Located within the boundaries of Rome, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world and the seat of Roman Catholicism. The Vatican sits not just at the center of Roman Catholicism, but is also home to one of the most impressive collection of art in the world. Be it Caravaggio’s paintings, the frescoes of Michelangelo or sculptures by Bernini, some of the greatest works of Renaissance art can be found in the the Vatican.
Apart from a pilgrimage center, the Vatican is also one of the most important tourist destinations in Europe. The main attractions in Vatican City are St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.
St. Peter’s Basilica, along with St. Peter’s Square, sits in the heart of the Vatican. It is a renowned work of Renaissance architecture and was designed by the likes of Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Maderno and Bernini. On the other hand, the Vatican Museums and its collections are considered to be of the highest historical, scientific and cultural importance. The greatest of all though are the frescoes which adorn the Sistine Chapel, a chapel in the Apostolic Palace and a part of the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums are a group of art and Christian museums situated within the walls of Vatican City. The Vatican Museums collections consist of over 70,000 paintings and sculptures, displayed prominently in over 54 galleries, making it one of the most impressive collections of Renaissance art anywhere in the world. The museums are home to a number of classical sculptures, tapestries, and paintings by Renaissance greats such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Bernini and Leonardo da Vinci. The Vatican Museums also have a collection of Modern Religious Art with paintings and sculptures from artists like Carlo Carrà, Vincent van Gogh, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso.
The Raphael Rooms
The Raphael Rooms are a group of rooms in the public portion of the Vatican Palace (part of the Vatican Museums) and are famous for their frescoes which were painted by Raphael, marking the High Renaissance in Rome. The rooms that make up Raphael Rooms are Sala di Costantino ("Hall of Constantine"), the Stanza di Eliodoro ("Room of Heliodorus"), the Stanza della Segnatura ("Room of the Signatura") and the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo ("The Room of the Fire in the Borgo").
Gallery of Maps
The Gallery of maps is a 120 metre long gallery in the Vatican Museums that is covered with painted maps of Italy based on drawings by friar and geographer Ignazio Danti. It took Danti 3 years to complete the 40 panels that make up the Gallery of Maps. The Gallery of Maps remain as the world's largest pictorial geographical study.
The Sala Rotonda is shaped like a miniature Pantheon and is covered with impressive mosaics on the floor while the perimeter is lined with statues and busts. The mosaics of the Sala Rotonda originally belonged to the 3rd century A.D. and were found at Otricoli and at Sacrofano. They were later assembled here in the 18th century. Of the sculptures, the most famous is the gilded bronze statue of Hercules. A red porphyry basin with a circumference of 13 metres lies at the center of the room.
The Sistine Chapel is situated in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, and is located within the Vatican Museums. Access to the Sistine Chapel is included with your Vatican Museum tickets. When you visit the Vatican Museums and its 54 galleries, the Sistine Chapel will notably be the last room you visit and also the most brilliant. The Sistine Chapel was built between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV and is named after him as well. Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are considered to be a cornerstone of Renaissance art.
The Sistine Chapel is undoubtedly the highlight of every Vatican Museum visit. You will instantly know when you’re in the Sistine Chapel as the room gets extremely quiet and everyone inside can be found looking up, staring at the magnificent ceiling. Michelangelo’s frescoes adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with paintings depicting stories from the life Jesus and Moses painted on the eastern, northern and southern walls.
The frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 under the commission of Pope Julius II. Originally painted as golden stars on a blue sky, Michelangelo worked on the ceiling to convert it into one of the most famous works of art in the world. Michelangelo commenced the enormous undertaking after he built himself a scaffold to reach the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Over 40 scenes were painted onto the ceiling in the span of 4 years depicting the stories of Creation, the creation and downfall of Adam and Eve, three stories of Noah, ancestors of Jesus, the twelve Prophets and Sibyls.
The Last Judgement is probably the most famous single work of art in the Sistine Chapel. Covering the entire wall behind the altar, The Last Judgement was painted by Michelangelo from 1535 to 1541. The Last Judgement depicts the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment and is based on the 20th chapter of the Revelation of John. A heroic image of Jesus occupies the center of the wall with saints and prophets surrounding him while the common folk are painted at the bottom of the wall. The painting is one of a kind in terms of its symbolism and size and has to be seen in person for to truly feel its glory.
The Basilica of St. Peter is an Italian Renaissance church that was designed primarily by Donato Bramante, Gian Lorenzo Bernini,Michelangelo and Carlo Maderno. Today, St. Peter's is not only the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture but also the largest church in the world. Construction of the basilica began in 1506 and was completed in 1626. The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are a ten-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica.
Adjacent to the basilica is St. Peter’s Square, a large plaza located directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. An ancient Egyptian obelisk stands at the center of the basilica, erected at the current site in 1586. Some of the most popular aspects of the basilica are Michelangelo’s La Pietà sculpture, Bernini’s Baldachin, the statue of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II’s tomb as well as the cupolone - St Peter’s famous dome. One is not required to purchase a ticket in order to access the main basilica, though certain sections such as the cupola require a ticket.
St. Peter’s Basilica Cupola
Climbing to the top of the cupola is a fascinating experience. Immediately after entering the basilica, if you look to your right, you will be able to see a signage indicating the direction of the ticket booth and staircase that leads to the top. You can either take the stairs entirely to the top (551 steps) or take the elevator and then climb the remaining on steps (320). There is a minor difference in the fee for stairs only and lift + stairs. On your way to the top, you will be able to stop at a terrace facing the interiors of the dome and enjoy the beautiful mosaics that line it. Once you reach the top, you will be greeted by stunning 360-degree panoramic views of Vatican City and Rome. The dome is open from 8:00 AM to 6:0 PM in the months of April to September and from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM in the months of October to March.
St. Peter’s Treasury
St. Peter’s Treasury is another section of the basilica that has an admission charge. Its exhibition contains church ornaments, statues, papal mitres and various other objects that were usually royal gifts.
Many people visiting the basilica visit the Vatican Grottoes. What it is is an underground graveyard that contains the tombs of many Vatican popes as well as members of the royal family from the 10th century. The Vatican Grottoes are free to enter and are open everyday from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM in the months of April to September and from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM from October to March. Make sure this is the last place you visit in St. Peter’s Basilica since you will be outside the basilica upon exiting the grottoes.