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The Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica — an Update

This update is for all the travelers that I have helped adventure through the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.  And it’s for all those who will want to go on that adventure with me in the future.

I have decided to suspend visits to the Museums and Sistine and will not renew my yearly Vatican Museums Pass for 2023 on.  Curious readers might enjoy my upcoming blog Preparing Your Visit to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.  It explains how I reached my decision and it may influence how, when, and if you decide to go.  Read on instead if you’d like more information regarding how I can help you tour the Renaissance splendor of the Vatican!

How I Can Help You Explore the Sistine Chapel

About a decade ago, the Museums’ Director introduced a strategy to improve turn-over in the Sistine Chapel: i.e. guides were barred from speaking there.  But if I couldn’t explain the Sistine Chapel to visitors while we were there, I would explain it beforehand!  Having made large color photocopies of the artwork, I used them to discuss the big ideas of the Sistine with visitors over a coffee or lunch.

True, the Museum Director did put giant panels showing scenes from the Sistine at guides’ disposal in the Vatican Museums.  But I dislike using them, since visitors are expected to stand during explanations.  (Learning is already a challenging; forget adding standing to the equation!)  I also wrote up a handout that not only loosely repeated the themes that visitors and I discussed, but it also hashed out some new notions.  And I gave that handout to visitors when we arrived at the Sistine.

So, “the Sistine Chapel pep talk” is still a viable strategy for visitors who want to understand the Sistine and savor what they’re seeing.  After exploring the masterpiece with visual aids in their hotel lobby, at a cafe, or elsewhere, readers will receive their handout and then tackle the Museums and Sistine on their own.

Ideas for Touring Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican in General

I am happy to recommend a dear friend who is also an outstanding guide to tour you through the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.  He renewed his yearly Vatican Museums pass because he’s younger and less crotchety than I — LOL!  So, send me an email and we’ll get the ball rolling!

I feel that the Director of Saint Peter’s Basilica has managed increasing waves tourism better than the Director of the Museums and Sistine Chapel.  I will therefore continue to accompany visitors to Saint Peter’s, its Dome, and its Square, as I always have. This visit, which concentrates on the genius of Michelangelo and Bernini, generally lasts around 2 hours without the Dome, and 3 hours with it.   If visitors add the Sistine Chapel pep talk to the itinerary, it lasts about four and a half hours.

Renaissance (and Baroque) Splendor at the Vatican

At Saint Peter’s Basilica, we’ll talk about Pope Julius II.  He was the cultural motor of the early 1500s.  For example, he made the momentous decision to raze the old Saint Peter’s and begin construction on the one that is standing now.  He also employed Michelangelo to work on several projects, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Why?  Well, Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Pieta’ — that stood and still stands in Saint Peter’s –, fascinated him.  And the Pieta’ will fascinate us too! 

As we explore the art and history of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo will monopolize our discussion.  After all, he engineered Saint Peter’s dome!  While that may not sound like a great achievement, it was the second dome to be built in modern Europe. (Brunelleschi’s dome over the cathedral in Florence was the first.)  Furthermore, it was one of the last projects that 70-year-old Michelangelo worked on.  Visitors who like heights and want to deepen their understanding of Michelangelo and dome-building technology should climb it.

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).


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

Getting Ready for the Renaissance Glory of the Sistine Chapel and More!

vatican museum sistine chapel detail of ceiling

So, God zapping life into Adam is the only thing in the Sistine Chapel, right? Not really! (We can debate over pop culture and the negative effects of marketing over a coffee.)  As some of you know, the world-renown image in the photo is just a small fragment of the entire ceiling fresco, which is seen in the next photo. Even more surprisingly, the ceiling fresco is only a small fragment of all the artwork in the chapel.  It’s visual overload.  And that’s why you need to show up prepared.  Otherwise the visual over-stimulation and the guards growling “Silenzio.  No photo,” will catch you unprepared.

Pope Julius II, who ordered Saint Peter’s rebuilt, will pop up in our Sistine Chapel discussion too.  He collected ancient sculptures and, following in the footsteps of his benefactor uncle Pope Sixtus IV, he opened his collection to an elite group of artists and scholars.  In fact, his semi-public sculpture gallery is the beginning of the Vatican Museums’ gargantuan collection.  And it would change the course of art history. After all, Michelangelo accessed the gallery and fell in love with its sculptures.  Many of them had a huge impact on his artistic vision.  Among them, there is Laocoon, the Trojan high priest.  In the photo, he attempts to disentangle himself and his two sons from a pair of serpents.  But there’s also the so-called Apollo Belvedere.  It inspired Michelangelo and, about one hundred years later, Bernini!

Enough about Pope Julius II! Back to the Sistine Chapel!

vatican museumentire sistine chapel

The Sistine Chapel’s artwork is remarkable in part because it represents three distinct moments of the Renaissance.  We’ll delve into early Renaissance art (on the walls).  And you may recognize some of the artists’ names, like Botticelli and Perugino.  We’ll then springboard into Michelangelo’s full-blown, 3D celebration of the human form, frescoed roughly 30 years after the walls.  We will then end with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.  It is the big blue wall in the photo that expresses Michelangelo’s late Renaissance sentiments about salvation and the political and religious upheavals of the 1530s.

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.

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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