The highlights of the Vatican Museums

The entrance to the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The Vatican Museums make up one of the greatest monuments of world culture. What began with a small collection of sculptures, has eventually grown into a large museum complex boasting one of the finest art collections covering all stages of human civilization. The art is displayed in the Vatican palaces amidst an incredible interior of stuccos, frescoes, paintings and decorations from the hands of the greatest masters.

In healthy times, the Vatican Museums welcome up to six million people per year, making it one of those places that you need to visit at least once in your life. With our article, you'll be sure to get to see the best of the Vatican Museums, without being overwhelmed.

So let’s plunge into the Vatican Museums and explore the finest pieces in their collection. Let's go back to its early days and its development into the thirteen museums they consist of today. We will round up by sharing some tricks about this cultural hotspot for you to make the most of your visit.

The birth of the Vatican’s collection

The Vatican Museums were founded by two popes in the 18th century. It were Pope Clement XVI (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799) who decided to open their centuries-old collection of arts to the eyes of the public, for the purpose of cultural enlightenment of the people. The very first museum in the Vatican was named after them, the Pio-Clementino Museum.

Laocoön and His Sons was found in the vineyards of the former Golden House of Nero.
Laocoön and His Sons was found in the vineyards of the former Golden House of Nero.

It all began in 1480 with the discovery of a Roman statue from the second century BC, known to us as the Apollo Belvedere. In 1503, Pope Julius II placed the statue in the Octagonal Courtyard (Cortile Ottagono) of the Apostolic Palace, marking the beginning of a papal collection of classical antique statues. The second piece of ancient splendour in this collection was the sculptural composition Laocoön and His Sons, found at the excavations of Esquiline in 1506. It was followed by the Belvedere Torso, which was brought in by Pope Clement VII de Medici in 1524.

The discovery of these statues meant a great inspiration for many generations of artists, the main of which, perhaps, is Michelangelo. Laocoön and the Belvedere Torso served as a source of ideas for his perception of the human body, as reflected in his sculptures.

Apollo Belvedere was one of the trophies that Napoleon took from Italy to the Louvre in 1798. In 1815, the statue was returned home.
Apollo Belvedere was one of the trophies that Napoleon took from Italy to the Louvre in 1798. In 1815, the statue was returned home.

Art historians believe that these three ancient masterpieces formed the cornerstone in the formation of the Vatican Museums. So, what began as a small Belvedere patio turned into a whole complex consisting of several palaces and museums, each of which containing many halls, galleries and corridors, chapels and papal apartments. As it is simply impossible to explore all this beauty in one single visit, our focus will go to the pieces of the collection of the Vatican Museums that you definitely do not want to miss.

Which museums make up the Vatican Museums?

Starting from the second half of the 18th century, the papal palaces of Vatican City gradually started turning into museums, with the very first collections mainly devoted to archaeology. From there, the collection kept growing, with every pope adding exhibits in the fields of art they loved most – some focused on paintings, others on sculpture, or ancient civilizations. The exhibits were combined into collections and displayed in buildings that were named after the popes who founded them – like the Gregorian Etruscan Museum (after Pope Gregory XVI) or the Pius Cristiano Museum (after Pope Pius IX).

Today, the Vatican Museums include thirteen museums located in various palaces and adjacent buildings. All of them are within walking distance or even share the same edifice on the territory of Vatican City. To visit the entire complex of museums you will need to have one ticket (see here for our practical tips for visitors). Some places of special interest, like the Pontifical Villas, archaeological sites or the Vatican Gardens require a separate ticket, which can be bought at the official website of the Vatican Museums as well.

Each museum is devoted to a specific niche such as paintings, archaeological finds, the ancient Etruscan civilization or Ancient Egypt, numismatics and much more – check out the official website of the Vatican Museums for a full overview of the collections. What we will do from here is highlighting the greatest masterpieces of the Vatican Museums, grouped per museum.

The complex of the Vatican Museums as you can see it from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.
The complex of the Vatican Museums as you can see it from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The masterpieces of the Vatican Museums

Walking through the Vatican Museums may be overwhelming, with amazing pieces of art everywhere you look and crowds of people around you. To make the most of your visit and to provide some structure, we will cover the highlights of the collection below. Some extra background and nice facts will make sure that you are totally prepared for the opulence of the Vatican Museums.

The masterpieces of Italian painting in the Pinacoteca Vaticana

The Pinacoteca is one of the latest additions to the Vatican Museums, built in 1931. This museum of painting is often overlooked and underestimated. It is a pity, as the Pinacoteca Vaticana contains some masterpieces that you do not want to miss while visiting the Vatican. The gallery’s history started with the small collection of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), which grew into a collection of five hundred religious works from the 12-19th centuries, exhibited in a chronological order across eighteen halls.

The first six halls of the Vatican's art gallery feature works by medieval artists from Sienese, Umbrian and Florentine schools, as well as some works from the early Renaissance period. Among the most famous is the 12th century Last Judgment by Niccolò and Giovanni, the oldest work in the entire Pinacoteca. It has an unusual shape, with a round form on top of a rectangular bottom – a form that might have been chosen to emphasize the universal scale of the Last Judgment, whilst taking into account that they still believed the Earth to have the shape of a disk in the Middle Ages.

Another masterpiece here is the Stefaneschi Triptych, made by the great master Giotto. This Florentine artist was a harbinger of the Renaissance. In his works, he combined the static nature of Gothic painting together with realism, which formed the basis for many subsequent painters. Other works to look out for here are pieces of Pietro Lorenzetti, Filippo Lippi, Giovanni di Paolo and Fra Angelico.

The remaining twelve halls of the Pinacoteca are devoted to the period of the High Renaissance, featuring works of such artists as Guido Reni, Titian, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci. The work St. Jerome by Leonardo da Vinci has become one of the symbols of the Pinacoteca. It is considered to be a fusion of painting and graphics – which is the art of creating images by applying lines and strokes.

In the Pinacoteca you can see the development of Italian painting from the 12th to the 19th century.
In the Pinacoteca you can see the development of Italian painting from the 12th to the 19th century.

The hall of Raphael in the Pinacoteca Vaticana

One of the eighteen rooms of the Pinacoteca Vaticana deserves special attention, as it exclusively displays works from the great Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Santi. The central part of the room is reserved for his large altar paintings: the Crowning of the Virgin or Oddi Altarpiece (1502–1503), Madonna of Foligno (1511–1512), and his last work the Transfiguration (1516–1520). These paintings display Raphael's magnificent ability to synthesize. They reflect the best techniques of his contemporaries, in addition to the overall poise and harmony of colours that set apart Raphael's works.

On the walls, we can see ten tapestries that were made according to Raphael's design. In order to produce these tapestries, life-size drawings on wood (called 'cartoons') were made and sent to a weaving workshop in Brussels. Unlike the tapestries, only seven out of the ten cartoons have survived till now and are stored in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration which can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica.
A copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration which can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica.

Of the many works of Raphael in this room, his last work deserves some special attention. The large altar picture called the Transfiguration, depicts two different episodes. Below, in a more darkish part, the Apostles unsuccessfully try to expel the demon from the boy, whom you can notice in the right part. On top of the painting, you can see the summit of Mount Tabor, where Christ is rising into the air in a white robe, surrounded by the prophets Moses and Elijah. The picture was ordered by Cardinal Giulio Medici. Raphael did not get the opportunity to finish his masterpiece though, as he unexpectedly died in 1520. It was finalized by his student. The painting was originally ordered for the altar of a French church, but the pope decided to keep this masterpiece in Rome.

You might think that such images are found in every church and you are right in some way, as scenes from the Bible have been the common theme in church works. But regarding this picture by Raphael, it is not the topic that is important, but the way it is done. The Transfiguration symbolizes a kind of bridge between the Renaissance (the early 1500s) and the Baroque (the early 1600s). Unlike many other paintings, the figures in this picture depict very human emotions, as awe, disbelief and longing. The delicate depiction of human figures and their poses which is present in Raphael's late works – and especially in this one – served as a prelude to the style of Mannerism.

The sculptures of the Pio-Clementino Museum

The Pio-Clementino Museum houses some of the finest examples of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The museum fills several large halls, located around the small open-air Octagonal Court (Cortile Ottagono) – which is perhaps the most famous place of the Vatican Museums.

Niches around the perimeter of the Octagonal Court showcase the very first exhibits of the Vatican collection. Among them are the already mentioned statues of Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön. Yet another niche contains a masterpiece of the famous sculptor Antonio Canova. His work depicts Perseus in the helmet of Hades, with the sword of Hephaestus, in the sandals of Hermes and with the head of Medusa in his hand. The arches of this patio further treasure Roman sarcophagi, marble baths, stunning bas-reliefs, and masks from ancient times.

The bronze statue of Heracles has been preserved in an excellent state, thanks to the customs of Ancient Rome. These prescribed the statue to be buried in the ground, after it had been struck by lightning.
The bronze statue of Heracles has been preserved in an excellent state, thanks to the customs of Ancient Rome. These prescribed the statue to be buried in the ground, after it had been struck by lightning.

No less iconic place in the Pio-Clementino Museum is the Round Hall (Sala Rotonda). It may remind you of the Pantheon with its hole – the oculus – in the ceiling. Along its perimeter you will find colossal statues of gods and deified emperors. The most valuable exhibit of this hall is the statue of Heracles made of gilded bronze – in fact this is the only gilded statue that is preserved from ancient times.

Usually speaking of sculpture, we think of heroes from legends, myths or otherwise prominent figures. However, in the antiquity, they also paid great attention to the wild world. Two halls of the Pio-Clementino Museum are devoted to animals, exhibiting a collection of 150 marble sculptures. In this stone zoo, we can see both domestic animals and mythical creatures made with the greatest accuracy.

It is not known for certain who is depicted on the Belvedere Torso. The current best bet is the Greek hero Ajax.
It is not known for certain who is depicted on the Belvedere Torso. The current best bet is the Greek hero Ajax.

Be sure to also check out the Hall of Muses, where the famous Belvedere Torso is now located. It was discovered in the 15th century and had a great influence in the evolution of art in the Renaissance and even thereafter in styles as Mannerism or Baroque. It contributed to the fascination for ancient classical art and the redevelopment of a human-centric approach, corresponding to what it used to be in ancient Greece and Rome. Among the main admirers of this sculpture was Michelangelo. Many historians believe that this torso is depicted on Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, incorporated in the image of St. Bartholomew (the man that is holding human skin).

If you want to dive deeper into the collection of sculptures of the Vatican Museums, make sure to check out the Chiaramonti Museum, which consists of three galleries. In Galleria Chiaramonti you can explore nearly a thousand antique sculptures, urns and sarcophagi. Galleria Braccio Nuovo features a collection of Roman sculptures, including a statue of the Roman emperor Augustus that served as an example for his image all across the Roman Empire. The Galleria Lapidaria is a real stone library, containing more than 3 thousand carved plates from Roman times – a perfect place for those studying Latin. Here you can explore inscriptions and documents made on stone and marble slabs. They illustrate various aspects of the public and private life in ancient Rome. The most common pieces that you will find here are tombstones.

The Borgia Apartments in the Apostolic Palace

The Apostolic Palace, also known as the Vatican or Papal Palace, is the main official residence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope. It adjoins St. Peter's Basilica, being connected by passages through the Sistine Chapel. Presumably, the first palace here was built in the 5th century, certainly smaller and without impressive works of art. The heyday of decorating the Apostolic Palace was at the time of the Renaissance, when outstanding artists, sculptors and architects appeared on the horizon.

What certainly added to the splendour of the Vatican Museums, is that every time a new pope came to power, he tried to surpass his predecessor in decorating the Apostolic Palace. Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo De Borgia, was no exception. He saved no money on art and even donated the first gold brought from America to decorate the ceiling of the Santa Maria Maggiore. He supported art in every possible way, and invited Pinturicchio, a known master of his time, to decorate his private rooms in the Apostolic Palace with frescoes. From 1492 to 1495 Pinturicchio and his students painted the chambers of Borgia.

Papa Borgia was known for intrigues, murders and profligacy, so after his death, most of his property was destroyed, but, fortunately, the Borgia Apartments survived.
Papa Borgia was known for intrigues, murders and profligacy, so after his death, most of his property was destroyed, but, fortunately, the Borgia Apartments survived.

The Borgia Apartments consist of several rooms, each of which decorated with unique paintings. The plots for them were personally chosen by Alexander VI. The Room of Sybils depicts the figures of Sibyl and the prophets, surrounded by symbolic images of seven planets. The Room of the Mysteries is perpetuated by biblical heroes together with scenes from the life of Christ. The Room of Saints is dedicated to Christian saints and episodes from their righteous lives. All paintings were entirely done by Pinturicchio. Pay attention to the image of the Disputation of St. Catherine of Alexandria, with St. Catherine portrayed with golden hair in a blue robe bending fingers in front of a man on a throne. Art historians believe that the daughter of the pope, Lucrezia Borgia, served as the model for depicting the saint.

Today you will find an exposition of masterpieces from the Vatican collection of modern art exhibited under Pinturicchio’s frescoes. This means that in the Borgia Apartments you can enjoy both, the frescoes as well as the modern art collection. Remarkably this pearl of the Vatican Museums is often overlooked by tourists, which means you will find (relative) rest here too.

Stanze and Logge by Raphael in the Apostolic Palace

It is impossible to talk about the Apostolic Palace while not mentioning the magnificent works of Raphael. Four large and bright rooms in the north wing of the palace bear the name of Stanze di Raffaello. In Italian, the word "stanza" means "room". All of them are painted by one of the geniuses of the Renaissance, Raphael Santi. The first and most famous stanza is called the Stanza della Segnatura, which was the room where the pope signed all the important papers. The frescoes decorating the walls of this room are perhaps the most famous of all.

Raphael's paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura combine the spirit of antiquity and Christianity and reflect the greatest virtues of mankind: Good, Truth and Beauty. Beauty is represented in the image of Apollo, being surrounded by muses on the fresco of Parnassus – this image is also understood to be a symbol of poetry, which was of particular interest in Greece. The Good is embodied in the fresco Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law. The Truth is depicted in two ways. First there was church truth, as shown in the mural of the Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament. Secondly there was rational truth, as embodied in the image of the School of Athens.

Raphael's School of Athens shows ancient philosophers and scientists standing under the arches, with centrally Plato and Aristotle talking.
Raphael's School of Athens shows ancient philosophers and scientists standing under the arches, with centrally Plato and Aristotle talking.

Although all the frescoes adorning the stanza are worthy the title of masterpiece, art critics and historians call the School of Athens the best of them. It depicts a dispute between two Greek philosophers – Aristotle and Plato. The first of them points up with his raised hand, making it clear that the world of human ideas is higher than earthly life. The second, on the contrary, points to the earth, as if objecting to the interlocutor, saying that the spiritual world is inextricably linked with the earthly world.

The Stanza di Eliodoro was intended for the private audiences of the pope. The images of the frescoes are filled with the idea of God's miraculous protection of the church. Among the frescoes in this room, pay special attention to the Deliverance of Saint Peter. The way the light is depicted here around the angel saving the saint from prison makes one think that it is not just paint, but real light coming out of the wall.

The Stanza dell' Incendio del Borgo was used as a meeting room for the high court. The room got its name thanks to the work Fire in Borgo. This fresco reflects an ancient legend, according to which Pope Leo IV (847-855) managed to tame the flames and protect the townspeople.

Amidst the dizzying beauty of the wall frescoes in Raphael's Stanze, do not forget to look up at the ceiling paintings, the cherry on the cake.
Amidst the dizzying beauty of the wall frescoes in Raphael's Stanze, do not forget to look up at the ceiling paintings, the cherry on the cake.

The last room is the Sala di Costantino, which is used for receptions and other official events. Here you will find a painting dedicated to the struggle of the Roman emperor Constantine with the pagans and the arrival of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

If you are lucky, you can enter Raphael’s Loggias from the Sala di Costantino. The Loggias are open to visitors when they are not included in the route of prominent guests of the pope. An interesting fact is that for painting the Loggias, Raphael was inspired by images that were recently discovered in the grottoes under the terms of Trajan. The strange ornaments depict fantasies of creatures with an impossible anatomy, stylized human heads and foliage. That is how the name of the amusing ornament, known today as The Grotesque, emerged.

The Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace

Whichever route you choose through the Vatican Museums, for many the breath-taking Sistine Chapel is the endpoint of their tour. Although it is a good way to end with all this beauty close to St. Peter’s Basilica, there are smarter ways of visiting the Vatican Museums – find our practical tips here.

The Sistine Chapel was constructed in 1481, during the reign of Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it got its name. It was originally painted by Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio. But everything changed in 1508, when Pope Julius II invited Michelangelo to paint the ceiling. The master took it reluctantly, because he was a sculptor and architect, but not an artist. But the work was done not only in a short amount of time, but also with absolute impeccability.

Before Michelangelo’s work, the Sistine Chapel was decorated with blue frescoes with stars depicting the night sky.
Before Michelangelo’s work, the Sistine Chapel was decorated with blue frescoes with stars depicting the night sky.

Michelangelo decided to depict nine scenes from the Old Testament under the ceiling, the most famous of which is the Creation of Adam, where God descends from heaven to breathe life into Adam. The cycle of frescoes was completed in four years from 1508 to 1512. But fate brought the sculptor back into the Sistine Chapel again.

Pope Clement VII invited him to Rome in 1533 to discuss the refurbishment of the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel – located on the far end of the chapel. The death of the pontiff in 1534 put the start of the work on hold. However, it was in 1536 that the new Pope Paul III approved the plans of his predecessor regarding the redecoration of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was set to work on his new plan, for which he had to plaster the windows that used to be on the wall. What's more, he had to overpaint the works of Botticelli, Perugino and Pinturicchio. Another four years passed, and another masterpiece was born.

Initially, most of the figures on Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment were depicted naked. As it was deemed inappropriate, clothes have been added later.
Initially, most of the figures on Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment were depicted naked. As it was deemed inappropriate, clothes have been added later.

Michelangelo’s colourful fresco can be visually divided into three parts. The upper part (lunettes) depicts flying angels, with attributes of the Passion of Christ. The central part, is where we see Christ and the Virgin Mary, as surrounded by saints. And finally, the lower part is where we are confronted with the end of time. It is where angels are playing the trumpets of the Apocalypse, and where the righteous ascend to heaven and the sinners descend to hell.

No one will deny the magnificence of Michelangelo’s creations in the Vatican. Today we cannot even imagine how it would have looked without these frescoes. Which piece do you find more impressive, the ceiling from the hands of the young Michelangelo, or the Last Judgment that he completed almost 30 years after?

Making the most of your visit to the Vatican Museums

People standing in line at St. Peter’s Square, a common sight in Vatican City. Check out our tips and avoid the queues.
People standing in line at St. Peter’s Square, a common sight in Vatican City. Check out our tips and avoid the queues.

The best time to visit the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums welcome an ever-increasing number of visitors. Consider visiting early if you don't like the crowds. At the moment of writing, the Vatican Museums are slowly reopening after the lockdown period, with visits possible as of 10:00h. In regular times the Vatican Museums are open from 8:30h, so it can be worthwhile to double check with the official website before your actual visit.

Making your route

One day is enough for exploring the highlights of the Vatican Museums. In this article we followed the most common route whilst describing the highlights. You can explore the museums in any sequence though, as the buildings are located close to each other and can be visited on the same ticket. If you manage to arrive early in the morning, we recommend visiting the Sistine Chapel first, as it tends to get very crowded there later in the day.

Regardless of which route you choose, it can be helpful to take a look at the official map of the Vatican Museums before your visit. This map shows the exact location of the museums and the kind of art to find there.

Where to buy tickets?

The most convenient way to get your tickets to the Vatican Museums is booking them on the official website. The regular price of an online ticket is currently € 21, which is slightly higher than buying the ticket on the spot – but it will save you lots of time waiting in line. Note that if you book your ticket online, you will still need to exchange the received voucher (hardcopy or shown on a smartphone or tablet) for a real ticket at the designated ticket office. And voilà, now you can enjoy the art collection!

The cheapest option for visiting the Vatican Museums is to wait for the last Sunday of the month, when admission is free. But please note that this event always attracts thousands of extra visitors waiting in endless queues.

What else to do in Rome?

Beautiful Roman panorama from the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral.
Beautiful Roman panorama from the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral.

In a city with such a fascinating and rich history as Rome, you can find something to do at every step. There's countless other amazing museums to explore, or you could simply peek into some elegant Roman basilicas. Behind their doors, you can easily find paintings by Caravaggio or sculptures by Michelangelo.

If you are in a mood to further explore the Vatican City, perhaps its main treasure, the St. Peter's Basilica, should be your next stop. With our article about the highlights of the St. Peter's Cathedral you will be totally prepared.

Whether it is the ruins of ancient Rome, a walk past fashionable boutiques, or the best spots for 'aperitivo', be sure to check out our free Streetwise map of Rome, as it will show you the greatest sights, the most beautiful shopping streets and the coolest bar areas of the Eternal City.

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