You’ll stare in wonder at this glorious chapel that gives new weight to the word masterpiece. Beginning in 1508, Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling with Old Testament scenes that have become some of the most revered images in human history, including the moving Creation of Adam. Two decades later, he returned to paint his somewhat scandalous, definitely artistically revolutionary altar scene, the Last Judgment.
About your tour
You’ll step into the pope’s kingdom a full hour before the general public, allowing you to relish in relative calm the glorious Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums (note the plural!) and the Renaissance and Baroque wonders of St. Peter’s Basilica.
THE ORIGINAL & THE BEST. WE WERE THE FIRST TO CONVINCE THE VATICAN MUSEUMS TO OPEN THEIR DOORS!
The museums were once the pope’s quarters, filled over the centuries with Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts, Flemish tapestries, pictorial maps and precious religious objects. And let’s not forget the magnificent frescoes of the 16th-century masters Michelangelo and Raphael. An Italy with Us guide, certified by the Vatican, is essential for highlighting the most significant works and navigating the vast collection covering about seven kilometres of galleries, chapels and rooms.
During this tour, the guide typically whisks visitors through the art-filled halls to arrive at the Sistine Chapel before the crowds. Michelangelo, the genius behind the ceiling, repeatedly refused the commission before finally succumbing to a generous offer with a clause that gave him complete artistic freedom. And let freedom ring! The stories from the book of Genesis unfold above you, including the iconic Creation of Adam displaying the nearly touching fingertips of God and Adam. Gaze upon the altar’s Last Judgement, a cauldron of saints, sinners and sharp commentary on Vatican power plays.
Backtracking through the museums, the magnificent collection will astound you. In the Raphael-decorated papal apartment, ancient philosophers ponder and pontificate in his acclaimed School of Athens fresco, as well as some Renaissance-era interlopers to be discovered. Examine closely the ancient Greek and Roman statues that were Michelangelo’s marble muses for the Sistine Chapel’s figures. And just as the crowds are starting to surge, escape into the magical Hall of Animals, which is closed to the general public. Italy with Us is among a select few agencies permitted by the Vatican to enter this veritable stone zoo.
St. Peter’s Basilica caps off the visit with Michelangelo’s hauntingly real Pietà sculpture and his architectural contribution, the dome. The artist’s design is slightly smaller than the Pantheon to show respect for the ancient Romans who inspired him. And he, in turn, has inspired us.
Top tour highlights
This courtyard’s namesake is a gigantic, classical-era bronze pine cone. This fertility symbol once stood near the Pantheon, later in the old St. Peter’s Basilica before arriving in its present post in the central great niche flanked below by fourth-century BC granite lions from an Egyptian shrine. Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere Within Sphere is planted in the courtyard’s centre. The reflective, colossal bronze is the exact same size as the sphere topping St. Peter’s dome.
The Trojan priest Laocoön warned that Greeks bearing gifts – in this case, a wooden horse – should not be trusted. Athena and Poseidon sent sea serpents to kill him and his two sons. In the circa 40 BC sculpture, the brawny Laocoön fights valiantly, a model for musculature and movement.
Italy with Us is among a select few tour companies given entrance to this magnificent space decorated with mosaic flooring from Hadrian’s villa. Dating back to 120 AD, the mosaics of theatre masks even display chiaroscuro, the illusion of light and dark that creates a 3-D effect.
The Round Room, modeled after the Pantheon, is perfect for displaying enormous statues, such as the Herceles, the rare, gilded-bronze statue from the classical age that wasn’t melted down. In the centre looms a massive reddish-purple basin made of precious porphyry stone, which once adorned Emperor Nero’s palace.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the muses were the goddesses of the arts and science. This hall is a stage for the sculptured maidens representing comedy, tragedy and more, as well as an Apollo holding a lyre. Yet the undisputed star is the first century BC Belvedere Torso, a masterful depiction of power and masculinity that inspired artists from Michelangelo to Rodin.
The gallery, named for its pair of gigantic ancient marble candlesticks, leaves no surface untouched by staggering beauty, from the colorful marble floors and columns to the 19th-century frescoed ceilings. Commissioned by Pope Leo XIII, the frescoes promote his agenda of opening the Church to the rapidly changing society. Among the mostly light-hearted sculptures soak up Bacchus with a rare glass eye and fertility goddess Artemis of Ephesus covered in bull testicles.
The room's namesake chariot and its two horses have both an ancient and an 18th-century pedigree. Renowned restorer Francesco Antonio Franzoni reassembled the first-century AD pieces of one of the horses and the chariot and then sculpted another horse to create this 1788-dated masterpiece.
Marvel at the massive 16th-century tapestries that once hung on the Sistine Chapel’s walls. These High Renaissance gems showcase the work of two maestri: designs by the school of Raphael and weaving by Belgian Pieter van Aelst’s workshop. The exquisite tapestries depict Christ’s life and feature astounding optical illusions. Look up at the ornate trompe d’oeil vault for more.
Take a magical trip through Italy’s regions and papal states of the late 16th century. This long gallery – some 120 metres – showcases 40 immense, frescoed maps in bright greens and blue. Snap a picture of the Venice map and compare it today’s Google maps version: the accuracy is mind-blowing.
In the early 16th century, Pope Julius II tapped Raphael to freshen up his papal apartment and private offices. The Tuscan genius outdid himself, creating some of his finest works, including School of Athens. Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers move within the proposed interior of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was under construction at that time.
The magnificent Renaissance-era basilica amazes the believers and non among us. The Catholic Church’s 400-year-old spiritual home replaced the church that Constantine the Great had built over St. Peter’s tomb in 324 AD. This immense holy site never feels overwhelming due to creative use of proportion and perspective. St. Peter’s is home to Michelangelo’s moving Pietà, Bernini’s gilded-bronze baldachin over the high altar and not a single painting, instead innumerable mosaics that resemble paintings.