Vatican City — Paradise for the art lover

The Vatican

Some people might make the pilgrimage to the Vatican for a religious experience, and I suspect they are well-satisfied. But regardless of your personal religious beliefs, affiliations or lack of, Vatican City is a sight in Rome not to miss.

Sometime during its growth and evolution, the Catholic Church amassed great wealth, (we could debate the ethics of the source and use of the wealth at a later time perhaps). The Church used the wealth, in part, to collect and commission art masterpieces. A large part of this  incredible collection is right here in Vatican City (technically a tiny independent country), and on public display. “With the fall of Rome, the Catholic (or “universal”) Church became the great preserver of civilization, collecting artifacts from cultures dead and dying. Renaissance popes (15th and 16th centuries) collected most of what we’ll see. . .),” Rick Steves

My only advice if you go is — wear walking shoes.

Giotto di Bondone circa 1337 Stefaneschi Triptych depicting St. Peter with Cardinal Stefaneschi and Pope Celestine at his feet. Previously it was on the main altar of the Basilica of St Peter.

The two main sights in Vatican City are the Musei Vaticani and St. Peter’s Basilica. The entrances are a 15-minute walk from each other. We went first to the Vatican Museum and started in the Pinacoteca or gallery of paintings from Medieval times through the Baroque.We were following Rick Steve’s guide for the most part which highlighted the greatest masterpieces.

This wall displays the remnants of a great fresco by Melozzo da Forli — The Ascension of Christ. I doubt photographs will ever be able to fully capture the essence of frescoes.

A close-up of the Angel playing the viola circa 1480.

Raphael's Transfiguration

This is The Transfiguration by Raphael. It is displayed prominently on a wall in a primarily empty large room, between two other paintings by Raphael—the Madonna of Foligno (circa 1512) and the one I preferred, the Coronation of the Virgin Mary (circa 1503) The Transfiguration shows Christ with the prophets Moses and Elijah at top, then Peter, James and John who cower in fear, and the remaining apostles at the bottom.

We saw Leonardo da Vinci’ St. Jerome (circa 1482), paintings of someone holding St. John’s head, of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, of Christ being buried (Caravaggio’s Deposition 1604), of many Madonnas with child, and of the Garden of Eden. It was like an illustrated version of the Bible.

We had only just scratched the surface.

A hallway in the Vatican Museum. The architecture was at times as amazing as the artwork on display.

We actually did the tour a little bit backwards by starting in the Pinacoteca, at least according to Rick Steves, but we were hoping by jumping to the end first, we might avoid the crowds in the Pinacoteca. I can’t say that it worked with any certainty. I don’t believe it is possible to avoid the crowds in Vatican City.

Fast reverse in time from the Renaissance to early Egyptian art.

“Egyptian art was for religion, not decoration. A statue or painting preserved the likeness of someone, giving him a form of eternal life. Most of the art was for tombs. . .,”Rick Steves

This is the mummy of a woman who died three millennia ago. I thought this was kind of creepy and I felt bad for her. I’m sure she never expected to be exposed and land in a museum. I realize my displaying her here perpetrates the offense, but I figured the number of people who see her here is insignificant to the millions who walk by her every year.

On to the sculpture from Greece and Rome (500 B.C. to A.D. 500).

Apollo Belvedere by Greek sculpture Leochares.

Apollo Belvedere is hunting for prey. He prepares to put a (missing) arrow into his (also missing) bow.

Laocoon, high priest of Troy warning, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

I love the action captured in this statue of Laocoon, the high priest of Troy who warned his people not to bring the Trojan horse inside the gates.  Laocoon, the most famous Greek statue in ancient Rome was lost for more than a thousand years. “In 1506 it was unexpectedly unearthed in the ruins of Nero’s Golden House near the Colosseum. The discovery caused a a a sensation. The cleaned it off and paraded it through the streets . . .One of those who saw it was the young Michelangelo.” Rick Steves

Belvedere Torso

The Torso — all that remains of an ancient statue of Hercules seated on a lion skin. “Michelangelo loved this old rock. he knew that he was the best sculptor of his day. The ancients were his only peers . . .He’d caress this statue lovingly and tell people, ‘I am the pupil of the Torso,'” Steves.

The long march is a quarter-mile walk through hallways of sculpture, tapestry, and maps. The building the museum is in was originally a series of papal palaces. “The popes loved beautiful things—statues, urns, marble floors, friezes, stuccoed ceilings—and, as heirs of imperial Rome, they felt they deserved such luxury,” Steves.

Are you tired yet? Because I am. And all I’m doing is sitting here typing and putting up photos. I can’t imagine how we ever made it through the Vatican City day.

Map of Italy painting in the 16th century and located in the Map Gallery of the Vatican Museum.

My husband Mark loved the Map Gallery of 16th century maps showing regions of Italy. Scenes in the ceiling portray important moments in church history. Mark insisted on perusing each and every one of these maps in great detail while I was interested only in finding someplace to sit down.

Ceiling in the Map Gallery

We’re almost done, but you can’t miss these next two rooms— the Raphael Room and the Sistine Chapel.

When Raphael was 25, Pope Julius II asked him to paint the walls of his living quarters.  This room is one of the reasons you have to visit Vatican City if you are able. It is like being in a 360 theatre of wonder and glory.

Raphael's School of Athens

Raphael’s the School of Athens is one of his most famous works of art. It occupies an entire wall in this room. Raphael has gathered all the great thinkers and scientists of ancient Greece. Plato (pointing up) and Aristotle (pointing down) are in the center. Socrates is in green midway to the left (I’m not sure he can be seen well here). Euclid (bald) is in the foreground bending down to demonstrate a geometric formula. Raphael has painted Leonardo da Vinci in the role of Plato in the center. Raphael painted himself in on the far right with a black beret. Steves

I think nothing conveys the world in which these genius talents lived in together better than the simple fact that while Raphael was painting this room, Michelangelo was down the hall, working on the Sistine Chapel.

Sadly, or maybe not so sadly at this point in this very long post, we were not allowed to take photos of the Sistine Chapel, you will have to view those online. But you can take my word for it — truly amazing.

Just a quick stop for lunch, a short walk to St. Peter’s Basilica and we’re on our way home.

St. Peter's Basilica

You can see the people in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, lined up to tour.

“St Peter’s is the greatest church in Christendom. It represents the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter, this is where the grandeur of ancient Rome became the grandeur of Christianity,” Rick Steves

Columns rising to the domed ceiling of St. Peter's in Rome.

The interior is as impressive as you might expect it to be.

A view of the main altar, where the dome is partially visible.

St. Peter’s is a church, not a museum. Mass is said in the apse daily for pilgrims, tourists, and Roman citizens.

And the reason I would go back and do it all again . . .

Michelangelo’s La Pieta.

All that’s left now is to sit here on the stone steps,

try to tap our energy reserves, and make it back across the bridge where the angels watch over us.

Tomorrow— the Colosseum!


Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Rick Steves’ Rome 2009
ROME: AAA Spiral Guides 2008