the most famous, housing two of Raphael’s most famous works, The Dispute of the Blessed Sacrament and The School of Athens, executed between 1508 and 1511 to glorify faith and philosophy respectively.

In The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Christ, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist are surrounded by figures from the Old and New Testaments, but only those from the New Testament (which, unlike the Old Testament, belongs solely to the Christian religion) have a halo. There’s an altar with the Host and the Doctors of the Church, saints and martyrs. Dante can even be seen on the right of the lower section.

In The School of Athens (opposite), Plato and Aristotle are deep in conversation in a huge basilica. Raphael liked to depict his contemporaries, and the references are numerous. Plato has the face of Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael himself is the second figure at the far end of the group of gentlemen in hats on the right. Directly opposite, Euclid has the features of Bramante and leans over, compass in hand, to explain his theorem to his pupils. (Bramante is also depicted in The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, leaning on the banister at the far left.) In the foreground, the figure deep in thought, head resting on his left hand and taking notes, is Heraclius, the Pessimist, depicted in the guise of Michelangelo.

The stanza di Eliodoro (Heliodorus’ room) was originally the apartment’s private anteroom. It was decorated between 1512 and 1514 on the theme of miracles. It is distinguished by its color palette and theatrical use of light, as in The Deliverance of Saint Peter (freed by an angel from his prison in Jerusalem). In the lower right-hand corner of La Messe de Bolsena, which illustrates the miracle of Bolsena (a bloody host appeared to a priest doubting transubstantiation), we see Swiss guards.

Also on display are Heliodorus being chased from the temple (by angels after he stole the treasure of the Jerusalem temple) and Leo the Great arresting Attila (Pope Leo I, 440-461, presented himself unarmed to Attila and the Huns, who gave up attacking Rome in the 5th century). Here, Raphael’s penchant for depicting his contemporaries obliged him to paint the same face twice: in fact, after the death of Julius II, he had to repaint the face of Leo the Great as the new Pope Leo X (1513-1521). As the latter was already depicted as one of the cardinals, he appears twice in the same scene.

The stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo (Borgo Fire Room) was a dining room. Painted between 1514 and 1517 by Raphael’s pupils from his drawings and cartoons, it illustrates episodes from the lives of Popes Leo III and Leo IV (portrayed as Leo X). In particular, it shows how, in 847, Leo IV (to whom we owe the Vatican ramparts) extinguished a fire that was ravaging the neighboring Borgo district by making a sign of the cross.

Behind Raphael’s rooms, the pretty Cappella di Niccolo V (Chapel of Nicholas V) is one of the oldest remains of the palace. The frescoes have the usual grace of Fra Angelico. Before moving on to the Sistine Chapel, you can visit the Borgia apartments, frescoed by Pinturicchio and his pupils.

Practical info

  • Museums visited on April 27, 2010
  • Open 8:45 am to 4:45 pm (March-October), 8:45 am to 1:45 pm (November-February and Saturdays)
  • Transport: Rome, Metro A, Cipro
  • Tour duration: 3 to 5 hours
  • Buy your ticket online

Photo Gallery

Sacred animal figurines

Figurines d'animaux sacrés

Stone sarcophagus of the priest Sema-Tauy

Sarcophage en pierre du prêtre Sema-Tauy

Fragment of a tomb relief

Fragment de relief d'une tombe

The School of Athens, by Raphaël

L'école d'Athènes

Marble statue of Antinous

“ I saw an angel in the marble and only chiseled until I freed it. ”

The Sistine Chapel

Built by Giovanni di Dolce during the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-1484), this vast rectangular room with its barrel vault served as a private chapel for the pontiffs. This is where, for centuries, conclaves have been held to elect the pope. The floor features a delightful opus alexandrinum, a motif inspired by 13th- and 14th-century cosmastic pavements.

The elegant grille dividing the chapel in two was sculpted by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno and Giovanni Damatala. The crowning glory of the Sistine Chapel is, of course, the fresco decoration of its walls and vault. The latter has recently been restored to its original state, free of any additions. Many consider these frescoes to be the supreme achievement of Renaissance art, indeed of universal art.

The decoration of the Sistine Chapel can be divided into three periods, each coinciding with a major development in Renaissance art. The frescoes on the walls were painted by various artists between 1481 and 1483. The vault was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. Lastly, the altar wall was again painted by Michelangelo, but much later (1534-1541).

The walls over 40 metres long were frescoed by the most famous Florentine and Umbrian painters of the Renaissance: Pinturiccio, Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli and Signorelli. At that time, under the impetus of an all-powerful papacy, the epicentre of the Renaissance had moved from Florence to Rome. On the left, starting at the entrance, are illustrated scenes from the Old Testament: Episodes from the Youth of Moses (Botticelli), The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiron (Botticelli), and The Death of Moses (Signorelli).

On the right are scenes from the New Testament, including the Baptism of Christ (Pinturicchio and Perugino), the Temptation of Christ (Botticelli), the Vocation of the Apostles Peter and Andrew (Ghirlandaio) and Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (Perugino). On the far wall are the Resurrection (Ghirlandaio) and Saint Michael (Salviati), both of which were subsequently altered.

Originally blue and dotted with stars, the vault was redecorated by Michelangelo at a time when the spiritual and artistic supremacy of the Church was undisputed. Michelangelo was not particularly happy to have been chosen, as he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor and wanted to continue working on the tomb of Julius II (which remained unfinished, incidentally, and whose magnificent Moses can be seen in San Pietro in Vincoli). When he accepted, mainly to oust his rival Bramante, he transformed the project to depict the apostles into a much more ambitious description of Creation, and thus spent four years of his life lying on his back.

This choice was no accident. The cosmology of the time divided the history of the world into two periods: that preceding the Law (given by Moses), and that beginning with the arrival of Christ: Grace. As the decoration on the walls represented the Law and Grace, Michelangelo chose to illustrate the first, namely Creation, the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. The result is truly prodigious. Don’t forget to bring binoculars so that you can admire it properly. We recommend that you start with the part above the altar.

Nine main scenes are illustrated in a succession of tableaux. The origin of the world: God separates Light from Darkness, the Creation of the Moon, the Sun and the Planets, God separates the Waters from the Earth and the Creation of Animals and Plants. The origin of the human race: Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve. The origin of evil: Original Sin, Adam and Eve driven from Paradise, Noah’s Sacrifice, the Flood and Noah’s Drunkenness. Surrounding the scenes are seven prophets (from left to right: Jonah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, Isaiah and Daniel) and five Greek sybils. The bands between the scenes are decorated with Ignudi, magnificent naked athletes resembling ancient statues. The triangular lunettes between the sybils and the prophets depict the Ancestors of Christ awaiting deliverance and, in the four corners of the vault, scenes from the Old Testament.

At the time Michelangelo undertook the Last Judgement at the request of Pope Paul III (1534-1549), the atmosphere in Rome was pessimistic. The sack of the city in 1527 had led to great political instability, and the nascent Protestant movement was ushering in a period of religious uncertainty. The tensions and fears of the time are reflected in the Last Judgement (which was much less well received than the Creation, as it was considered unseemly due to the excessive humanity of its nude figures, and which Pius VI had covered by Daniele Volterra).

In the centre, a stern, athletic, beardless Christ is surrounded by the Virgin and saints. Below, on the left, the chosen ascend to heaven, while on the right, the damned are cast into the river of Hell by Caron, impassive on his boat. Michelangelo portrayed Minos, the judge of the damned (the figure in the lower right-hand corner with donkey ears entwined in a head of snakes), as one of his most virulent critics, Biagio da Cesena, a member of the Roman Curia. Michelangelo also appears as a beardless Saint Bartholomew (below and to the right of the Redeemer), holding his flayed skin (a reminder of his martyrdom).

360° Virtual Tour

The Sistine Chapel

Chapelle Sixtine, visite virtuelle

360° general view

The Pigne courtyard and Arnaldo Pomodoro’s sphere

Photo Gallery



The Crucifixion by Tomaso Lauretti

La Crucifixion de Tomaso Lauretti

The Gallery of Geographic Maps

Galerie des Cartes Géographiques


With a passion for travel and discovery, we invite you to discover original photos that will inspire you to get away from it all. Visit museums and hiking trails, big capitals and small villages, and marvel at the beauty of our world. Plan your trip and set off to meet warm, welcoming people, witnesses of different yet enriching cultures.

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