A visit to Rome requires a visit to the Vatican (official website here). Allot half a day for this visit. If you go during peak tourist season, consider purchasing a pass the line tour. These are more expensive but especially in the hot summer months, may be worth over standing in line for hours. There are also occasional days where the Vatican is free, see this schedule here. A friend waited in line for 3 hours in May on a “free Sunday”, and they arrived even before the doors were opened! We went on a pass the line tour which was great for efficiency, but I felt the tour was too rushed and we were not able to spend time looking at each object with ease. Ultimately we retraced our steps following the tour to revisit a couple of our favorite pieces (Gallery of Maps!)
If you are able to enter early in the morning, I recommend making a bee line towards the Sistine Chapel. There will be a wait and no photos are allowed. This was one of two of my favorite memories about the Vatican. I recommend reviewing the explanation behind each of the images to get a full experience (here, here). Sit on a bench and be prepared to crane your neck up for long periods of time. Make sure to find the self portrait of Michelango!
Alternatively you can follow a suggested path illustrated here. You will see the Sistine Chapel in the middle/last third part of your
Museo Pio Clementino
One section of the Vatican Museum. Official description here. Includes: Square Vestibule and Cabinet of Apoxyomenos, Octagonal Court, Hall of Animals, Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts, Cabinet of Masks, Hall of the Muses, Round Hall, Greek Cross Hall, Hall of the Chariot, Gallery of the Candelabra.
Make sure to visit Round Hall (Heracles statue, Nero’s bathtub) as it is modeled after the Pantheon (look up!), Octagonal Court (Lancoon statue), and Hall of Muses (Belvedere Torso)
Laocoön and His Sons
This marble sculpture is one of the few works which can specifically identify the creator due to Pliny the Elder’s writings. The sculpture is thought to have been created around 40-30 B.C, late Hellenistic period. The statue originally stood in the Palace of Emperor Titus. It was discovered in 1506 at Esquiline Hill in Rome. The flexed right arm of the subject was not discovered until 1905 by Ludwig Pollack.
While there are several interpretations of the statue, my favorite is Laocoon being punished with his sons for attempting to expose the Trojan Horse. Athena and Poseidon sent two sea serpents to silence him. The people of Troy then interpret his death as a warning to not refuse the gift.
It is now located in the Octagonal Courtyard. More information regarding the statue here.
Following the Gallery of the Candelabra, you will see the Tapestries Hall. On your right will be the more recent tapestries (17th Century) showing the life of Pope Urban VIII.
On the left are older tapestries (16th Century), showing the life of Jesus. One of the ones our tour guide pointed out was the Resurrection of Jesus. The eyes of Jesus seem to follow you no matter where you are in the room.
Gallery of Maps
Following the Tapestries Hall, you will see the Gallery of Maps (my favorite!) This hall was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII time (1572-1585), creating 32 floor to ceiling frescoes of the Italian peninsula and papal territory (Avignon). The gallery was designed by Ottaviano Mascherino and under the direction of cartographer Egnatio Danti. It is difficult to identify the exact artist of each frescoe as none were signed. It is thought that the majority of the work can be attributed to Antonio Tempesta and Matthijs Bril.
It is thought that Danti used ancient Greek literature, such as Polybius, to fund his knowledge regarding the topography of Italy. North was not always the way to orient the maps, so you might notice a few maps that are upside down during your visit.
Look out for the guards in their colorful uniforms. These are members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. They are foot guards for the Pope and military for Vatican City. Each guard carries a halberd: a pole with a mounted axe/blade. Guards must be unmarried, Catholic, Swiss Citizenship, ages 19-30 and be at least 5 ft and 8.5 inches.
The Swiss were renowned in older times (~1500s) for their elite mercenaries and attempted to defend the Vatican during the Sack of Rome (1527). This alliance between the Swiss and the Holy Roman Empire has continued even to this day. More information regarding the history of the guards here. Contrary to popular belief, the uniforms were not designed by Michelango. Instead, the Commander Jules Repond (1910-1921) was inspired by the Renaissance and Raffaello’s frescoes to redesign the uniform. Surprisingly, you can purchase his manuscript here.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Emperor Constantine the Great sponsored the creation of the original St. Peter’s basilica in 324. The location is said to be the burial site of St. Peter. The basilica was rebuilt by Pope Julius II’s vision and a design competition was held (you can reportedly see the submissions at the Uffizi Gallery). Main designers include Donata Bramante (original design), Michelangelo (dome and bringing the plans to fruition), Carlo Maderno (front facade with Corinthian columns), and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (embellishment). The design of the dome was inspired by the Pantheon.
Inside the basilica, your eyes will be drawn to a large bronze structure in the center. This is Bernini’s baldachinno which is out of bronze with twisted columns (called barley sugar shape). The columns were modeled after the Temple of Jerusalem. The bees and laurels on the columns are the sign of Pope Urban.
Michelangelo’s Pietà can be found near the entrance of the basilica. This was commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères to be used as his funeral monument. Made out of Carrera marble, it is the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed (seen on the sash across Mary’s chest). Reportedly, Michelangelo signed it because he heard someone else take credit for his work.
The sculpture shows Christ in Mary’s arms following his crucifixion. Historic critics of the sculpture felt Mary looked too young (in which Michelangelo reported back it was Mary’s chasteness that led to her youthful appearance). It was exhibited at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair with viewers on convey belts.
Climb the Dome
I recommend taking the time to visit the dome and climb it! There may be crowds if you don’t arrive first thing in the morning. There is an elevator for most of the trip (320 steps) for a view but the top (better view) requires an additional 231 steps. Both options (elevator+stairs for 10 Euros or stairs only for 8 Euros) requires a fee. A nice reference for visiting the dome can be found here.
Emperor Nero had his own mother murdered during his reign. He was known for extravagance, building a 30 meter statue of himself (Colossus of Nero). It is said that he blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome and killed many as punishment. Some believe Nero started the fire to make space for his palace the Domus Aurea.
Nero’s bathtub was discovered at Nero’s Domus Aurea. It is made of an extremely rare type of stone (imperial porphyry). This stone was regarded as extremely desirable due to its color (purple = royalty) and hardness (requiring special tools to carve). Only one quarry is known to have this type of special stone in Egypt. It is now located in the Rotunda Room with the Heracles sculpture.
Fontana della Pigna
Located in the Cortile della Pigna (courtyard in the Vatican), there is a large bronze statue of a pinecone, flanked by a peacock on either side. The pinecone was originally located adjacent to the Pantheon.
The pinecone supposedly represents the pineal gland of the human, which regulates hormones (including melatonin which helps you sleep). Alternatively, it is thought that it represents the “third eye”. The peacocks represent immortality. The peacocks are reproductions of ones that guard Hadrian’s tomb in Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Egyptian Lions (now copies) are from the reign of Nectanebo II (360-343 B.C.), Northern Egypt, and part of a sanctuary to the Egyptian god Thoth.
Another one of my favorites during my visit were the Raphael rooms. You will see these after a junction (following Tapestries Hall, Gallery of Maps, Apartment of Pius v) to either go straight to the Chapel, or visit the Raphael Rooms / Borgia Apartments.
Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate the papal apartments with frescoes (early 1500s). I recommend reviewing a detailed description of the frescoes before visiting. There were so many visitors squashed into these tiny rooms that it made it hard to appreciate unless you knew what you were looking at ahead of time.
School of Athens: One of the frescoes in the rooms, showing nearly every famous Greek philosopher. Plato is in the center (pink/purple) with a finger pointing upwards to the sky and holding his book Timeus. Aristotle (Blue) is next to him, holding his book Ethics. Broody Michelangelo is in the foreground (in purple).
Following the Raphael Rooms are the Borgia Apartments with additional beautiful frescoes created in 1492-1494. These were created for Pope Alexander VI by Bernardino Pintoricchio. Pope Alexander was part of the Borghese family with Spanish roots. In their apartments you can see decorations of Spanish tiles and Bull motifs (the sign of the Borgia family).
Fun finding: There is a beautiful yellow Vatican mailbox located when you climb/ride to the top. I am not sure if it is functioning but it makes for a fun photo-op.