After strolling leisurely through the practically empty National Museum earlier in the day, it was an uncomfortable contrast to be herded like cattle through the extremely crowded Vatican Museum. I hear it’s always crowded, though, so you just have to deal with it if you want to see the cool stuff here. And there’s a LOT of cool stuff!
The Vatican Museum used to be a series of papal palaces. The popes had expensive taste in art and trinkets to decorate their palaces with, and they used the church’s wealth to amass a sizable collection of Europe’s greatest art. And they didn’t just hang paintings on the walls and put statues in the halls; everything is covered in splendor– from the coffered, gilded ceilings to the large tapestries, vases and urns, mosaic floors, and frescoed living quarters painted by none other than Raphael, the elaborate furnishings attest to the popes’ appetite for luxury.
This museum is HUGE, and you have to know where you’re going and what you want to see to get the most out of it. We rented an audio guide (€7), which was great for describing individual pieces of art, and allowed us to go in any order (well, sort of) through the museum. Each piece is numbered, so you just punch in the number and listen to the description of whatever you’re standing in front of. We tried to follow the Rick Steves self-guided tour to see the highlights of the museum, but our path was blocked off in some places to divert traffic in a certain order. We were able to follow the guidebook for the most part, but many times we were just carried along in the sea of people, trying to make our way to the “grand finale” at the far end of the museum–the Sistine Chapel.
Along the way (and it’s a LONG way) we saw many beautiful and captivating works of art. The Apollo Belvedere, Laocoon, and the Belvedere Torso are just three of many famous Greek sculptures I remember from my Humanities class in high school. Because of his perfectly balanced, graceful body and youthful looks, Apollo Belvedere was once considered the “most perfect work of art in the world”. Yes, he’s a very beautiful rendition of the human form, but there are several of those in Italy (okay, technically, he’s NOT in Italy, as Vatican City is its own country, but you know what I mean). Laocoon, on the other hand, is not what I would call “beautiful”, but it is powerful, emotional, and amazing! This guy was the high priest of Troy, who tried to stop the Trojans from allowing the Trojan Horse inside the city walls. For his trouble, the gods sent huge snakes to kill Laocoon and his two sons. This sculpture, as well as the Belvedere Torso (the remains of an ancient statue of Hercules), were pieces that influenced the work of Michaelangelo.
There is so much to see in this museum, I can’t possibly write about it all. Suffice it to say, give yourself time to visit the Egyptian and Etruscan (an elusive but sophisticated group of Italians about which relatively little is known) exhibits, the Raphael Rooms (private living quarters of past popes with walls by Raphael), and notice the ceilings, floors and views along the way. And don’t run out of gas before you get to the Sistine Chapel!
If you’re going to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel (a “must-see” when visiting Rome), get a reservation! We saved a long wait in line by making an advance reservation through the Vatican’s online reservation service. http://mv.vatican.va It’s definitely worth the €4 reservation fee to bypass the ticket line (which can take up to 2 hours) and go right in. The Vatican also offers guided tours, which can be booked on the same website. You print out a voucher when you make your reservation and just show it to the guard when you arrive. The Roma Pass does not cover anything in Vatican City.
Private and group tours are also available. If you are extremely short on time, a private tour may be the way to go. They can be expensive, but it might be worth it for a little time in the Sistine Chapel before the general public is allowed in. For a list of good tour companies, see Rick Steves’ guide to Rome. www.ricksteves.com