The Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, and depicts scenes from the Book of Genesis. The chapel is part of the Apostolic Palace (the Pope's official residence), and also includes artworks by Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino, as well as large tapestries by Raphael.
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You’ll start big with the spectacular classical statuary collection. The Round Hall, inspired by the Pantheon, is the perfect stage for the extremely rare, gilded-bronze Heracles from the Roman-era. In another niche, the colossal, second-century AD Braschi Antinous dominates. The young Egyptian was supposedly Emperor Hadrian’s lover but drowned in the Nile and the ruler declared him a god. Just one of many works with histories that are, let’s say, the stuff of long confessional sessions.
Without elbowing crowds, ponder the perfectly proportional Belvedere Torso that has inspired countless artist. In fact, Michelangelo based his figure of Christ in the Last Judgment on this first-century BC Greek sculpture. Admire the elegant Belvedere Apollo and the Laocoön, all rippled muscles and strain, proving that marble really can move.
Stroll through the Gallery of Tapestries where the 500-year-old masterpieces hanging on the walls look like paintings. That’s due to the illustrious designers, the school of Raphael, and masterful Belgian weavers. Yet the Vatican Museums’ collection is far more than the art on walls. The rooms themselves are historically and artistically significant. Need we say more than the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Rooms?
In the latter, step back into the early 16th century. Visit Pope Julius II’s private office to admire the frescoes recently completed by a young Raphael who was working at the same time as Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. Both artists even make cameo appearances in Raphael’s iconic School of Athens fresco of philosophers.
Such an unprecedented visit can only be topped by the magnificent Sistine Chapel. In peace and quiet, gaze at the chapel’s splendors. More than 100 cardinals gather here to select a new pope; you’ll have a fraction of that number. Select the spot of your choice for studying Michelangelo’s ceiling begun in 1508. A painting novice who much preferred sculpting, he infused nine scenes from the book of Genesis with extraordinary life. Two decades later, he created his controversial Last Judgment above the altar. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from the saints and sinners rising or falling to their destinies.
The Sistine Chapel must be seen in person to fully appreciate its breathtaking beauty. When the chapel and the museums are visited with just a few people, it becomes a truly magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience. As if you were pope for the night.
Top tour highlights
The Gallery of Candelabra contains huge marble candelabra, and consists of an exhibition divided into six, arranged under Pope Pius VI Braschi from 1785 to 1788. The Chariot Room includes a large marble Roman chariot and two horses, and was restored in 1788.
This gallery includes works, originally shown in the Sistine Chapel in 1531, by Pieter van Aelst's School in Brussels, which were then arranged for the Vatican Museum gallery in 1838. The Gallery of the Tapestries also includes Roman works woven for Pope Urban VIII (Barberini).
The Gallery of the Maps displays 40 maps frescoed on the walls, painted between 1580 and 1585 based on drawings by Danti, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII.
The Raphael Rooms contain famous frescoes and were decorated by Raphael and his workshop 1508 and 1524. The four rooms, known as the Stanze of Raphael, form a reception in the public part of the Pontifical Palace.
This refined hall, designed like a Greek cross, was once the entrance to the Pius-Clementine museum, as revealed in the Latin lettering Museum Pium above a door. The room’s main attractions are the two enormous, elaborately carved sarcophagi, or monumental coffins, made of red porphyry, a precious stone adored by emperors. They are believed to have held the remains of Constantine the Great’s mother and daughter.