I say visualize the Vatican Museum because I can’t share any pictures with you. While photos of sculpture are okay, photos of the frescoes and paintings are a no-no. There were plenty of people trying to take pictures but I didn’t want to be shamed in Italian in front of other tourists.
We purchased tickets online for the Vatican Museum which I highly recommend. It’s straightforward and will save you time waiting in line, especially if it’s not warm outside. We arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica before our 11 am timed tickets to the Museum thinking we’d see Bernini’s equestrian statue of Constantine, Bernini’s St. Longinus, Borromini and Bernini’s Baldachin, Bernini’s Monument to Pope Urban VII (formerly Maffeo Barberini, Bernini’s greatest patron), Bernini’s Monument to Alexander VII (formerly Fabio Chigi), Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s Altar of the Chair of St. Peter and here and so much more. Think again! The line to go inside was so long that it was impossible to figure out where it started or ended. We thought we’d try to wait but realized that we’d miss our entrance into the Vatican Museum.
In my pictures of St. Peter’s you cannot see the enormous crèche or Nativity scene that was setup near the obelisk in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. There was also a huge line to get closer to that. Oh well.
It was time to see the Museum. The best guide to the Museum is sold there. It’s called Guide to the Vatican Museums and City and was the best source for everything inside the Museum. If you go past the first gift shop, which is just past the security check, and walk up the stairs you’ll find another gift shop selling the book in English, Italian, French, Spanish, German and Japanese. There are maps of the Museum and plenty of history and details about the artwork. It even suggests a short and full tour of the Museum.
Once you plunge in you’ll find yourself being led deeper and deeper into rooms and wings filled with art. There’s some statistic that says even if you spent 1-2 minutes on each object it would still take years to see everything. I believe it. You really have to pick and choose what you want to see unless you plan on being there all day and being physically and mentally obliterated at the end.
On our way to the Sistine Chapel, we saw the sculpture of Laocöon and his Sons. This one is especially meaningful to me because the Allen Memorial Art Museum at my alma mater Oberlin has an Eva Hesse sculpture called Laocöon, 1966. We always included it on our tours of the museum (I was a docent). I was really excited to see it in person.
Unfortunately this is where my fun pictures end. After the sculpture courtyard where we saw Laocöon and his Sons we were inside where photos are forbidden. On the way to the Sistine Chapel you pass through the Raphael rooms. These rooms were used by Pope Julius II della Rovere (Pope from 1503-1513) and his successors as an apartment. The frescoes are large and fairly easy to see, depending on the number of people in the room with you. The most well-known work of these rooms is the School of Athens, 1510-1511. See if you can find the figure Guns and Roses used for the cover art of Use Your Illusion I and II.
There is quite the build up before you get into the Sistine Chapel. You wander through rooms and hallways, go up stairs, go down stairs and see so much art before you get to what you came for. As we stepped into room (it feels more like a large ballroom than a chapel) an ocean of people greet you. They’re all craning their heads back trying to take in one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. It took him 4 years, 1508-1512, to complete the ceiling. We spent 30 minutes trying to take it all in. I wish they had mirrors for you to hold like they do in Venice so you don’t risk falling over as you look up. They could also use some crowd control. There are security guards shushing people if they talk too loud and calling out “No photos” if someone attempts one, and the rest is a goat rodeo. If they make you purchase a timed ticket to enter the museum why not allow a certain number of people into the Sistine Chapel for 30 minutes at a time?
If you wait patiently you can snag a seat along the wall for a more comfortable viewing position. Of course I learned about the Sistine Chapel in art history, and of course I don’t remember all the details. The Guide to the Vatican Museums and City book was very helpful. I had no idea that the frescoes telling the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ on the walls were by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli.
The other Michelangelo in the room, The Last Judgement, 1535-1541, is impressive but I like it less. Maybe my eyes were tired when I eventually dedicated myself to looking at it, or maybe all those bodies floating in the air, waiting for a decision did its job and scared me into not liking it.
Since I can’t provide pictures of all these things you can go to the Vatican Museum website for highlights here or google away!
Another thing: bring snacks. The food in the Museum cafe, pizza bar, snack bar is not great. It would be so easy for them to make it good but it does not seem to be a priority. We saw people with granola and other snacks and wondered why but we quickly understood after our 3.50 Euro slice of what was probably frozen pizza. They won’t let you check coats or small handbags so you could sneak in a snack if necessary.