The Vatican Museums – A Treasure Trove

Getting there

The lovely young manager at our hotel explained how to get the bus to the Vatican. We walked the couple of blocks to Piazza Venezia, found the recommended Tabacchi (think corner convenience store), which is the place to purchase bigletti (tickets for the city’s buses) and headed for the nearby bus stop. On this ordinary Thursday morning, traffic was zooming in all directions: speeding, honking cars; countless motor scooters guided by fearless drivers—men and women—in meticulous business attire, plus helmets; and many lumbering buses. Finally, the one with the route number we were waiting for arrived.

It was a quick ride to the Ponti Vitti. Except for the wide open Piazza, Vatican City is completely enclosed by massive walls. Only three of its six entrances are open to the public: the Piazza, of course, the Arco delle Campane (Arch of Bells) in the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the entrance to the Vatican Museums* in the north wall. We  joined the steady stream of people all moving briskly and purposefully in the same direction, among them more than a few nuns (short dark, habits and veils) and priests (black suits, Roman collars); it was a safe bet we were all headed to the same place.

Turning the final corner, we came upon a horde of people jammed into queues that overflowed the wide sidewalk. We had arrived. Staffers attired in red vests (I think), approached us, glanced at our computer printed reservation and quickly directed us to the “skip-the-line” entrance. Once through security, scanners, we found ourselves in a jam-packed room flooded with outside light and anchored on one side by a wall of ticket windows. We waited in the “Groups” line, which moved very slowly. No wonder. That was for leaders of group tours collecting dozens of tickets at a time. Our error was quickly sorted out, and soon, with tickets in hand we headed to the designated waiting area. Luckily, we had arrived early enough to have time to visit our respective rest rooms. (There would be no opportunities for that once the tour started!)

Getting oriented

Our knowledgeable, no-nonsense guide, Maria Teresa Rosati spent at least ten minutes getting us oriented and equipping us with the necessary lime-green earphones; these would link us up with her microphone. The corridors and galleries here are so crowded that it would be impossible for each tour group to hear its guide without these closed circuit audio systems. Her directives: watch out for each other, don’t let interlopers break our ranks (“Stick out your elbows, like this” she demonstrated a bold blocking move.); most important: do not fall behind. She did stop periodically to count heads; and sure enough, there were a couple of  slowpokes whom we nearly lost.

On the march

First stop was a detailed display that enabled Maria Teresa to explain what we would be seeing in the Sistine Chapel (where silence is the rule, although not the reality). The breathtaking ceiling frescoes depicting, primarily stories from Genesis, as well as the entire west wall depicting “The Last Judgment” are masterworks of the incomparable genius Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni—usually known simply by his first name, Michelangelo. Maria Teresa told us of Michelangelo’s reluctance to accept the Pope’s commission (or more accurately command) to create these frescoes, for he considered himself a sculptor, and wanted to spend his time working with marble, not with paints. But of course, he had no choice. She pointed out on the display things to look for in his composition, including images by which he (secretly) expressed his disdain for the project. And so we set forth.

From a modern, light-filled (and crowded) spiral walkway. We crossed the Cortille Della Pigna (Courtyar of the Pine Cone) with its massive bronze  fountain and lawns to the Pio-Clementino Museums. It was a surpise to realize that over centuries, Popes had amassed an enormous collection of Greek and Roman (pagan?) Art. Outstanding was the awesome (in the true sense of the word) gilded statue of Hercules, discovered near the ruins of Pompey’s theatre in Campo Fiori under a slab of travertine in 1864 (it had ritually buried, a sign that it had been struck by lightning). We saw so much that the memories merge and blur. Every visitor will come away with a different collection of vivid impressions. Mine include: the incredible tapestries of the Galleria degli Arazzi (no question what helped me appreciate them was several visits to the Getty Museum’s “Woven Gold” exhibit here in Los Angeles a couple of years ago) and the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche because I’ve been hooked on cartography for decades—ever since we worked a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a 17th century German map that monopolized our dining room table for weeks.

We had to fight our way into Stanze di Raffaello, the four reception rooms famous for their incomparable frescoes by Raphael. Maria Teresa had warned us this room was so crowded it would take us half an hour to cross its relatively small space. She was right, yet it was worth the fight. For when would any of us have another chance to be in the presence of such breathtaking masterpieces?

Nearby, The Room of the Immaculate Conception was stunning for the elaborate decoration that enveloped every surface, but especially for its priceless centerpiece. I thought it was some sort of altar, but no; it is a bookcase, designed by the architect-decorator director of Maison Christolfe in Paris, product of that workshop’s ivory workers, sculptors, masters of metal chasing, painters, mosaic artist, ceramic workers and goldsmiths. Its purpose, to house the 110 volume translations of the Papal Bull proclaiming the dogma Ineffabilis Deus. I did not realize, until reading up on the meaning of all this, that it was not until 1854 that the Pope decreed that Mary the Mother of God was a virgin. The ways of faith are, indeed, a great mystery.

Finally, the Sistine Chapel. We would be allowed just twenty minutes. Maria Teresa would wait for us at the door opposite the one we entered. Look for the silver umbrella amongst the distinctive markers held up by the other tour guides. Those who were content to merely walk through stayed on the walkway along the edge. Others, myself included, moved toward the middle of the floor, using our full allotted time to gaze up in wonder. The truly lucky were able to nab a space left by a departing visitor on the ledge along the walkway, where sitting was allowed. There was a constant murmur of voices (perhaps not everybody had been told the rules); and so, a guard with a stentorian voice would shout “Silencio!” every two or three minutes. Imperfect viewing conditions, no doubt. But who can truly complain when granted the rarest of all privileges? We had just been given a glimpse into Heaven.


* The Vatican web site lists 26 Museums: Gregorian Egyptian Museum, Pio Clementino Museum, Lapidary Gallery, Gregoriano Profano Musseum, Pius-Christian Museum, Jewish Lapidarium, Ethnological Museum, Christian Museum, Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding, Collection of Contemporary Art, Raphael’s Rooms, Nicoline Chapel, Room of the Immaculate Conception, Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Chiaramonti Museum, New Wing, Lapidario Profano ex Lateranense, Christian Lapidarium, Pinacoteca, Carriage Pavilion, Profane Mueum, Chapel of St. Peter Martyr, Sistin Chapel, Borgia Apartment, Chapel of Urban VIII, Room of the Chiaroscuri

Note: For an online tour, or to book your tickets directly, go to the official web site of the Vatican Museums:

Photo was NOT taken in the Sistine Chapel (where the rule prohibiting photography is enforced far more effectively than the one requiring “Silencio!”). This is one of the images on the display Maria Teresa used to preview our visit to Michelangelo’s masterwork. It shows the image of the “moon” that the artist incorporated in his composition to indicate his unhappiness with having to undertake this project. The Chapel is named for Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned it.