VATICAN MUSEUMS TOUR - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


The glories of the ancient world displayed in a lavish papal palace, decorated by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael...the Musei Vaticani. A conglomerate of many submuseums, the Vatican Museums hold some of the greatest art anywhere. Unfortunately, many tourists see these collections only as an obstacle between them and the grand finale, the Sistine Chapel. True, this huge, confusing, and crowded megamuseum can be a jungle—but with this book as your vine, you should swing through with ease, enjoying the highlights and getting to the Sistine just before you collapse.

With the Fall of Rome (A.D. 476), the Catholic (“universal”) Church became the great preserver of civilization, collecting artifacts from cultures dead and dying. Renaissance popes (15th and 16th centuries) collected most of what we’ll see, using it as furniture to decorate their palace (today’s museum). Combining the classical and Christian worlds, they found the divine in the creations of man.

We’ll concentrate on classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. But along the way (and there’s a lot of along-the-way here), we’ll stop to leaf through a few yellowed pages from this 5,000-year-old scrapbook of humankind.

The always crowded museum has an online reservation system and a website with up-to-date hours and information. For more on Vatican City, the small, independent country where this museum is located, see here.


(See “Vatican Museums Overview” map, here.)

Cost: €16, €4 online reservation fee, free on the last Sun of each month (when it’s very crowded).

Hours: Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00, last entry at 16:00 (the staff starts ushering you out at 17:30). Closed Sun, except last Sun of the month, when it’s open 9:00-14:00, last entry at 12:30. Open Fri nights May-July and Sept-Oct 19:00-23:00 (last entry at 21:30) by online reservation only—check the website; note that during evening visits, parts of the museum—including the Pinacoteca—are often closed.

The museum is closed on many holidays (mainly religious ones), including, for 2016: Jan 1 (New Year’s), Jan 6 (Epiphany), Feb 11 (Vatican City established), March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day), March 27 and 28 (Easter Sunday/Monday), May 1 (Labor Day), June 29 (Sts. Peter and Paul), Aug 15 (Assumption of the Virgin), Nov 1 (All Saints’ Day), Dec 8 (Immaculate Conception), and Dec 25 and 26 (Christmas). Because changes in hours and other holiday closures may occur, always check the current hours and calendar at

Individual rooms may close at odd hours, especially in the afternoon. The rooms described here are usually open.

Reservations: The Vatican Museums can be extremely crowded, with waits of up to two hours to buy tickets (figure about a 10-minute wait for every 100 yards in line). Bypass the long ticket lines by reserving an entry time at for €20 (€16 ticket plus €4 booking fee). It’s easy. Just choose your day and time, then check your email for your confirmation and print out the voucher. At the Vatican Museums, bypass the ticket-buying line and queue up at the “Visitor Entrance with Online Reservations” line (to the right). Show your voucher to the guard and go in. Once inside the museum, present your voucher at a ticket window (cassa), either in the lobby or upstairs, and they’ll issue your ticket. Even with a reservation, read “When to Go,” next.


When to Go: Except in winter, the museum is generally hot and crowded, with long ticket lines and shoulder-to-shoulder sightseeing through much of it. The worst days are Saturdays, the last Sunday of the month (when it’s free), Mondays, rainy days, and any day before or after a holiday closure. Mornings are most crowded. The best (or least-worst) time to visit is a weekday after 14:00—the later the better. Another good time is during the papal audience on Wednesday morning, when many tourists are at St. Peter’s Square (the only drawback is that St. Peter’s Basilica is closed until roughly 13:00, as is the exit to it from the Sistine Chapel—described later, under “Museum Strategies”). Expect even more crowding in 2016, which Pope Francis has declared an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” Holy Year.

More Line-Beating Tips: If you didn’t book tickets in advance, you have a few other line-avoiding options. Booking a guided tour (described later, under “Tours”) gets you right in—just show the guard your voucher.

You can often buy same-day, skip-the-line tickets (for the same €20 online price) through the TI in St. Peter’s Square (to the left, as you face the basilica). Also, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (a.k.a., Roma Cristiana), a Vatican-affiliated tour company, sells same-day tickets for €27.50 (entrances almost hourly, office in front of St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Pio XII 9, tel. 06-6980-6380, If you’re going to St. Peter’s Basilica first, you can buy priority-entry Vatican Museums tickets in the narthex (€25 includes admission plus service fee). Hawkers peddling skip-the-line access swarm the Vatican area, offering tours with guides of varying quality. It’s smarter to plan in advance, but if all else fails, it will get you in.

Dress Code: Modest dress is required (no shorts, above-knee skirts, or bare shoulders). This dress code is strictly enforced here, at St. Peter’s Basilica, and throughout Vatican City.

Getting There: The Ottaviano Metro stop is a 10-minute walk from the entrance. Bus #49 from Piazza Cavour/Castel Sant’Angelo stops at Piazza Risorgimento and continues right to the entrance. Bus #23 from Trastevere hugs the west bank of the Tiber and stops on Via Leone IV, just downhill from the entrance. Bus #492 heads from the city center past Piazza Risorgimento and the Vatican walls, and also stops on Via Leone IV. Bus #64 stops on the other side of St. Peter’s Square, a 15-to 20-minute walk (facing the church from the obelisk, take a right through the colonnade and follow the Vatican Wall). A few other handy buses (see here) can get you close enough to snag a taxi for the final stretch. Or take a taxi from the city center—they are reasonable (hop in and say, “moo-ZAY-ee vah-tee-KAH-nee”).

Getting In: Make sure you get in the right entry line. Generally, individuals without tickets line up against the Vatican City wall (to the left of the entrance as you face it), and reservation holders (both individuals and groups) enter on the right. All visitors must pass through a metal detector (no pocket knives allowed).

Information: As you enter the main lobby of the museum, an info desk is to your left, and TV screens list which rooms are open or closed. Bookstores are scattered throughout the museum, and many exhibits have English explanations. You can virtually tour the Sistine Chapel ceiling at (click on “Basilicas and Papal Chapels”). Info tel. 06-6988-4676 or 06-6988-3145,

Tours: A €7 audioguide is available at the top of the spiral ramp/escalator. A security ID is not required to rent an audioguide, and you can drop it off either where you rented it or after leaving the Sistine Chapel if taking the shortcut to St. Peter’s (described later, under “Museum Strategies”). Confirm the drop-off location when renting.

Image Download my free Sistine Chapel audio tour.

The Vatican offers guided tours in English that are easy to book on their website (€32, includes admission). As with individual ticket reservations, present your confirmation voucher to a guard to the right of the entrance; then, once inside, go to the Guided Tours desk (in the lobby, up a few stairs).

For a list of private tour companies and guides, see here.

Length of This Tour: Until you expire, the museum closes, or 2.5 hours pass, whichever comes first. If you’re short on time, see the octagonal courtyard (Laocoön), then follow the crowd flow directly to the Sistine Chapel, sightseeing along the way. From the Sistine Chapel, head straight to St. Peter’s via the shortcut, if open (see “Museum Strategies,” below).

Services: The museum’s “checkroom” (to the right after security) takes only bigger bags, not day bags. The post office, with stamps that make collectors drool, is upstairs. WCs are mainly at the entrance/exit, plus a few scattered within the collection.

Museum Strategies: The museum has two exits. The main exit is near the entrance. Use this one if you’re asked to return an audioguide there or if you plan on following this self-guided tour exactly as laid out, visiting the Pinacoteca at the end.

The other exit is a handy (but sometimes closed) shortcut that leads from the Sistine Chapel directly to St. Peter’s Basilica (spilling out alongside the church; see map on here). The shortcut saves you a 30-minute walk backtracking to the basilica’s main entrance and lets you avoid the often-long security line there. Officially, this exit is for Vatican guides and their groups only. However, it’s often open to anyone (depending on how crowded the chapel is and how the guards feel). It’s worth a shot (try blending in with a group that’s leaving), but be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get through.

Photography: No photos allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but photos without flash are permitted elsewhere.

Cuisine Art: A self-service cafeteria is inside, near the Pinacoteca. Smaller cafés are in the outdoor Cortile della Pigna and near the Sistine Chapel. All offer mediocre food at inflated prices. Cheaper choices outside the museum include the great Mercato Trionfale produce market on Via Andrea Doria, three blocks north of the entrance (head across the street, down the stairs, and continue straight). Inexpensive pizza rustica shops selling pizza by the slice line Viale Giulio Cesare and Via Candia, and good restaurants are nearby (see here).

Starring: World history, a pope’s palace, Michelangelo, Raphael, Laocoön, the Greek masters, and their Roman copyists.


The Tour Begins

(See “Vatican Museums Overview” map, here.)

This heavyweight museum is shaped like a barbell—two buildings connected by a long hall. The entrance building covers the ancient world (Egypt, Greece, Rome). The one at the far end covers its “rebirth” in the Renaissance (including the Sistine Chapel). The halls there and back are a mix of old and new. Move quickly—don’t burn out before the Sistine Chapel, near the end of this tour—and see how each civilization borrows from and builds on the previous one.

✵ Leave Italy by entering the doors.

Once you clear the security checkpoint, exchange your printed voucher (on the ground floor) or buy your ticket (upstairs). Scan your ticket at the turnstiles, then take the long escalator or spiral ramp up, up, up to a glass-covered courtyard.

Pause at the courtyard and get your bearings: The audioguide kiosk is here. To your right are the cafeteria and the Pinacoteca painting gallery. To your left is the beginning of our tour.


✵ To start our tour, go left, then take another left up a flight of marble stairs to reach the first-floor Egyptian rooms (Museo Gregoriano Egizio). Enter, and don’t stop until you find your mummy.

Note: Occasionally, the stairs up to Egypt are closed off, and crowds are routed through a spacious open-air courtyard, the Cortile della Pigna (see map on next page). Just keep following the masses until you reach a much smaller octagonal courtyard with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön figures. Tour the museum from there to the “Sarcophagi,” where you’ll find the entrance to the Egyptian rooms.

Ancient Wing

EGYPT (3000-1000 B.C.)

(See “The Ancient World” map, here.)

Egyptian art was religious, not decorative. A statue or painting preserved the likeness of someone, giving him or her a form of eternal life. Most of the art was for tombs, where they put the mummies.


✵ Pass beyond the imitation Egyptian pillars to the left of the case in the center of the room, and you’ll find...


This woman died three millennia ago. Her corpse was disemboweled, and her organs were placed in a jar like those you see nearby. Then the body was refilled with pitch, dried with natron (a natural sodium carbonate), wrapped in linen, and placed in a wood coffin, which went inside a stone coffin, which was placed in a tomb. (Remember that the pyramids were just big tombs.) Notice the henna job on her hair—in the next life, your spirit needed a body to be rooted to...and you wanted to look your best.


Painted inside the coffin lid is a list of what the deceased “packed” for the journey to eternity. The coffins were decorated with magical spells to protect the body from evil and to act as crib notes for the confused soul in the netherworld. In nearby cases are shabtis, small figurines of the deceased placed inside the tomb.

In the next room are...

Egyptian Statues

Egyptian statues walk awkwardly, as if they’re carrying heavy buckets, with arms straight down at their sides. Even these Roman reproductions (made for Hadrian’s Villa) are stiff, two-dimensional, and schematic—the art is only realistic enough to get the job done. In Egyptian belief, a statue like this could be a stable refuge for the wandering soul of a dead person. Each was made according to an established set of proportions. Little changed over the centuries—these statues had a function, and they worked.


✵ Walk through the next small room and into the curved hallway, and look for...

Various Egyptian Gods as Animals

Before technology made humans top dogs on earth, it was easier to appreciate our fellow creatures. Egyptians saw the superiority of animals and worshipped them as incarnations of the gods. Wander through a pet store of Egyptian animal gods. In the small room, by the big window, find Anubis, a jackal in a toga. In the curved room, find the lioness, the fierce goddess Sekhmet. The clever baboon is the god of wisdom, Thoth. At the end of the curved hall on your right is Bes (the small white marble statue), the patron of pregnant women (and beer-bellied men).


✵ Continue into the darkened wing and proceed to the third room (Room VIII), pausing at the glass case, which contains small, brown clay tablets.

Sumerian Writing

Even before Egypt, civilizations flourished in the Middle East. The Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia (the ancestors of the ancient Babylonians and of today’s Iraqis) invented writing in about 3000 B.C. People wrote on clay tablets by pressing into the wet clay with a wedge-shaped (cuneiform) pen. The Sumerians also rolled cylindrical seals into soft clay to make an impression that authenticated documents and marked property.


✵ Pass through the next room, and then turn left, to a balcony with a view of Rome through the window. You’re in what was originally the Belvedere Palace—the pope’s summer palace, on a hill, with a breeze and fine views like this.


This palace wouldn’t be here, this sculpture wouldn’t be here, and our lives would likely be quite different if it weren’t for a few thousand Greeks in a small city about 450 years before Christ. Athens set the tone for the rest of the West. Democracy, theater, economics, literature, and art all flourished in Athens during a 50-year “Golden Age.” Greek culture was then appropriated by Rome, and revived again 1,500 years later, during the Renaissance. The Renaissance popes built and decorated these papal palaces, re-creating the glory of the classical world.

✵ Enter the Octagonal Courtyard. In 1506, the Vatican Museums were born here, where popes would entertain VIPs and guests with their fine collection of art. Around 1800 the galleries were opened to the public but then closed around 1870 with the feud that followed the unification of modern Italy. The museums were opened to the public again in 1932. Find the statue of Apollo Belvedere, on your left as you enter.

Apollo Belvedere

Apollo, the god of the sun and of music, is hunting. He’s been running through the woods, and now he spots his prey. Keeping his eye on the animal, he slows down and prepares to put a (missing) arrow into his (missing) bow. The optimistic Greeks conceived of their gods in human form...and buck naked.

This Apollo is a Roman copy (2nd century A.D.) of a Hellenistic original that followed the style of the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. It fully captures the beauty of the human form. The anatomy is perfect, his pose is natural. Instead of standing at attention, face-forward with his arms at his sides (Egyptian-style), Apollo is on the move, coming to rest with his weight on one leg.


The Greeks loved balance. A well-rounded man was both a thinker and an athlete, a poet and a warrior. In art, the Apollo Belvedere balances several opposites. He’s moving, but not out of control. Apollo eyes his target, but hasn’t attacked yet. He’s realistic, but with idealized, godlike features. And the smoothness of his muscles is balanced by the rough folds of his cloak. The only sour note: his left hand, added in modern times. Could we try a size smaller?

During the Renaissance, when this Roman copy was discovered, it was considered the most perfect work of art in the world. The handsome face, eternal youth, and body that seems to float just above the pedestal made Apollo Belvedere seem superhuman, divine, and godlike, even for devout Christians. Remember this face when you see Jesus in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (coming soon); clearly this Apollo inspired the artist.

✵ In the neighboring niche to the right, a bearded old Roman river god lounges in the shade. This pose reappears in Michelangelo’s Adam on the Sistine ceiling. While there are a few fancy bathtubs in this courtyard, most of the carved boxes you see are sarcophagiRoman coffins and relic holders, carved with the deceased’s epitaph in picture form.

In the next niche is...


Laocoön (lay-AWK-oh-wahn), the high priest of Troy, warned his fellow Trojans: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The attacking Greeks had brought the Trojan Horse to the gates as a ploy to get inside the city walls, and Laocoön tried to warn his people not to bring it inside. But the gods wanted the Greeks to win, so they sent huge snakes to crush Laocoön and his two sons to death. We see them at the height of their terror, when they realize that, no matter how hard they struggle, they—and their entire race—are doomed. Laocoön’s agonized face says it all: “Snakes...why’d it have to be snakes?”


The figures (carved from four blocks of marble pieced together seamlessly) are powerful, not light and graceful. The poses are as twisted as possible, accentuating every rippling muscle and bulging vein. Follow the line of motion from Laocoön’s left foot, up his leg, through his body, and out his right arm (which some historians used to think extended straight out—until the elbow was dug up in the early 1900s). Goethe would stand here and blink his eyes rapidly, watching the statue flicker to life.

Laocoön was sculpted some four centuries after the Golden Age (5th-4th century B.C.), after the scales of “balance” had been tipped. Whereas Apollo is a balance between stillness and motion, this is textbook Hellenism...unbridled motion. Apollo is serene, graceful, and godlike, while Laocoön is powerful, emotional, and gritty.

Laocoön—the most famous Greek statue in ancient Rome and considered “superior to all other sculpture or painting”—was lost for more than a thousand years. Then, in 1506, it was unexpectedly unearthed in the ruins of Nero’s Golden House near the Colosseum. The discovery caused a sensation. It was cleaned off and paraded through the streets in front of an awestruck populace (before landing here and becoming the first piece of this collection). No one had ever seen anything like its motion and emotion, having been raised on a white-bread diet of pretty-boy Apollos. One of those who saw it was the young Michelangelo, and it was a revelation to him. Two years later, he started work on the Sistine Chapel, and the Renaissance was about to take another turn.

✵ Leave the courtyard to the right of Laocoön and pause at the Hall of Animals (on the left), a Hellenistic zoo of beasts real and surreal. These animals are all ancient statues restored in the 18th century during the Enlightenment. (Can you find the camel?) Then continue to the limbless torso in the middle of the next large hall.

Belvedere Torso

My experience with sculpting statues ends with snowmen. But standing face-to-face with this hunk of shaped rock makes you appreciate the sheer physical labor involved in chipping a figure out of solid stone. It takes great strength but, at the same time, great delicacy.

This is all that remains of an ancient statue of Hercules seated on a lion skin. Michelangelo loved this old rock. He knew that he was the best sculptor of his day. The ancients were his only peers—and his rivals. He’d caress this statue lovingly and tell people, “I am the pupil of the Torso.” To him, it contained all the beauty of classical sculpture. But it’s not beautiful. Compared with the pure grace of the Apollo, it’s downright ugly.


But Michelangelo, an ugly man himself, was looking for a new kind of beauty—not the beauty of idealized gods, but the innate beauty of every person, even so-called ugly ones. With its knotty lumps of muscle, the Torso has a brute power and a distinct personality despite—or because of—its rough edges. Remember this Torso, because we’ll see it again later on.

Enter the next, domed room.

Round Room

This room, modeled on the Pantheon interior, gives some idea of Roman grandeur. Romans took Greek ideas and made them bigger, like the big bronze statue of Hercules with his club, found near the Theater of Pompey (by modern-day Campo de’ Fiori). The mosaic floor you’re standing on is 1,700 years old—it once decorated the bottom of a pool in an ancient Roman bath. The enormous Roman basin/hot tub/birdbath/vase decorated Nero’s place. (It’s so big that the room was built around it in the 18th century.) It was made of a single block of purple porphyry marble stone imported from Egypt. Purple was a rare, royal, expensive, and prestigious color in pre-Crayola days. This particular variety, called “imperial porphyry,” came from a single mountain in Egypt and was the stone of emperors...and then of popes. Now that source is quarried out, and the only “imperial porphyry” available to anyone has been recycled.


Enter the next room.


These two large porphyry marble coffins were made (though not used) for the Roman emperor Constantine’s mother (Helena, on left) and daughter (Constanza, on right). Helena’s coffin depicts a battle game showing dying victims in their barbarian dress. Constanza’s is decorated with a mix of Christian and pagan themes. Helena and Constanza were Christians—and therefore outlaws—until Constantine made Christianity legal in A.D. 313, and they became saints. Both sarcophagi were quarried and worked in Egypt. The technique for working this extremely hard stone (a special tempering of metal was required) was lost after this, and porphyry marble was not chiseled again until Renaissance times in Florence.


✵ See how we’ve come full circle in this building—the Egyptian Rooms are ahead on your left. Go upstairs and prepare for the Long March down the hall lined with statues, toward the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms.

Overachievers may first choose to pop into the Etruscan wing—labeled Museo Gregoriano Etrusco—located a few steps up from the Long March level. (Others have permission to save their aesthetic energy for the Sistine.)

THE ETRUSCANS (800-300 B.C.)

Room I

The chariot is from 550 B.C., when the crude Romans were ruled by their more civilized neighbors to the north—the Etruscans. (The wooden portions are a reconstruction.) Imagine the chariot racing around the dirt track of the Circus Maximus, through the marshy valley of the newly drained Forum, or up Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jupiter—all originally built by Rome’s Etruscan kings.


Room II

The golden breastplate (Pectoral, 650 B.C., immediately to the right), decorated with tiny winged figures and animals, shows off the sophistication of the Etruscans. Though unwarlike and politically decentralized, these people were able to “conquer” all of central Italy around 650 B.C. through trade, offering tempting metalwork goods like this.

The Etruscan vases done in the Greek style remind us of the other great pre-Roman power—the Greek colonists who settled in southern Italy (Magna Graecia). The Etruscans traded with the Greeks, adopting their fashions. Rome, cradled between the two, grew up learning from both cultures.


A Greek-style bowl (far corner of the room) depicting a man and woman in bed together would have scandalized early Roman farmers. He’s peeing in a chamber pot, she’s blowing a flute. Etruscan art often showed husbands and wives at ease together, giving them a reputation among the Romans as immoral, flute-playing degenerates.

Room III

This bronze warrior (late 5th century B.C.), whose helmet was sawed off by lightning, has a rare inscription that’s readable (on armor below the navel). It probably refers to the statue’s former owner: “Aha! Trutitis gave [this] as [a] gift.” Archaeologists understand the Etruscans’ Greek-style alphabet and some individual words, but they’ve yet to fully crack the code. As you look around at beautiful bronze pitchers, candlesticks, shields, and urns, ponder yet another of Etruria’s unsolved mysteries—no one is sure where these sophisticated people came from.


Room IV

Most of our knowledge of the Etruscans is from sarcophagi and art in Etruscan tombs. Their funeral art is solemn, but hardly morbid—check out the sarcopha-guy with the bulging belly, enjoying a banquet for all eternity.

The Etruscans’ origins are obscure, but their legacy is clear. In 509 B.C., the Etruscan king’s son raped a Roman noblewoman. The king was thrown out, the republic was declared, Etruscan cities were conquered by Rome’s legions, and their culture was swallowed up in Roman expansion. By Julius Caesar’s time, the few remaining ethnic Etruscans were reduced to serving their masters as flute players, goldsmiths, surgeons, and street-corner preachers, like the one that Caesar brushed aside when he called out, “Beware the Ides of March...”


✵ Browse the remaining dozen rooms of the Etruscan Wing, or backtrack to the long hall (the Gallery of the Candelabra) leading to the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms.


This quarter-mile walk gives you a sense of the scale that Renaissance popes built on. Remember, this building was originally a series of papal palaces. The popes loved beautiful things—statues, urns, marble floors, friezes, stuccoed ceilings—and, as heirs of imperial Rome, they felt they deserved such luxury. The palaces and art represent both the peak and the decline of the Catholic Church in Europe. It was extravagant spending like this that inspired Martin Luther to rebel, starting the Protestant Reformation.


Gallery of the Candelabra (Galleria dei Candelabri): Classical Sculpture

In the second “room” of the long hall, stop at the statue of Diana the Huntress on the left. Here, the virgin goddess goes hunting. Roman hunters would pray and give offerings to statues like this to get divine help in their search for food.


Farmers might pray to another version of the same goddess, in her guise as Artemis, on the opposite wall. This billion-breasted beauty stood for fertility. “Boobs or bulls’ balls?” Some historians say that bulls were sacrificed and castrated, with the testicles draped over the statues as symbols of fertility.


✵ Shuffle along to the next “room,” remembering that, while the statues seem white and lifeless today, originally they were colorfully painted and had inlaid eyes. On the left is Bacchus, with a baby on his shoulders.

Fig Leaves

Why do the statues have fig leaves? Like Bacchus, many of these statues originally looked much different than they do now. First off, they were painted, often in gaudy colors. Bacchus may have had brown hair, rosy cheeks, purple grapes, and a leopard-skin sidekick at his feet. Even the Apollo Belvedere, whose cool gray tones we now admire as “classic Greek austerity,” may have had a paisley pink cloak for all we know. Also, many statues had glass eyes like Bacchus’.

And the fig leaves? Those came from the years 1550 to 1800, when the Church decided that certain parts of the human anatomy were obscene. (Why not the feet?) Perhaps Church leaders associated these full-frontal statues with the outbreak of Renaissance humanism that reduced their power in Europe. Whatever the cause, they reacted by covering classical crotches with plaster fig leaves, the same leaves Adam and Eve had used when the concept of “privates” was invented.


Note: The leaves could be removed at any time if the museum officials were so motivated. There are suggestion boxes around the museum. Whenever I see a fig leaf, I get the urge to pick-it. We could start an organ-ized campaign...

✵ Cover your eyes in case they forgot a fig leaf or two, and continue to the...


Along the left wall are tapestries designed by Raphael’s workshop and made in Brussels (circa 1524). They show scenes from the life of Christ: Baby Jesus in the manger, being adored by shepherds, and presented in the temple. Farther along, the Resurrection tapestry, with Jesus striding out of the tomb, is curiously you walk, Jesus’ eyes, feet, knee, and even the stone slab follow you across the room. Next to it, The Supper at Emmaus (with Jesus sitting at a table) seems equally flexible.


Check out the beautiful sculpted reliefs on the ceiling. Admire the workmanship of this relief, then realize that it’s not a relief at all—it’s painted on a flat surface! Illusions like this were proof that painters had mastered the 3-D realism of ancient statues.

Map Gallery and View of Vatican City

This gallery still feels like a pope’s palace. The crusted ceiling of colorful stucco and paint is pure papal splendor. The maps on the walls show the regions of Italy. Popes could take visitors on a tour of Italy, from the toe (entrance end) to the Alps (far end), with east Italy on the right wall, west on the left. They actually functioned as the official maps from 1582 (when they were painted) until the 19th century. Notice how parchments of towns were thumbtacked on. The scenes on the ceiling portray exciting moments in Church history in each of those regions.


The windows give you your best look at the tiny country of Vatican City, officially established as an independent nation in 1929. It has its own radio station, as you see from the tower on the hill. (Just in front of that radio tower is Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI’s residence—with the three green shutters. On nice afternoons, he can be seen strolling on his rooftop terrace.) What you see here is pretty much all there is—these gardens, the palaces you’re in, and St. Peter’s (for more on Vatican City, see the sidebar on here).

If you have the chance to lean out and look left, you’ll see the dome of St. Peter’s the way Michelangelo would have liked you to see it—without the bulky Baroque facade.


Near the end of the gallery (on the left) is a map of Liguria. You can actually see the five little towns of the Cinque Terre circa 1582 and a chariot captained by Neptune himself as he takes Columbus to the New World. The final maps feature all of Italy in the 16th century (left) and the Italian peninsula in ancient times (right).

✵ Exit the map room. At the end of the long hall (or a couple of rooms later), you may have to choose between two routes to the “Capella Sistina.” One route makes a beeline to the Sistine. (Most tired and rushed cruise groups take this one.) But for our tour, turn left, toward the exquisite Raphael Rooms.

Renaissance Wing

Papal Wallpaper

We’ve seen art from the ancient world; now we’ll see its rebirth in the Renaissance. We’re entering the living quarters of the great Renaissance popes—where they slept, worked, and worshipped. The rooms reflect the grandeur of their position. They hired the best artists—mostly from Florence—to paint the walls and ceilings, combining classical and Christian motifs.

Entering, you’ll immediately see a huge 19th-century painting that depicts the Polish King Jan III Sobieski liberating Vienna from the Ottomans in 1683, finally tipping the tide in favor of a Christian Europe. See the Ottoman tents on the left and the spires of Christian Vienna on the right. This is not by Raphael, but by Jan Matejko, a Polish painter who specialized in grand-scale historical epics like this one.


The second room’s paintings celebrate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, establishing that Mary herself was born without sin. This medieval idea wasn’t actually made dogma until a century ago. The largest fresco shows how the inspiration came straight from heaven (upper left) in a thin ray of light directly to the pope.

✵ Next, you’ll pass along an outside walkway that overlooks a courtyard (the parking lot for some of the 4,000 people who commute to work here daily), finally ending up in the first of the Raphael Rooms, the Constantine Room.



Constantine Room

(See “Raphael Rooms” map, here.)

These frescoes, painted between 1517 and 1524 (finished after Raphael’s death by his assistants, notably Giulio Romano), celebrate the passing of the baton from one culture to the next. Remember, Rome was a pagan empire persecuting a new cult from the East—Christianity.

Then, on the night of October 27, A.D. 312 (left wall), as General Constantine (in gold, with crown) was preparing his troops for a coup d’état, he looked up and saw something strange. A cross appeared in the sky with the words, “You will conquer in this sign.”

The next day (long wall), his troops raged victoriously into battle with the Christian cross atop their Roman eagle banners. There’s Constantine in the center with a smile on his face, slashing through the enemy, while God’s warrior angels ride shotgun overhead.


Constantine even stripped (right wall) and knelt before the pope to be baptized a Christian (some say). As emperor, he legalized Christianity and worked hand in hand with the pope, although the document in which he supposedly “gave” Rome to the pope (window wall) was later shown to be a forgery. When Rome fell, its glory lived on through the Dark Ages in the pomp, pageantry, and learning of the Catholic Church.

Look at the ceiling painting. A classical statue is knocked backward, crumbling before the overpowering force of the cross. Whoa! Christianity triumphs over pagan Rome. (This was painted, I believe, by Raphael’s surrealist colleague, Salvadorus Dalio.)

Raphael (1483-1520)

Raphael was only 25 when Pope Julius II invited him, in 1508, to paint the walls of his personal living quarters. Julius was so impressed by Raphael’s talent that he had the work of earlier masters scraped off and gave Raphael free rein to paint what he wanted.

Raphael lived a charmed life. He was handsome and sophisticated, and soon became Julius’ favorite. He painted masterpieces effortlessly. In a different decade, he might have been thrown out of the Church as a great sinner, but his love affairs and devil-may-care personality seemed to epitomize the optimistic pagan spirit of the Renaissance.

Raphael’s paintings are bathed in an even light, with few shadows; his brushwork is smooth and blended, and colors are restrained. In group scenes, Raphael wants you to follow his subjects’ gazes as they exchange glances or look off in different directions. This adds a sense of motion and psychological tension to otherwise well-balanced scenes.

Raphael’s compositions always have a strong geometric template. Figures are arranged into a pyramid or a circle. Human bodies are composed of oval faces, cylindrical arms, and arched shoulders. Subconsciously, this creates the feeling that God’s created world is geometrically perfect. But Raphael always lets a bit of messy reality spill over the lines so his scenes don’t appear static. While always graceful, his works are never lightweight or frilly—they’re strong, balanced, and harmonious in the best Renaissance tradition. When he died, at just 38 years old, the High Renaissance died with him.

✵ Continue on. In the next room you’ll reach a room with frescoes arching over the windows (Room of Heliodorus, 1512-1514). Block the sunlight with your hand to see...

The Liberation of St. Peter

Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, was thrown into prison in Jerusalem for his beliefs. In the middle of the night, an angel appeared and rescued him from the sleeping guards (Acts 12:5-12). The chains miraculously fell away (and were later brought to the St. Peter-in-Chains Church in Rome), and the angel led him to safety (right), while the guards took hell from their captain (left). This little “play” is neatly divided into three separate acts that make a balanced composition.


Raphael makes the miraculous event even more dramatic with the use of four kinds of light illuminating the dark cell—half-moonlight, the captain’s torch, the radiant angel, and the natural light spilling through the museum’s window. Raphael’s mastery of realism, rich colors, and sense of drama made him understandably famous.

Find portraits of Pope Julius II in several paintings in this room. Julius was the man who commissioned Raphael to paint these rooms, who browbeat Michelangelo into doing the Sistine ceiling, and who started construction of St. Peter’s. You can make out gray-bearded Julius in the role of Peter in The Liberation, seated on the left in The Expulsion of Heliodorus (on the wall to the right), and as the kneeling pope in The Mass of Bolsena (opposite the Liberation).

Enter the next room (Room of the Segnatura, 1508-1511). Here in the pope’s private study, Raphael painted...

The School of Athens

In both style and subject matter, this fresco sums up the spirit of the Renaissance, which was not only the rebirth of classical art, but a rebirth of learning, discovery, and the optimistic spirit that man is a rational creature. Raphael pays respect to the great thinkers and scientists of ancient Greece, gathering them together at one time in a mythical school setting.


In the center are Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest Greeks. Plato points up, indicating his philosophy that mathematics and pure ideas are the source of truth, while Aristotle gestures down, showing preference for hands-on study of the material world. There’s their master, Socrates (midway to the left, in green), ticking off arguments on his fingers. And in the foreground at right, bald Euclid bends over a slate to demonstrate a geometrical formula.


Raphael shows that Renaissance thinkers were as good as the ancients. There’s Leonardo da Vinci, whom Raphael worshipped, in the role of Plato. Euclid is the architect Donato Bramante, who designed St. Peter’s. Raphael himself (next to last on the far right, with the black beret) looks out at us. And the “school” building is actually an early version of St. Peter’s Basilica (under construction at the time).

Raphael balances everything symmetrically—thinkers to the left, scientists to the right, with Plato and Aristotle dead center—showing the geometrical order found in the world. Look at the square floor tiles in the foreground. If you laid a ruler over them and extended the line upward, it would run right to the center of the picture. Similarly, the tops of the columns all point down to the middle. All the lines of sight draw our attention to Plato and Aristotle, and to the small arch over their heads—a halo over these two secular saints in the divine pursuit of knowledge.

While Raphael was painting this room, Michelangelo was at work down the hall in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael had just finished The School of Athens when he got a look at Michelangelo’s powerful figures and dramatic scenes. He was astonished. From this point on, Raphael began to beef up his delicate, graceful style to a more heroic level. He returned to The School of Athens and added one more figure to the scene—Michelangelo, the brooding, melancholy figure in front, leaning on a block of marble.


On the opposite wall is...

La Disputa

As if to underline the new attitude that pre-Christian philosophy and Church thinking could coexist, Raphael painted La Disputa facing The School of Athens. Christ and the saints in heaven are overseeing a discussion of the Eucharist (the communion wafer) by mortals below. The classical-looking character in blue and gold looks out as if to say, “The pagans had their School of Athens, but we Christians (pointing up) have the School of Heaven.” These rooms were the papal library, so themes featuring learning, knowledge, and debate were appropriate.


In Catholic terms, the communion wafer miraculously becomes the body of Christ when it’s consecrated by a priest, bringing a little bit of heaven into the material world. Raphael’s painting also connects heaven and earth, with descending circles: Jesus in a halo floats above a circle surrounding the dove of the Holy Spirit, which radiates down toward the round communion wafer on the altar. Balance and symmetry reign, from the angel trios in the upper corners to the books littering the floor. Find Dante wearing his poet’s laureate in the lower right. (Hint: He’s the guy on your €2 coin, modeled after this detail of La Disputa.)

Moving along, the last Raphael Room (called the “Fire in the Borgo” Room, 1514-1517) shows work done mostly by Raphael’s students, who were influenced by the bulging muscles and bodybuilder poses of Michelangelo.

✵ Pause here—WCs are nearby. Next stop: the Sistine Chapel, just a five-minute walk away. Exit the final Raphael Room through a passageway, bear right, and go down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs you’ll find several quiet rooms with benches. Have a seat and read ahead before entering the hectic Sistine Chapel.


When you’re ready to tackle the Sistine, stroll through the extensive (and impressive) Modern Religious Art collection, following signs to the chapel. Near the end of the modern collection (Room XXXVII and on), you’ll pass religious paintings by modern masters—Chagall, Dalí, Bacon, and others.

The Sistine Chapel

(See “Sistene Chapel” map, here.)

The Sistine Chapel contains Michelangelo’s ceiling and his huge Last Judgment. The Sistine is the personal chapel of the pope and the place where new popes are elected. (The small, old-fashioned stove that burns pope-vote ballots—which sends out puffs of telltale smoke—is near today’s shortcut exit.)


When Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to take on this important project, he said, “No, grazie.” Michelangelo insisted he was a sculptor, not a painter. The Sistine ceiling was a vast undertaking, and he didn’t want to do a half-vast job. But the pope pleaded, bribed, and threatened until Michelangelo finally consented, on the condition that he be able to do it all his own way.

Julius had asked for only 12 apostles along the sides of the ceiling, but Michelangelo had a grander vision—the entire history of the world until Jesus. He spent the next four years (1508-1512) craning his neck on scaffolding six stories up, covering the ceiling with frescoes of biblical scenes.


In sheer physical terms, it’s an astonishing achievement: 5,900 square feet, with the vast majority done by his own hand. (Raphael only designed most of his rooms, letting assistants do the grunt work.)

First, he had to design and erect the scaffolding. Any materials had to be hauled up on pulleys. Then, a section of ceiling would be plastered. With fresco—painting on wet plaster—if you don’t get it right the first time, you have to scrape the whole thing off and start over. And if you’ve ever struggled with a ceiling light fixture or worked underneath a car for even five minutes, you know how heavy your arms get. The physical effort, the paint dripping in his eyes, the creative drain, and the mental stress from a pushy pope combined to almost kill Michelangelo.

But when the ceiling was finished and revealed to the public, it simply blew ’em away. Like the Laocoön statue discovered six years earlier, it was unlike anything seen before. It both caps the Renaissance and turns it in a new direction. In perfect Renaissance spirit, it mixes Old Testament prophets with classical figures. But the style is more dramatic, shocking, and emotional than the balanced Renaissance works before it. This is a very personal work—the Gospel according to Michelangelo—but its themes and subject matter are universal. Many art scholars contend that the Sistine ceiling is the single greatest work of art by any one human being.


Understanding What You’re Standing Under

(See “The Sistene Ceiling” map, here.)

The ceiling shows the history of the world before the birth of Jesus. We see God creating the world, creating man and woman, destroying the earth by flood, and so on. God himself, in his purple robe, actually appears in the first five scenes. Along the sides (where the ceiling starts to curve), we see the Old Testament prophets and pagan Greek prophetesses who foretold the coming of Christ. Dividing these scenes and figures are fake niches (a painted 3-D illusion) decorated with nude statue-like figures with symbolic meaning.


The key is to see three simple divisions in the tangle of bodies:

1. The central spine of nine rectangular biblical scenes;

2. The line of prophets on either side; and

3. The triangles between the prophets showing the ancestors of Christ.

✵ Ready? Within the chapel, try to find a seat along the side. Face the altar with the big Last Judgment on the wall—more on that later. (If you’re using this book’s diagram of the ceiling on here, follow the “how to use this diagram” instructions carefully.) Now look up to the ceiling and find the central panel of...



The Creation of Adam

God and man take center stage in this Renaissance version of creation. Adam, newly formed in the image of God, lounges dreamily in perfect naked innocence. God, with his entourage, swoops in with a swirl of activity (which—with a little imagination—looks like a cross-section of a human brain...quite a strong humanist statement). Their reaching hands are the center of this work. Adam’s is limp and passive; God’s is strong and forceful, his finger twitching upward with energy. Here is the very moment of creation, as God passes the spark of life to man, the crowning work of his creation.


This is the spirit of the Renaissance. God is not a terrifying giant reaching down to puny and helpless man from way on high. Here they are on an equal plane, divided only by the diagonal bit of sky. God’s billowing robe and the patch of green upon which Adam is lying balance each other. They are like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or two long-separated continents, or like the yin and yang symbols finally coming together—uniting, complementing each other, creating wholeness. God and man work together in the divine process of creation.

✵ This celebration of man permeates the ceiling. Notice the Adonises-come-to-life on the pedestals that divide the central panels. And then came woman.

The Garden of Eden

In one panel, we see two scenes from the Garden of Eden: Temptation and Expulsion. On the left is the leafy garden of paradise where Adam and Eve lie around blissfully. But the devil comes along—a serpent with a woman’s torso—and winds around the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. The temptation to gain new knowledge is too great for these Renaissance people. They eat the forbidden fruit.


At right, a sword-wielding angel drives them from Paradise into the barren plains. They’re grieving, but they’re far from helpless. Adam’s body is thick and sturdy, and we know they’ll survive in the cruel world. Adam firmly gestures to the angel, like he’s saying, “All right, already! We’re going!”

The Nine Scenes from Genesis

Take some time with these central scenes to understand the story that the ceiling tells. They run in sequence, starting at the front:

1. God, in purple, divides the light from darkness.

2. God creates the sun (burning orange) and the moon (pale white, to the right). Oops, I guess there’s another moon.

3. God bursts toward us to separate the land and water.

4. God creates Adam.

5. God creates Eve, who dives into existence out of Adam’s side.

6. Adam and Eve are tempted, then expelled, from the Garden of Eden.

7. Noah kills a ram and stokes the altar fires to make a sacrifice to God.

8. The great flood, sent by God, destroys the wicked, who desperately head for higher ground. In the distance, the ark carries Noah’s family to safety. (The blank spot dates to 1793, when a nearby gunpowder depot exploded, shaking the building.)

9. Noah’s sons see their drunken father. (Perhaps Michelangelo chose to end his work with this scene as a reminder that even the best of men are fallible.)


You’ll notice that the figures at the far end of the chapel are a bit smaller than those over The Last Judgment.

Michelangelo started at the far end, with the Noah scenes. By 1510, he’d finished the first half of the ceiling. When they took the scaffolding down and could finally see what he’d been working on for two years, everyone was awestruck—except Michelangelo. As powerful as his figures are, from the floor they didn’t look dramatic enough for Michelangelo. For the other half, he pulled out all the stops.


Compare the Noah scenes (far end), with their many small figures, to the huge images of God at the other end. Similarly, Isaiah (near the lattice screen, marked “Esaias”) is stately and balanced, while Jeremiah (“Hieremias,” in the corner by The Last Judgment) is a dark, brooding figure. This prophet who witnessed the destruction of Israel slumps his chin in his hand and ponders the fate of his people. Like the difference between the stately Apollo Belvedere and the excited Laocoön, Michelangelo added a new emotional dimension to Renaissance painting.


(See “The Last Judgment ” map, here.)

When Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall 23 years later (1535), the mood of Europe—and of the artist—was completely different. The Protestant Reformation had forced the Catholic Church to clamp down on free thought, and religious wars raged. Rome had recently been pillaged by roving bands of mercenaries. The Renaissance spirit of optimism was fading. Michelangelo himself had begun to question the innate goodness of mankind.


It’s Judgment Day, and Christ—the powerful figure in the center, raising his arm to spank the wicked—has come to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. Beneath him, a band of angels blows its trumpets Dizzy Gillespie-style, giving a wake-up call to the sleeping dead. The dead at lower left leave their graves and prepare to be judged. The righteous, on Christ’s right hand (the left side of the picture), are carried up to the glories of heaven. The wicked on the other side are hurled down to hell, where demons wait to torture them. Charon, from the underworld of Greek mythology, waits below to ferry the souls of the damned to hell.


It’s a grim picture. No one, but no one, is smiling. Even many of the righteous being resurrected (lower left) are either skeletons or cadavers with ghastly skin. The angels have to play tug-of-war with subterranean monsters to drag them from their graves.

Over in hell, the wicked are tortured by gleeful demons. One of the damned (to the right of the trumpeting angels) has an utterly lost expression, as if saying, “Why did I cheat on my wife?!” Two demons grab him around the ankles to pull him down to the bowels of hell, condemned to an eternity of constipation.

But it’s the terrifying figure of Christ that dominates this scene. He raises his arm to smite the wicked, sending a ripple of fear through everyone. Even the saints around him—even Mary beneath his arm (whose interceding days are clearly over)—shrink back in terror from this uncharacteristic outburst from loving Jesus. His expression is completely closed, and he turns his head, refusing to even listen to the whining alibis of the damned. Look at Christ’s twisting upper body. If this muscular figure looks familiar to you, it’s because you’ve seen it before—the Belvedere Torso.


When The Last Judgment was unveiled to the public in 1541, it caused a sensation. The pope is said to have dropped to his knees and cried, “Lord, charge me not with my sins when thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment.”

And it changed the course of art. The complex composition, with more than 300 figures swirling around the figure of Christ, went far beyond traditional Renaissance balance. The twisted figures shown from every imaginable angle challenged other painters to try and top this master of 3-D illusion. And the sheer terror and drama of the scene was a striking contrast to the placid optimism of, say, Raphael’s School of Athens. Michelangelo had Baroque-en all the rules of the Renaissance, signaling a new era of art.

The Cleaning Project

The ceiling and The Last Judgment were cleaned in the 1980s and 1990s, removing centuries of preservatives, dirt, and soot from candles, oil lamps, and the annual Papal Barbecue (just kidding). The bright, bright colors that emerged are a bit shocking, and have forced many art experts to reevaluate Michelangelo’s style. Notice the very dark patches left in the corner above The Last Judgment, and imagine how dreary and dark it was before the cleaning.

With the Renaissance fading, the fleshy figures in The Last Judgment aroused murmurs of discontent from Church authorities. Michelangelo rebelled by painting his chief critic into the scene—in hell. He’s the jackassed demon in the bottom-right corner, wrapped in a snake. Look at how Michelangelo covered his privates. Sweet revenge. (After Michelangelo’s death, prudish Church authorities painted the wisps of clothing that we see today.)

Now move in close. Study the details of the lower part of the painting from right to left. Charon, with Dr. Spock ears and a Dalí moustache, paddles the damned in a boat full of human turbulence. Look more closely at the J-Day band. Are they reading music, or is it the Judgment Day tally? Before the piece was cleaned, these details were lost in murk.

The Last Judgment marks the end of Renaissance optimism epitomized in The Creation of Adam, with its innocence and exaltation of man. There, he was the wakening man-child of a fatherly God. Here, man cowers in fear and unworthiness before a terrifying, wrathful deity.

Michelangelo himself must have wondered how he would be judged—had he used his God-given talents wisely? Look at St. Bartholomew, the bald, bearded guy at Christ’s left foot (our right). In the flayed skin he’s holding is a barely recognizable face—the twisted self-portrait of a self-questioning Michelangelo.


✵ There are two exits from the Sistine Chapel.

1. To return to the main entrance/exit, leave the Sistine through the side door next to the screen (on the left, with your back to the altar). You’ll soon find yourself facing the Long March back to the museum’s entrance (about 15 minutes away) and the Pinacoteca. Along this corridor (located one floor below the long corridor that you walked to get here), you’ll see some of the wealth amassed by the popes, mostly gifts from royalty. Find your hometown on the 1529 map of the world—look in the land labeled “Terra Incognita.” The elaborately decorated library that branches off to the right contains rare manuscripts. The corridor eventually spills back outside. Follow signs to the Pinacoteca, where our tour picks up below.

2. To go directly to St. Peter’s Basilica (see “Museum Strategies,” here), take the shortcut exit at the far-right corner of the chapel (with your back to the altar—once through this door, you’ve left the Vatican Museums). Though this corner door is likely labeled “Exit for authorized guides and tour groups only,” you can probably slide through with the crowds (or protest that your group has left you behind). If this exit is closed (which can happen without notice), hang out in the Sistine Chapel for a few more minutes—it’ll likely reopen shortly.


(See “Pinacoteca” map, here.)

Like Lou Gehrig batting behind Babe Ruth, the Pinacoteca (Painting Gallery) has to follow the mighty Sistine & Co. But after the Vatican’s artistic feast, this little collection of paintings is a delicious 15-minute after-dinner mint.

See this gallery of paintings as you’d view the time-lapse blossoming of a flower, walking through the evolution of painting from medieval to Baroque with just a few stops.


Enter, passing a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Pietà (offering a handy close-up look), and stroll up to Room IV.

Melozzo da Forlì—Musician Angels (1470s)

Removed from the apse of a Roman church, this playful series of frescoes shows the delicate grace and nobility of Italy during the time known fondly as the Quattrocento (1400s). Notice the detail in the serene faces; the soothing primary colors; the bright and even light; and the classical purity given to these religious figures. Rock on.


✵ Walk on to the end room (Room VIII), where precious Raphael-designed tapestries that once hung in the Sistine Chapel now surround the highlight of this collection. They’ve turned on the dark to let Raphael’s Transfiguration shine. Take a seat.

Raphael—The Transfiguration (1516-1520)

Christ floats above a stumpy mountaintop, visited in a vision by the prophets Moses and Elijah. Peter, James, and John, who wanted visual proof that Jesus was Lord, cower in awe under their savior, “transfigured before them, his face shining as the sun, his raiment white as light” (as described by the evangelist Matthew—who can be seen taking notes in the painting’s lower left).


Raphael composes the scene in three descending tiers: Christ, the holiest, is on top, then Peter-James-John, and finally, the nine remaining apostles surround a boy possessed by demons. They direct him and his mother to Jesus for healing.

Raphael died in 1520, leaving this final work to be finished by his pupils. The last thing Raphael painted was the beatific face of Jesus, perhaps the most beautiful Christ in existence. When Raphael was buried (in the Pantheon, at age 37), this work accompanied the funeral.


✵ Heading back down the parallel corridor, stop in Room IX at the brown, unfinished work by Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci—St. Jerome (c. 1482)

Jerome squats in the rocky desert. He’s spent too much time alone, fasting and meditating on his sins. His soulful face is echoed by his friend, the roaring lion.

This unfinished work gives us a glimpse behind the scenes at Leonardo’s technique. Even in the brown undercoating, we see the psychological power of Leonardo’s genius. Jerome’s emaciated body on the rocks expresses his intense penitence, while his pleading eyes hold a glimmer of hope for divine forgiveness. Leonardo wrote that a good painter must paint two things: “man and the movements of his spirit.” (The patchwork effect is due to Jerome’s head having been cut out and used as the seat of a stool in a shoemaker’s shop.)


✵ Roll on through the sappy sweetness of the Mannerist rooms into the gritty realism of Caravaggio (Room XII).

Caravaggio—Deposition (c. 1600-1604)

Christ is being buried. In the dark tomb, the faces of his followers emerge, lit by a harsh light. Christ’s body has a deathlike color. We see Christ’s dirty toes and Nicodemus’ wrinkled, sunburned face.

Caravaggio was the first painter to intentionally shock his viewers. By exaggerating the contrast between light and dark, shining a brutal third-degree-interrogation light on his subjects, and using everyday models in sacred scenes, he takes a huge leap away from the Raphael-pretty past and into the “expressive realism” of the modern world.

A tangle of grief looms in the darkness as Christ’s heavy, dead body nearly pulls the whole group with him from the cross into the tomb. After this museum, I know how he feels.


✵ As you emerge from the Pinacoteca, you’re near the museum’s entrance/exit (to the left) and the cafeteria (to the right). If interested in a bit more (stress-free) sightseeing, just beyond the cafeteria is a delightful public garden. Beyond that, steps lead into the Carriage Pavilion (Padiglione delle Carrozze), a peaceful exhibit showing off centuries of papal carriages, cars, and Popemobiles, including the one St. John Paul II was riding in when a would-be assassin shot him in 1981.

Once you’re ready to leave, enjoy one last view of the Vatican grounds and Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Then go in peace.