The Vatican: Musei Vaticani

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in April 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.


Musei Vaticani

The Vatican Museums are another huge draw to the Vatican, and it ranks as the fourth most visited museum in the world (after the Louvre, the National Museum of China, and the Tate Modern).

I have to say this: the Vatican Museum is one of the most beautiful museums I’ve ever been to and it holds a great many number of important pieces, all delightful and lovely to behold… but I will probably never visit again. I have never been to a museum that was this crowded before. I was constantly shoved, elbowed, and thrusted around (my height is not in my favor), which made for a very frustrating museum visit. It’s possible that in the lower seasons (I went in April, which is more like the shoulder season) the museum might be a bit emptier.

The collection held by the Musei Vaticani, as the museum is known in Italian, has been amassed by the Catholic Church and the papacy over many centuries, and includes important pieces of classical sculpture and Renaissance art. In total, the collection comprises 70,000 works, though only about 20,000 are on display.

Chiaramonti Museum

The museum was originally founded in the 16th century by Pope Julius II (the man behind the Sistine Chapel and the rebuilding of the Basilica of Saint Peter). The very first object purchased for this collection was Laocoön and His Sons, which has to be one of the most amazing sculptures ever made (and of which there is a copy in the Uffizi in Florence). The sculpture in question was discovered in 1506 in a vineyard near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to examine it. The pope purchased the sculpture on their recommendation and placed it on display a month later.

Laocoön and His Sons

Purportedly praised by Pliny the Elder in the highest terms, this sculpture represents Laocoön, a Trojan priest, alongside his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, as they are attacked by serpents. The reason for this attack is that Laocoön, during the fabled Trojan War, tried to get the Trojans to burn the horse left by the Greeks, as he had seen in visions that it would mean their doom. Since a few of the gods were on the side of the Greeks, Athena made the ground shake and blinded him, a punishment which was seen and understood as such by the Trojans, who then refused to heed his words and burn the horse. As he did not give up trying to convince them, Athena sent these serpents to silence the priest once and for all, murdering his sons in the process.

The museum’s dedicated building was only built more recently and was opened to the public in October of 1932 — prior to this, it had been housed in the Borgia Apartment, a suite of rooms in the Apostolic Palace.

Pio Clementino Museum
Apoxyomenos (The Scraper) by Lysippos

While the subject depicted by this sculpture is a conventional one (that of the athlete scraping sweat and dirt from this body with a strigil), this specimen is based on the most famous one. It was sculpted by Lysippos of Sikyon, court sculptor to Alexander the Great, in 330 BCE. While the bronze original is lost, this is a copy made in Roman times and found in Trastevere in 1849.

The Vatican Museums are actually a group of museums, and it contains quite a few: The Gregorian Egyptian and Etruscan Museums, the Pio Clementino Museum (classical sculpture), the Chiaramonti Museum (once looted by Napoleon), a number of Lapidoria, the Vatican Pinacoteca (“art gallery”), the Borgia Apartment (today it holds part of the Vatican’s Contemporary Art collection), the Raphael Rooms, and, among others, the Sistine Chapel.

Belvedere Torso
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Statue of the Nile recumbent

The Stanze di Raffaello (the Raphael Rooms) are four rooms selected Pope Julius II as his own residence, and thereafter used by his successors. The paintings were created by Raphael and his workshop in 1508-1524.

School of Athens by Raphael
Bramante Staircase

Inspired by Bramante’s original staircase, which was built in 1505 and is not generally open to the public, this staircase was designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo, sculptured by Antonio Maraini, and built by the Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry. It is a double helix, as the original is, so that traffic moving up will not meet traffic going down, allowing for a smoother transition.

Ponte Sant’Angelo

Originally, this ancient Roman bridge was called the Aelian Bridge, or Pons Aelius. It was completed in 134 CE by Hadrian to span the Tiber from the city center to the Castel Sant’Angelo, his newly completed mausoleum.

Angel with the Sudarium by Cosimo Fancelli
Angel with the Column by Antono Raggi

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