The Vatican Museums are the public museums of the Vatican City, displaying works of art amassed by the Catholic Church and papacy throughout the centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and some of the most important Renaissance artwork in the world. There are 24 galleries in total, with the Sistine Chapel, being the last room visited within the Museum. We booked our tickets online, having read about the queues which can develop, and this proved to be a very good thing to do. Although you do still need to queue to collect the actual tickets – and don’t forget ID to prove who you are – it’s a whole lot quicker than joining the snaking queue around the building. It’s important to know that the following items of clothing are NOT allowed – shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts. And even more important if you visit in the hotter months as you’ll need to be prepared clothing wise. All visitors must pass through airport-style security, and during high season, the wait at security may be up to 30 minutes – and this was guidance when we visited a few years ago, so it may be even longer now. I guess, the rule of thumb is, if you want to visit the Vatican Museums is be organised and get online to make a booking.
So, is it worth it?
Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, yes. It’s a long day – because to even touch the sides, you need to set aside a day. You definitely won’t see everything, although you will probably go through all of the galleries, to get to the end goal. The Sistine Chapel. More of which later.
If you specifically want to visit the Gardens, then make sure you buy a ticket which includes this, as not all do. Ours didn’t, but I don’t think we missed out, as doing the gardens as well, would probably have been totally overwhelming. We started in the Cortile della Pigna (Pine Cone Courtyard), where the bronze Sphere within a Sphere – Sfera con Sfera – sits. Created by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, its meaning isn’t clear, but consensus seems to be that it can be read as a symbol of the emergence of a new world from the old. I don’t think you are supposed to touch it, let alone spin it, but we did see a number of tourists giving it a whirl. And very impressive it was, too…
From the Cortile della Pigna, you begin the tour of the galleries. Be prepared – selfie sticks seem to still be a big thing, so watch where you’re going! The galleries are a bit of an onslaught, visually, so you will definitely miss a lot. Depending on your interests, some will be much more interesting than others, but even the ones that you take a quicker pace through, are dazzling and exhausting in equal measure. I have no idea of the names of the vast majority of the galleries, but I do know that I definitely wanted to see the only painting by Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums – The Deposition of Christ – in the Vatican Pinacoteca, and the Gallery of Maps. Two things ticked off my bucket list. So, what did we see?
Out of everything we saw in the museum, the ceiling above is one of the things I remember most. If you are fascinated by the history of The Borgias, then this part of the museums might interest you, as its only the Borgias’ Apartments! Imagine that! The ceiling above is in The Room of the Popes and owes its name to the scrolls with the names of popes on them in the room. It is the largest of all the rooms and the pope used it to host official ceremonies, audiences, and solemn banquets.
So, above, the one I wanted to see – and I was so taken by it, that I completely forgot to take any photographs so this is one is credited, in the caption. The Deposition of Christ, painted in 1603, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have no background in art and am not an artist, in any way. But I have always been intrigued by historical figures who led lives that were full of danger and intrigue – and immense talent. So, although I couldn’t appreciate Caravaggio’s work as an art historian might, his life is more than enough to intrigue me and make me interested in his art…
…with his unruly black curls and unkempt black beard, the artist was known to wander the streets of Rome dressed in black, accompanied by his black dog, Crow (the bird-harbinger of death), and brandishing swords and daggers at the slightest provocation.
He and his motley group of friends took as their motto – “without hope, without fear,” – and these were the words they lived by. Caravaggio had a police record many pages long filled with stories of assault, illegal weapons, harassing the police and complex affairs with prostitutes and courtesans. Caravaggio’s numerous legal problems often meant that the artist would suddenly have to flee Rome or be otherwise unable to complete a commission. Caravaggio’s brawling, trouble-making tendencies reached a whole new level on the 28th of May, 1606. On this date, following a disputed tennis match, Caravaggio and his friends were involved in a street brawl with Caravaggio’s young foe Ranuccio Tomassoni and his gang.
Caravaggio ended up dealing the young Tomassoni a fatal stab wound in the groin. With a price on his head, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome for the last time. The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another, all the while trying to get a papal pardon to be able to return to Rome. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta to try to gain the influence of the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, Alof de Wignacourt. The Knights were so pleased with the works the artist executed while on the island that he was accepted into the Order, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”
The artist escaped once again and was back on the run. During this period, an unknown assailant attempted to murder Caravaggio during his sleep, only succeeding in disfiguring his face. Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior such as sleeping fully clothed and armed and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. The artist desperately continued working, sending paintings to influential figures like Cardinal Borghese and Alof de Wignacourt in order to secure their influence to procure his pardon. Finally, in 1610, Pope Paul V began the process of granting Caravaggio’s pardon and the artist boarded a boat to return home to Rome. He was never to return, however: Caravaggio died under unknown circumstances around the 18th of July, 1610, after only a decade-long career. His body was never recovered….
Last stop on our whistle-stop tour of the Vatican Museums, was obviously The Sistine Chapel. Having heard all of the myths and stories about visiting here, I was prepared to be blown away. And, prepared to not take any photographs, of course. But, all I was left with was a feeling of total disappointment and being underwhelmed.
Perhaps I should have read this brilliant article first, but I didn’t, and so my experience was one of being rushed through a massive crowds, with security guards barking instructions from raised platforms. It was horrible. There was no sense of awe or serenity. It was like a cattle market – and if prods had been available, those guards would definitely have used them. It was so crowded that there was literally no point in looking up, to see the ceiling, as you’d have been knocked off your feet if you stopped. Other visitors were really, really frustrated and there was a general sense that we just had to get through as quickly as possible, to allow the next crowd in. I’m going to have to do it again, but I honestly think that next time, I’d opt for one of the small guided tours, as explained here. Well worth the extra expense, I’d say, to get up close to the art. And, not be shouted at by security.
If there’s one way to exit the museums, it’s via the famous Bramante Stairs. These really are a spectacle and rather than leaving on a disappointed downer after the Sistine Chapel, this staircase was a bit of treat.
So, our top tips for visiting the Vatican Museums :
- Book online
- Don’t forget your passport or ID
- Wear trainers
- Have a phone charging pack so you can recharge for all of those photos you’ll want to take
- Be prepared to be pushed through the Sistine Chapel – OR, book a guided tour
- Don’t expect to take it all in – there’ll be so much you’ll see online afterwards that you weren’t even aware of as you walked around
- It’s a good few hours to do all of the museums, so set aside a day
- Have a glass (or two) of refreshing Italian wine after it all…