Exploring the Vatican Museums: A Journey Through Art and History

A Critical Overview of the Vatican Museums’ Art Collection

The Vatican Museums, founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century, are home to one of the world’s greatest art collections. It was expanded by successive pontiffs, and the exhibits, displayed along about four miles of halls and corridors, include Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, ancient busts, old masters, and modern paintings. The Museums are housed in the lavishly decorated halls and galleries of the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano, a vast 13.6-acre complex consisting of two palaces joined by two long galleries. Inside, there are three courtyards, and visitors can witness spectacular collections of classical statuary, frescoes painted by Raphael, and the world-renowned Michelangelo-painted Sistine Chapel.

Museo Chiaramonti and Braccio Nuovo

The Museo Chiaramonti, a long corridor that runs down the east side of the Belvedere Palace, has thousands of statues and busts, including representations of gods, cherubs, and Roman patricians. The Braccio Nuovo (New Wing) is off to the right of the hall’s end, displaying a famous statue of the Nile as a reclining god covered by 16 babies.

Museo Gregoriano Egizio (Egyptian Museum)

Founded by Gregory XVI in 1839, this museum contains pieces taken from Egypt in Roman times. Exhibits include a fragmented statue of Ramses II on his throne, vividly painted sarcophagi dating from around 1000 BCE, and a macabre mummy.

Museo Gregoriano Etrusco

At the top of the 18th-century Simonetti staircase, the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco contains artifacts from the Etruscan tombs of northern Lazio, as well as a superb collection of vases and Roman antiquities. Of particular interest is the Marte di Todi (Mars of Todi), a black bronze of a warrior dating from the late 5th century BCE, located in Room III.

Museo Pio-Clementino

This museum contains some of the Vatican Museums’ finest classical statuary, including the peerless Apollo Belvedere and the 1st-century Laocoön, both located in the Cortile Ottagono (Octagonal Courtyard). The Apollo Belvedere, a 2nd-century Roman copy of a 4th-century-BCE Greek bronze, is considered one of the great masterpieces of classical sculpture. The Laocoön depicts a muscular Trojan priest and his two sons in mortal struggle with two sea serpents. The Sala degli Animali is filled with sculpted creatures and 4th-century mosaics. The Sala delle Muse contains the Torso Belvedere, a fragment of a muscular 1st-century-BCE Greek sculpture, used by Michelangelo as a model for his ignudi (male nudes) in the Sistine Chapel. The Sala Rotonda contains colossal statues, including a gilded-bronze Ercole (Hercules), and an exquisite floor mosaic.


The papal picture gallery is often overlooked by visitors but contains major works, including Raphael’s last work, La Trasfigurazione (Transfiguration; 1517–20), as well as paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Perugino, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni, Guercino, Pietro da Cortona, Caravaggio, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The Sistine Chapel is a popular destination, where visitors can view Michelangelo’s famous works of art, including his frescoes on the ceiling and the Giudizio Universale on the west wall. Michelangelo’s frescoes depict biblical stories from the book of Genesis, with the most well-known panel featuring Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden. The chapel’s walls are adorned with stunning frescoes by other Renaissance artists, including Botticelli and Perugino. The chapel serves an essential religious function as the location where the conclave meets to elect a new pope.

The Stanze di Raffaello, known as the Raphael Rooms, are a collection of four frescoed chambers in Pope Julius II’s private apartments. The Stanza della Segnatura contains Raphael’s great masterpiece, The School of Athens, featuring philosophers gathered around Plato and Aristotle. This room was Julius’ study and library. The Stanza d’Eliodoro depicts Heliodorus being expelled from the temple and the Mass of Bolsena. The Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo portrays Pope Leo IV extinguishing a fire. These frescoes reflect Pope Julius II’s policies and beliefs. The gallery’s most famous work is the Incendio di Borgo, while the ceiling was painted by Perugino, Raphael’s master.

The Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, or Map Gallery, is the last of the three galleries on the upper floor. It is a 394-ft-long corridor with beautiful maps of Italy, painted by Ignazio Danti in the 16th century. The gallery connects the rooms of the Apostolic Palace, illustrating the paths of pilgrims from Rome to the Holy Land. The Gallery of the Candelabra and Tapestry Gallery are also on the upper floor, with beautiful artwork and tapestries on display.