Project Description

An Introduction to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel were all Renaissance creations. Sure, Emperor Constantine financed the original Saint Peter’s in circa 330 A.D. But that version no longer stand! It was replaced in the 1500s by Pope Julius II’s new one. Instead, what is now the sprawling Vatican Museums actually started in the 1500s as one small sculpture gallery. Again, thank Pope Julius II! The rooms, corridors, and courtyards that the Museums would invade were first built as sprawling Renaissance palaces where the Pope lived, dined, received ambassadors, studied late into the night, and entertained. And the Sistine Chapel? A wall-to-wall lesson in Renaissance art!

The Splendor of the Vatican Museums

During our visit, we’ll focus on Pope Julius II’s collection of ancient sculptures. This is the core of the Museums’ gargantuan collection. And it is pure quality. The pope made only a handful of key purchases and generously opened his collection to a select group of visitors. One of them was Michelangelo. Have no doubts, he was fascinated by ancient sculpture and sketched many of them. Many visitors will recognize Laocoon, the Trojan high priest. He can be seen in the photo as he attempts to disentangle himself and his two sons from a pair of serpents. Others will be stunned by the so-called Apollo Belvedere, which inspired both Michelangelo and, about one hundred years later, Bernini!

Moving on to other splendidly decorated rooms and hallways, we can pit-stop in Raphael’s rooms (if time and energy allow), before ogling at the Sistine Chapel.

The Splendor of the Sistine Chapel

So, God having zapped life into Adam is the Sistine Chapel, right? Not really! We could open a chapter on pop culture and the negative effects of marketing culture, but we’ll do that over coffee…  As some of you know, the world-renown image in the photo is just a small fragment of the entire ceiling fresco. It can be seen in the next photo. Even more surprisingly, the ceiling fresco is only a small portion of the chapel’s artwork. It’s actually a visual equivalent of surround-sound. There is splendid Renaissance art everywhere: on each of the four walls and over your heads.

vatican museum sistine chapel detail of ceiling

And the wonders never cease! Because the artwork comes from three distinct moments of the Renaissance. So with Daniella’s expert guidance, you’ll experience early Renaissance art (on the walls), only to springboard into Michelangelo’s full-blown, 3D celebration of the human form frescoed roughly 25 years later on the ceiling. We will then end with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. It is the big blue wall in the photo showing a greater portion of the Sistine Chapel. It is his grim late Renaissance statement about salvation and the political and religious circumstances of the 1530s.

vatican museum sistine chapel michelangelo ceiling
vatican museumentire sistine chapel

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Rome's downtown and the canopy by Bernini and Borromini in saint Peter's basilica

And of course there’s Saint Peter’s! We’ll continue our Renaissance theme, focusing on Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Pieta’. But we also need to discuss his architectural contribution to the basilica. Many people don’t realize that he engineered the dome. Not only that, but that his dome was the second one to be built in modern European history. (Brunelleschi’s dome over the cathedral in Florence was the first.) Visitors who like heights and want to deepen their understanding of Michelangelo should visit the dome. From it you’ll appreciate the inside of the basilica from a new viewpoint and enjoy a 360 of Rome!

But Saint Peter’s Basilica is not just the Renaissance. Much of its artwork was produced or designed by Bernini in the 1600s. So, we’ll make an exception and discuss his contributions too, like the church’s stunning Canopy or baldacchin (that is seen in the picture).

 

Practical Information Regarding the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica

The Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica are quirky places that can be difficult to navigate. For example, the Sistine is part of the Museums. So, visitors must cross the Museums (at whatever pace they deem appropriate) to get to the Sistine.  Second, the VIP passageway that allowed guides to shortcut from the Sistine to Saint Peter’s is now closed for renovations. This means that visitors must walk from the Basilica to the Museum entrance (or vice versa). Until the passageway reopens, Daniella suggests starting with Saint Peter’s and then continuing later with the Museums and the Sistine.

Finally, the director of the Museums insists that visitors and guides  remain silent in the Chapel. Daniella has adapted her visits to the Vatican to include a pre-Sistine discussion with visual aids, usually over coffee or a snack. At least, her visitors go in relaxed and prepared for the overwhelming quantities of artwork that they will see.

Tickets for the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel must be pre-purchased to avoid the risk of standing in line. For more information about pre-purchasing surcharges, please see “the Costs” section of this webpage. Children are eligible for a student discount together with young adults (under the age of 26) with a valid student ID.

 

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