The Vatican – a Veritable Treasure Trove
Approaching the imposing walls of the Vatican City, you begin to sense the immensity and grandeur contained within. Despite being the smallest sovereign state in the world by both area and population, the 110 acres contain some of the art world’s greatest treasures and a unique history that will leave you awestruck.
Our exploration of the Vatican began at the Vatican Museums. We made sure to book an official guided tour – this proved to be an affordable and informative way to fully immerse ourselves in the masterpieces of the immense Vatican Collections, whilst also skipping the queue! Word from the wise – make sure you are prepped and ready for a marathon of a journey through centuries of history and grandeur. The Catholic Church does not do things by halves. Unless you’re talking about lunch options – definitely don’t rely on finding a gorgeous little trattoria behind those walls. You’ll be sorely disappointed. But that isn’t why we’re here is it?
The entrance to the museum is located on Viale Vaticano – a surreptitious and literal hole in the wall, leading you into the vast atrium where we eventually find our guide and beautiful neon green earpieces – always so catching! We start in the great halls of Greek, Roman and Christian antiquities. Surrounded by immense corridors of marble and travertine, our guide talks us through the Roman sculpture, tombstones, and inscriptions, including the Early Christian sarcophagi collected from the excavations of the Catacombs of Rome. Further rooms showcase pieces originating from the ancient homes of wealthy Roman families, including an incredibly intricate mosaic detailing the unswept floor post banquet.
From here we’re led through the Cortile della Pigna, showcasing a colossal 1st-century Roman bronze pinecone, contrasted with one of Pomodoro’s Sphere Within Sphere delightfullyinteractive sculptures. Everything gleams in the sunshine as the dome of St Peter’s Basilica peeks over the walls of the courtyard. From here, we head into the glorious Museo Chiaramonti. Time it right and the elongated arched gallery is bathed in glorious warm light. The hall itself contains over one thousand examples of antique sculpture and an incredible collection of Roman portrait busts, each with a story to tell. Or make up your own stories about each character you pass – also great fun.
The unexpected highlight of the Vatican Museums for me was the Braccio Nuovo – or New Wing. Turning a corner from the Chiaramonti you reach a glorious blue and white room with a wide arched roof, skylights and a stunning polychrome marble floor. Lining the walls are larger-than-life-size statues portraying emperors and Roman replicas of famous Greek statues. Included in this collection is the incredible Augustus of Prima Porta – a full-length portrait statue of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Ancient Rome, a two-metre marble marvel.
From here the museum’s rooms seem feel like an unending sprawl of fabulous ancient roman relics. We found ourselves lost in rooms of marble creatures, gawping at stunning mosaic floors and basking in courtyards bathed in Roman sun.
The final stretch of the museum leads you closer and ever closer to the Sistine Chapel – the grand finale of the collection. But before that, we pass through the elaborately decorated Galleria delle carte geografiche – Gallery of maps, lined with large scale frescos mapping the entirety of the Italian peninsula overlooked by yet another superb vaulted ceiling. It’s here that the enormity of the museums really become apparent, with the complete itinerary leading you through the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments and the museum’s modern art collection – all the while promising the Sistine Chapel is just around the corner. A tip for young players – there is a shortcut just past the bookshop at the Apartment of Pius V, allowing you to directly enter the Sistine Chapel without the aforementioned lengthy route.
Once inside, the Sistine Chapel does not disappoint. Unfortunately no photos are allowed, and the Vatican security will kindly remind you that “silenzio” is required at all times – via a rather ironic loudspeaker system. Try to grab a seat on either side of the chapel and take in the glory of Michelangelo’s ceiling which leads the eye towards The Last Judgment – a fresco, also by Michelangelo, adorning the altar wall. Interestingly, all the figures in this fresco were originally naked. However, as the result of a censorship campaign, another artist was later commissioned to provide all the figures with clothes.
Our guide’s tip whilst visiting the chapel was to make sure you take a moment before you head through the exit to admire the entire chapel from the viewpoint of a holy man approaching the altar. This allows you to take in the proper aspect of the ceiling and see everything in proportion, as was Michelangelo’s intention.
After hours roaming through the collection, the Bramante Staircase provides you with an appropriately grand exit. Designed in 1932, this double helix staircase allows people to ascend without disturbing those descending, which really just leads to an incredibly surreal with people heading around and around in circles, seemingly reaching nowhere.The Vatican Museums are a vast, sprawling collection – a display of the wealth and power of the Catholic church through the centuries. Despite spending 3-4 hours wandering through the many galleries and rooms, we barely scratched the surface. Click To Tweet
The Vatican Museums are a vast, sprawling collection – a display of the wealth and power of the Catholic church through the centuries. Despite spending 3-4 hours wandering through the many galleries and rooms, we barely scratched the surface. The guided tour is fascinating but is also quite overwhelming – just given the shear amount of antiquities to cover. But this is the Vatican – where everything built to be overwhelming and awe-inspiring, if not a little showy.
Take a short walk from the exit of the Vatican Museums and you reach St Peter’s Basilica, adjacent to the sprawling Piazza San Pietro. As the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world, St Peter’s holds its own as a sight to behold. From the square filled with Easter pilgrims, we file into the Basilica, and are immediately struck with the sheer scale of it all. As the proposed burial site of St Peter, the basilica is also famously the burial place of 91 popes – many with their own larger than life statues looming over the crowd. Surprisingly, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his father – exiled Catholic British royalty James Francis Edward Stuart – are also buried here after being granted asylum by the Pope.
The vast enclaves and chapels branching from the main aisle contain hidden treasures, including Michelangelo’s famous Pietà – now protected by a bulletproof panel after an arson attack in 1972. Photos do not do justice to the scale of the incredible vaulted nave lined with statues of the basilica’s primary holy relics, neither do they do justice to Bernini’s elaborate bronze alter and extravagant Cathedra Petri or “throne of St. Peter” – gleaming in all its golden glory from under the dome.
As we head away from the Vatican City, the Swiss guard stand proudly in their almost novelty uniforms – bidding us farewell from the Holy See. Safe to say, our experience of the Vatican City has been entirely overwhelming. The vast amount of wealth and antiquity contained within its walls is tremendous – but leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth, with its inextricable link to the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church. As a spectacle, it does not disappoint – and the well-deserved Negroni found at nearby Il Sorpasso never tasted so sweet.
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