The world’s smallest country is home to one of the finest collections of art, the largest archeological collection, and to the world’s largest church. Negotiating the labyrinth of the Vatican Museums we will weave a narrative which begins with the martyrdom of St Peter in the Vatican field, and which takes us through Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, through the violence of the Middle Ages, and into the glorious reign of Julius II, the building of the new Basilica, and into the theatricality of the Baroque. We will discuss how and why Christianity became the religion of Rome, and how the Protestant Reformation led to the gilded spectacle of Bernini’s baldacchino.
The Vatican Museums have their origins in the private collection begun by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. Central to the art of the High Renaissance, Julius provides us with a theme through which to explore the art of the Vatican. Amongst his collection are sculptures which were to provide Michelangelo with inspiration for the paintings we will see in the Sistine Chapel.
After looking at some of the major pieces of the collection of ancient sculpture, we will pass through the Gallery of the Tapestries and the Gallery of the Maps, bombastic in its expression of late-16th papal power, which lead us to the Vatican Palace.
The oldest nucleus of the structures which grew up around St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Palace is home to the apartments painted for Julius II by Raphael, and of course to the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the popes, and the place of their election. Here Michelangelo spent almost ten years of his career painting both the vast ceiling and the Last Judgement on the altar wall, two of the great icons in the history of western art.
Leaving the museums at the Sistine Chapel, we shall visit St Peter’s Basilica. First constructed by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, it was rebuilt and decorated over two centuries. The basilica rises above the tomb of St. Peter, the first of the Popes. The altar of the Popes, above the tomb of Peter and beneath the dome, is marked by a vast bronze baldacchino by the great driving force of the Roman Baroque, Gianlorenzo Bernini, in great part responsible for the interior decoration of the church. St Peter’s also contains the beautiful Pietà, the first major piece of Michelangelo’s prolific career.
The suggested itinerary is a four-hour visit. If preferred, shorter itineraries of two or three hours are available. Alternatively, the tour of the Vatican Museums can be extended to include other elements of the Museums (for example choose from the Pinacoteca, Braccio Nuovo, Etruscan Museum, Egyptian Museum). This could be combined with an in-depth tour of St Peter’s Basilica, including the Treasury Museum and the Grottoes to create a full-day, and fully comprehensive, visit to the Vatican.
I can make reservations for the Vatican Museums in advance, subject to availability, which bypasses the general queue. For the reservations the Vatican charges a 4 euro booking fee on top of the 15 euro entrance fee (8 euros for children and students under 26 with valid student I.D., children 6 and under are free). The cost of the tour does not include your entrance fees.
Any alterations to the suggested itinerary are very welcome, and will be accommodated wherever accessibility permits.