Posts Tagged With: vatican museum

St. Peter’s Basilica


St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest churches in the Christian religion. It is one of four major basilicas located in Rome and the principle church of the Pope. Although St. Peter’s is located within Vatican City, this basilica is not the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. That honor belongs to St. John the Lateran. So while the official cathedra, or seat, of the the Pope is not St. Peter’s, the Basilica remains a landmark within the Catholic Church and Roman history.

St. Peter’s Brief History

St. Peter’s and Vatican City are situated on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the ancient Campus Martius. Outside the walls of the city, Nero built a circus on the site to hold chariot races and carry out executions. These executions shaped the future of Vatican Hill. You’ve heard the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” Here’s some historical context behind the saying. In 69 A.D., Rome was consumed by a terrible fire that lasted for days. Actual cause of the fire is unknown, but because Nero one one of the few who gained from the destruction, fingers point to him. To shift the blame away from himself, Nero blamed the Christians, a new group of monotheists, and began executing them at the circus on Vatican Hill. One of those executed was Peter, one of the original apostles of Jesus Christ and the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. Peter was buried nearby and an altar was set up as a place to worship at the apostle’s tomb. Modern day St. Peter’s sits over the site and acts as a modern incarnation of that memorial.


Sketch of Old St. Peters with the pieces labeled.

After St. Peter’s execution, the site became a pilgrimage destination, as well as a burial site for Christians. In 326 A.D., the emperor Constantine built “Old” St. Peter’s in a typical latin cross plan. The basilica style suited the nature of Christian religion and contained several key elements. The building began with a large atrium for people to gather. Only those who had been baptized were allowed beyond the narthex and into the holy space of the church. For that reason, you often see a small round structure called a baptistry set just outside the church. The main body of the basilica style church contains a long nave, flanked by aisles. The altar is located in the semi-circular apse at the back of the building. The transept cross section creates the familiar latin cross floor plan. Santa Sabina is a great example of the old basilica style church. Old St. Peter’s stood until 1506, when Pope Julius II began plans to rebuild a grander St. Peter’s. At that point a new structure was probably needed, as the wooden structure was now almost 1200 years old! Construction was underway for 150 years before the church was finally completed, funded in part by the sale of indulgences. During that time over a dozen Popes oversaw the evolution of New Saint Peter’s as consecutive architects modified the existing plans, notably these three. Bramante was first hired by  Julius II to and he set forth a greek-cross floor plan, that is a centrally planned church with a “plus” sign shape and a dome. Both Bramante and Julius died before the work was completed and Michelangelo was brought in as chief architect. Michelangelo also did not live to see the basilica completed. Carlo Maderno was recruited by Paul V and ordered to extend the central nave of the church to create the more traditional latin cross plan. The extension of the nave and the addition of the facade created a problem of scale and perspective. The closer you get to the facade, the more you lose sight of Michelangelo’s dome. Bernini was brought in to decorate the interior and add the finishing touches.


Panorama of St. Peter’s Square

The Basilica’s Exterior

When Bernini first began construction on the Piazza’s enormous porticos, the surrounding area was a tight knit cluster of buildings, much like most of Rome today. To approach the Basilica, a visitor had to meander through the maze of streets until the vast open Piazza was finally revealed, with anticipation and all the grandeur the space deserves. That effect remained until Mussolini began another one of his building projects and created Via della Conciliazione. The new road cuts a direct path to Vatican City, enabling a visitor to grow accustomed to the massive size of St. Peters as they walk up to it. It kind of undercuts the overall effect of the square. Consider approaching St. Peter’s from another route. Bernini was faced with the unusual challenge of trying to unite the open space of St. Peter’s by distinguishing the square and drawing your attention to the Basilica. The result is an unique elliptical shaped portico comprised of 284 columns. With two lanes for pedestrians and a center lane wide enough for a carriage, the simple design draws our eye to the facade of Saint Peter’s and ties together the open piazza. The vast reaches of Bernini’s portico extend out into the square, like a pair of arms greeting the worshippers. The portico in some ways replaces the old basilica church component of an atrium, a courtyard for the faithful to gather. The placement of the columns allows visitors open access to the piazza, and yet the view of the surrounding buildings is obscured. Entrance to St. Peter’s begins in line near the right hand side of the portico. Placed in the center of the elliptical is the large obelisk. This obelisk was the same that sat in Nero’s circus, and witnessed St. Peter’s execution. Flanking the obelisk are two fountains, one designed by Maderno, the other by Bernini. It’s fitting that the two fountains sit together. Bernini’s work on the portico draws attention to Maderno’s work on the facade. When Michelangelo died he left no plans for a facade. How did you manage to draw attention to the front door in the middle of such a large piazza? Maderno solved the problem by gradually increasing the depth of the columns and bringing each set slightly closer together. That draws our eye to the center balcony where the Pope appears to greet the audience in the square.

The Basilica’s Interior


Close up of the facade and the statue of St. Paul.

Where to begin. It’s sites like this that make a little research go a long way. I’m hoping to get individual posts up on many of the highlights very soon. But for now we’ll begin by walking up to the church. As you scale the stairs up to the church your eyes begin to adjust to the vastness of the building before you. The letters that spell out: “In honor of Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, supreme pontiff in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate” are each three feet tall and the sculptures that adorn the roof are over twenty. The two sculptures that greet you outside are of Peter and Paul, added in the 19th century. Before you enter the basilica you can see equestrian statutes of Constantine and Charlemagne on your right and left under the atrium. Directly before you is the Holy Door, only opened for the Jubilee every 25 years. Once inside, stop for a moment to take in the result of 150 years of planning. Step back and take a look around before you get swept up in the excitement of the other tourists.


St. Peter, spiral of the Baldachino, and the sunlit Dove in the background

On your right as you enter is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Done when he was only 24 years old, the marble sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Don’t forget to take a glimpse at the floor as you enter. Noted by stars along the nave, are comparable sizes of the other great churches in the world. The great round porphyry stone – a very expensive type of red stone – just in front of the entrance, is the same stone that Charlemagne kneeled on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Continuing on you’ll see the monument to Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi in 1723. Gregory is responsible for the Gregorian Calendar, and is flanked by personifications of Faith and Wisdom. Back in the central nave is the statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Centuries of worshippers kissing the Saint’s foot have left it shiny. Even a short list will include Bernini’s enormous Baldachino, the bronze canopy that graces the papal altar and marks the center of the basilica’s transept. The Pope gives mass from this altar, which sits over the confessio and the tomb of St. Peter. The baldachino’s four spiraling columns are intended to evoke the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The source of all this bronze came from the ceiling of the Pantheon, where Urban VIII infamously called for its removal. Be sure to take a moment here to look up and admire Michelangelo’s impressive dome. It’s 348 foot height means the Statute of Liberty could stand inside it. The inscription reads: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The dome is supported by four large piers, within each Bernini placed a sculpture of a saint: Veronica, Helen, Longinus, and Andrew. Beyond the Baldachino on the left hand side is another Bernini work, this one the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini utilized the space effectively despite the fact that a door lies underneath the marble folds of fabric. Move closer to see that the personification of Death raises the cloth to allow passage through the doorway. At the great apse at the very end of the nave is the Altar of the Throne. A sun burst of gold crowns the monument lifted by the four doctors of the church. Inside is reportedly the throne of St. Peter. Sunlight hits the transparent window in the afternoon.

Visiting the Basilica

Admission to the Basilica is free like all churches. It is open from 7am till 7pm April through September and from 7am till 6pm the rest of the year. The best days to visit the Basilica are probably Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I mean that with a grain of salt. Vatican City is a very popular tourist attraction so the down times are still going to be busy. But process of elimination can help you choose a good day. Vatican City observes the day of rest and is closed on Sundays. Mondays are crowded because all other museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. Wednesdays the Pope give an audience and appears at 10:30am to bless St. Peter’s Square so Wednesdays are a bit busier. Saturdays the locals come to visit. It’s important to remember the Basilica is still a working church and sometimes portions may be blocked off as a service takes place. If you have the time, stick around until the service is over and the area become open again. You can get a glimpse of church officials as they leave and beat the rush once the section becomes open again. Good things come to those who wait. Very few people are willing to stick around, so you may find yourself in quiet corner.

Just like the Vatican Museum, there is a metal detector before the entrance to the Basilica. The entrance is located underneath the right hand side of the portico. (Right hand side when facing the Basilica.) Sometimes the line to the metal detectors begins to filter out into the piazza. Don’t be dismayed. The line moves quickly. Don’t be expected to keep your pocket knife or anything though. The guards take their jobs seriously. Here too, dress code will be enforced. Rome in July and tank tops might seem like a perfect match, but not at the Vatican. Shorts or dresses down to the knees are safe, as well as shirts that cover your shoulders. This applies to gentlemen as well. Close-toed shoes are also a good thing. Better to play it on the safe side when visiting the Vatican.

Visitors can also take a climb up to the top of the dome. It’s a bit of a hike and warm in the summer, but very cool and worth it. The view from the top of the dome is one of the best in the city. If you go in the summer, fill up a water bottle and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. The first leg get you up to the roof of the basilica, which I thought was kind of fun. You can stop and shop at a small gift store, on the roof, that’s run by nuns. There’s also a water fountain up there. An elevator can take you this far, if you’re traveling with handicapped or children. The second leg lets you pause inside the dome of the basilica. Not at the top, but inside, where you can walk around and look down at the church below. The final leg is the tightest fit, but keep in mind that you’re actually inside the dome now and nearing the cupola. Don’t be afraid to pause at the windows as you go for the view (And some fresh air).

Do keep in mind that the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums, not through St. Peters.

Here are some sites I found very helpful:

Sacred Destinations has a great page on St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to check out their other pages as well.

The Vatican website is brimming with information. Here’s a link to their Basilica information page.

Also, a link to “Practical Information” on the Vatican’s site. Here you can find information on how to arrange tickets for a Papal Audience, as well as more in depth tours, like a tour of the grottoes and necropolis.

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Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The homestretch of your visit to the Vatican Museum, and one of the most famous masterpieces in the world. This wing of the museum includes works by some of the greatest painters on your way to the Capella Sistina. This winding path takes some time and if the summertime crowds are present it may take even longer. Take a short break perhaps and if you’re traveling with kids make sure nobody needs to use the restroom.


Gallery of Maps and Tapestries

Longer than a football field the Gallery of Maps and Tapestries covers the distance between the main body of the Museum and the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica. To find it on a map will help you to better keep your bearings. Hung on the walls are forty maps completed by Ignazio Danti and commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. They act as a walking tour of Italian history. Just beyond, is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries.


Room of Constantine

Intended for use as a reception hall, the room is decorated with four events from the life of Constantine including, Vision of the Cross, Battle at Milvian Bridge, Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. Though this room was planned by Pope Julius II and Raphael it was not executed and completed before the two had died.


Raphael Rooms

Comprised of four stanzas (rooms) the Raphael Rooms were commissioned in 1508/1509 by Pope Julius II. Having secured the services of both Michelangelo and Raphael just down the hall from each other Julius set about decorating his papal apartments with the greatest of the High Renaissance. Although there are many individual pieces throughout the rooms that detail specific moments from the history of the papacy as well as theological iconography a few of the ones that shouldn’t be missed are Parnassus, Fire in the Borgo, Liberation of St. Peter, and the School of Athens seen above.


Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV from whom the Chapel is named. He recruited Renaissance greats such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Roselli to decorate the walls. His nephew Pope Julius II entrusted Michelangelo with the ceiling and lunettes in 1508. Michelangelo returned again in 1533 at the behest of Clement VII to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist sites, the Chapel is still very important in the Catholic Church. This is where the Cardinal’s meet during conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. Most won’t need directions to the ceiling and Last Judgement but if you can, find Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah.

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Vatican Museum: Courtyard and Garden

Visitors to the Vatican Museums are bound to notice a few odds and ends kept in the museum courtyard. There’s just a few but each one is worth mention. Come on out and see one of the world’s most exclusive backyards.


Base from the Column of Antoninus Pius

Located on a large deck between the Pinacoteca wing and the Pio-Clementine wing, is the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius. The column was originally erected by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to honor their predecessor. Though the column has not been preserved, the base serves as an excellent symbolic illustration of an emperor’s deification. The relief featured most prominently shows the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina being flown upward by a winged genius while personifications of the Campus Martius and Roma flank the figures. Two other sides illustrate a decursio, a cavalry salute during which they ride in a circle around the deified emperor.


Cortile della Pigna

Translated into English as the “Courtyard of the Pine” the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace is the home of a seemingly innocuous bronze pinecone. This pinecone, however, dates from the 1st century AD and was originally located near the pantheon. Used as a fountain, in ancient times the pinecone was moved to Old Saint Peter’s during the Middle Ages. It now sits in the exedra designed by Bramante. Flanking it are two replicas of peacocks that used to decorate the mausoleum of Hadrian. The originals are now kept in the Braccio Nuovo.


“Sphere within Sphere”

Most likely one of the youngest pieces in the Vatican, “Sphere within Sphere” was designed by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro in the 1990’s. One of a few located around the world, the actual meaning behind the sculpture has been difficult to come by. Unquestionably thought provoking, the golden sphere sits in the center of the courtyard.

You may also be interested in a tour of the Vatican Gardens. Tickets are only offered as a guided tour which includes access to the museum, gardens, and an audio guide. The tour is tour two hours long and is available on every working day except Wednesday and Sunday (The days when the Pope holds audiences.) Find the link here.

Note: According to the Museum website, tours of the gardens have been suspended until further notice. I’m guessing it’s due to Pope Francis’s busy schedule. I’ll keep an eye on it and up date when it changes.

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Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums

With 460 paintings distributed through 18 rooms, the Vatican Pinacoteca is home to some of the greatest names in art. Giotto, Perugino, Raphael, Da Vinci, Veronese and Caravaggio are all represented. Any introduction beyond that would be redundant. Many of these artists have more than one piece kept in the Vatican, unless you’re Raphael and you painted an entire wing. The Pinacoteca is on your right as you enter the museums main reception area.

Pinacoteca Roll Call:



Stefaneschi Triptych – 1315-1320 AD

The three panels of the triptych take it’s name from Cardinal Stefaneschi, who commissioned the piece for an altar in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Done by Giotto and his assistants, St. Peter is the central figure: bearded and holding the keys of heaven and hell. The patron Cardinal Stefaneschi kneels before him and offers the altarpiece in tribute.



Madonna and Child with Saints – 1495-1496 AD

The scene of the Virgin Mary with Christ is a popular portrayal, this one commissioned for the chapel in the town hall of Perugia. They are flanked by saints, St. Louis and St. Lawrence in the foreground and the patron saints of Perugia in the background, St. Herculanus and St. Constantius. His use of oil painting was a trademark of northern Europe that had made it’s way into northern Italy as well. The vibrant colors reflect Perugino’s choice of materials.



Oddi Altarpiece 1501-1504 AD

Throughout the Vatican, we will get to know Raphael and his works quite well, but here is a piece that marks an early point in his career. It is comprised of four pieces, but the Coronation of the Virgin, seen above, in my mind is the section where Raphael shows the greatest independence from his master, Perugino, and is easiest to identify. White lilies sprout from the tomb surrounded by apostles who gaze upward as Mary is crowned. And who doesn’t love those angels?

Leonardo da Vinci


St. Jerome in the Wilderness – 1480 AD

An undisputed da Vinci creation, this unfinished work allows us to see the artist’s process as he worked toward a finished product. The oil and tempura composition depicts St. Jerome and the outline of a lion before a rocky landscape. St. Jerome lived in the desert as a hermit, where he befriended a lion after pulling a thorn from its paw.



Vision of St. Helena – 1580 AD

This was Veronese’s second attempt at the subject of St. Helena, the first is located in the National Gallery in London. This version is decidedly more regal, St. Helena appears as an empress as the vision of the true cross comes to her.



Entombment – 1603-1604 AD

Once again, Caravaggio uses his intense tenebrism to highlight the subjects of the composition. Emotional elements combine to form three layers. The first is the dramatic grief displayed by the three women in the background. In the expression of John the Evangelist, the main bearded figure, you can see the second layer of practicality and loss as Christ’s followers must continue, even as they symbolically stand on the foundation of the Church. And then there is the realism in Christ himself, in his arm hanging and the greenish hue to his face.

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Braccio Nuovo


The “New Wing” of the Vatican Museum is one of my favorite spaces in the entire museum. It was built after works previously confiscated by Napoleon were returned and completed in 1820. The skylights in the ceiling and the original Roman mosaics in the floor provide a dynamic you can’t find in the other wings. There are twenty-eight niches housing sculptures of emperors and Roman replicas of famous Greek statues.


Augustus of Prima Porta – 1st century AD

Discovered in Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, the sculpture is larger than life and combines the qualities of the emperor in an oratory stance, military cuirass, and mythological allusions to his ancestry. Compared to the earlier depictions of the Republican era, this ruler appears divinely empowered and slightly removed from the audience.


The River Nile – 1st century AD

Found in 1513 in the Campo Marzio, the River Nile reclines on a Sphinx armrest with a horn of plenty next to him. The sixteen children surrounding him are meant to symbolize the flood of the river. According to a Roman measurement, the Nile would flood sixteen cubits, hence the number of children. The piece is a roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic original from the temple of Isis and Serapis.

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The Pio-Clementine Museum

If you’ve ever taken an Art History course the P.C. is enough to make you drool. If you haven’t, never fear! I hope to give you enough info to at least fool your friends and family, which is half the fun anyway.

So, the Pio-Clementine, P.C. for short, is named for the two Popes who presided over the organization, back in the 1770’s. It’s home to the Vatican’s collection of Greek and Roman Art dating from antiquity. Follow the links for more detailed articles and photos.

Here’s a list of P.C. Powerhouses:


Belvedere Apollo – Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD

Considered by many to be the greatest sculpture from antiquity, the statue of Apollo was found in nearby Anzio in 1489 and quickly installed in the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican. Originally, Apollo held a bow outstretched in his left hand. Noted for the ideal male proportions and the contraposto pose.


Laocoon – 2nd century BCE

Found in 1506, the Laocoon depicts the Trojan priest and his sons struggling against divinely powerful snakes. The classical depiction of the human body started a revolution amongst artists when it was discovered.


The River God Arno

Modeled after a Hellenistic original during the time of Hadrian, the River God Arno has been modified over the years. The lion carved on the vase was meant to honor the Medici pope Leo X, and the Arno River flows through Florence, the Medici’s hometown. It makes my list for having one of the most expressive faces.


Belvedere Torso – 1st century BCE

Kept in the Hall of Muses, you’re likely to nearly overlook the battled piece of marble on your way to the next great room. Keep an eye out! The Belvedere Torso may look beat up, but what remains influenced artists for centuries. Michelangelo held it in especially high regard. You can see it in several of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Follow the link for more images.



To represent the women, the depiction of Ariadne was purchased once again by Pope Julius II in 1512, the same year the Sistine Chapel was completed. According to mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur. She fell asleep and was then discovered by Dionysus. The statue sits upon a sarcophagus and was originally kept in the garden.


Heracles, 1st-3rd century AD

This gilded bronze statue fills a commanding position in the Round Hall (Sala Rotunda). It was found in the 19th century near the Campo de’ Fiori. (Heracles is more commonly known to us as Hercules. He’s easy to spot because he’s almost always carrying a club and is draped in a lion skin.)


The Braschi Antinous

Also located in the Sala Rotunda, the colossal sculpture is a depiction of Hadrian’s favorite, Antinous. He drowned in the Nile River and Hadrian deified him and began a cult around similar attributes as Osiris and Dionysus. There are several statues and busts of Antinous in various characters around the museum. You’ll start to recognize him.


Sarcophagi of St. Helena and Constantina

Believed to have held the remains of Constantine’s mother and daughter, the monumental porphyry sarcophagi reflect the imperial standing of both the women. As mothers, wives, and daughters of emperors, their status could afford a material as expensive as the red porphyry mined in Egypt. They date from the 4th century AD and are decorated with pagan themes.


Hall of the Animals

If you’re traveling with children be sure to stop by the Hall of Animals. It has rows of animal sculptures. Let them pick out the donkeys, camels, horses, dogs, and which one they like best.

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