In the early 1600s, Pope Julius II established and enlarged one of the world’s biggest art collections. Exhibits include Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, antique busts, old master paintings, and contemporary artworks. Among the highlights are the Museo Pio-superb Clementino’s classical sculpture collection, Raphael’s frescoed apartments, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings.
The Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano houses the museums. Two long corridors connect the old Vatican palace and the 15th-century Palazzetto di Belvedere in this massive 13.6-acre complex. Interiorly, there are three courtyards: the Pigna, the Biblioteca, and the Belvedere (south). The day will never be long enough to cover it all.
The Museo Chiaramonti is a long hallway on the east side of the Belvedere. Thousands of sculptures and busts adorn its walls, from eternal gods to cherubs to Roman patricians. The New Wing (Braccio Nuovo) is at the end of the hall, to the right. It houses objects discovered in northern Lazio’s Etruscan graves and Roman antiquities and vases from the 18th century Simonetti stairwell. The Sistine Chapel is the one spot everyone wants to visit, and on a busy day, you may be sharing it with up to 2000 others. To appreciate Michelangelo’s work, approach the chapel’s main entrance on the far east wall. It has nine panels showing tales from the book of Genesis, with painted architectural details and a colorful cast of biblical figures.
It starts with Noah’s Drunkenness, then the Flood, and finally his Sacrifice. After taking the forbidden fruit from Satan, symbolized as a serpent with a woman’s body wrapped around a tree in Original Sin and Banishment from Eden, Adam and Eve are sent packing. Adam is created after Eve. This classic depiction of a bearded God pointing his finger at Adam, bringing him to life, is most well-known. Finally, the Separation of Light from Darkness depicts a dreadful God reaching out to touch the sun. Around the middle panels are 20 ignudi, or male nudists.
As they are ripped from their tombs to confront him, Michelangelo’s mesmerizing Giudizio Universale appears opposite. The saved go to paradise (upper right), while the condemned are banished to hell (lower right) (in the bottom right). On the right, at the bottom, is a guy with donkey ears and a snake around his neck. Biagio de Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, savaged Michelangelo’s work. St Bartholomew, directly underneath Christ, holds his own flayed skin. The face in the flesh is thought to represent Michelangelo, his agonized expression symbolizing his pained faith.
The chapel’s walls are frescoed. They were painted in 1481–82 by a renaissance team that included Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Perugino, and Luca Signorelli (to the right). These include Botticelli’s Temptation of Christ and Perugino’s Key-handling. The Sistine Chapel is where the conclave gathers to pick a new pope, as well as a showcase for precious art.