ROME, ITALY: VATICAN MUSEUMS, ST. PETER’S BASILICA, ROME BY FOOT (PART 1)
This is the first half of day 2 of 6 days we spent in Rome, Italy this past March 2018. In this first part, we visit the Vatican Museums—get ready for lots of art—and St. Peter’s Basilica.
In March 2018, Zach and I visited Rome, Italy for one week. Here are the previous posts in this “Waldo in Rome” series.
Day 1, Part 1: Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trastevere
Day 1, Part 2: Capitoline Museums, Cacio e Pepe, Roma at Night
This is Saturday, March 10. Good morning from Trastevere! We left our Airbnb only to find the bar we went the morning before for coffee wasn’t open yet. It was kind of early. We had to be at the Vatican Museum by 9am and we were out the door around 8am.
We used MyTaxi, a ride share app like Lyft or Uber to get to Vatican City. Whenever the distances were too far or the public transportation would take 60 minutes versus 10 minutes, we’d opt for a car.
We made it. Vatican City is truly its own city state within the city of Rome. The population is 1,000 (mostly cardinals and clergy). Wikipedia has a nice map of the whole city. The Vatican Museums have some of the most famous Western artworks in the world, and structures built by Michelangelo, Bernini, etc.
We’re in the Vatican Museums now, looking out at the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. We’ll go into the basilica later, but our guide told us that this is the best view of the dome designed by Michelangelo when he was in his seventies. It is the tallest dome in the world.
Courtyard of the Vatican Museums. Yes, that’s “museums” with an “s.” There are about 70,000 works in the collection, over 20,000 are on display across 54 galleries plus the Sistine Chapel. The first object in the collection was the famous Laocoon and his Sons, a marble sculpture discovered in January 1506 in Rome.
There is art everywhere. At first it felt weird to breeze past entire courtyards with Egyptian sculptures and giant pine cones but we quickly learned there is just too much to see. Visiting the Vatican Museums is like walking through endless galleries. Really you are walking in and out of different palaces connected by long corridors. It’s hard to understand where you are, as you are mostly following the flow of thousands of other visitors. I recommend a guide of some kind…it’s pretty overwhelming!
If you are curious (and I was too) I looked up the museums and their collections, I wanted to know where museum “started” and “ended” since it really does feel like one long visit experience.
—Pinacoteca: papal picture gallery contains Raphael’s last work, paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Perugino, Titian, and more
—Museum Chiaromonti & Braccio Nuovo</strong: one long corridor that runs down the east side of Belvedere Palace. The hallway is lined with thousands of statues and busts. Braccio Nuovo is the "new wing."
—Museo Pio-Clementino: This museum contains some of the best classical sculpture, including the Laocoon and Apollo Belvedere in an outdoor octagonal courtyard.
—Museo Gregoriano Egizio (Egyptian Museum): This was founded by Gregory XVI in 1839 and contains pieces from Egypt that were made during Roman times.
—Museo Gregoriano Etrusco: This museum contains artefacts from an Etruscan tomb and vases from Roman times as well.
—Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery): This is another long corridor covered with 16th-century topographical maps of Italy. Way cooler than it sounds.
—Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms): Four frescoed chambers (currently being restored) were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. Raphael painted two of the rooms and his students finished the others.
—Sistine Chapel: Home to the famous painted ceiling fresco by Michelangelo and his Last Judgment fresco.
This is Museo Chiaramonti, the long corridor in the Belvedere Palace. Here there are thousands of statues and busts. Some are kids, gods, cherubs, Roman citizens, etc. You walk down this corridor to get to the new wing, so we breezed through this knowing we’d come back through on our way out.
The New Wing was built in the 1820s. So not…super new. There are 28 niches with huge statues that depict emperors and also some that are Roman replicas of famous Greek statues. The gallery was designed with colored marble that aimed to recreate the setting that these would have been viewed in ancient Rome.
Heading up through Museo Pio-Clementino to see all the beautiful classical statues in the courtyard, but first we passed by the 1st-century Apoxyomenos. This is an athlete depicted scraping sweat and oil from his body using a strigil. Yum.
Laocoon was a priest of Poseidon. He and his two sons were killed after trying to expose the Trojan Horse plot. This sculpture is famous not only because of its archaeological significance, but because of its energetic depiction of agony, distress, and pain. If you look at earlier Greek art, artists were interested in the perfect body and relaxed, handsome, idealized expressions. So this Hellenistic departure from that tradition makes the sculpture art historically significant as well. PLUS! Michelangelo studied this sculpture and references to this work are found in the Last Judgment painting in the Sistine Chapel.
Belvedere Torso, another inspiration for Michelangelo. The contorted pose and muscular body were influential to Renaissance artists at the time. The legend goes that Pope Julius II requested Michelangelo complete the fragment by added arms, legs, and a face but that Michelangelo declined saying that it was “too beautiful to be altered.”
Tapestry corridor, with many faded or rusted silver threads. Still incredibly beautiful though. The Getty had a tapestry exhibition a few years ago, and I remember learning about how tapestries are made. I have such a respect for textile arts and weaving. Truly detailed and painstaking work.
These painted topographical maps of Italy are based on drawings by a geographer named Ignazio Danti. It took him three years to paint the 40 panels in this gallery. The panels show the regions of Italy and the most prominent city of that region. The maps are supposedly 80% accurate. Not bad. Low B-.
To the Raphael Rooms! These reception rooms were commissioned for the private apartment of Pope Julius II. He commissioned Raphael, who at the time was a young, relatively “new” on the scene artist. After Raphael died, his assistants finished the project from his drawings.
I realized going through my photos that I was most fascinated by the dramatic light on the crowds of tour groups going through each room. I apologize for lack of clear photos of the actual wonderful Raphael frescos. I swear better photos of the frescos are online, especially my favorite, his depiction of night and Saint Peter being liberated by an angel.
Wow. Impact. It screams “we are powerful!!!!!!! we are rich!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” In fact, on the floor, there are notations for what famous buildings (when laid on their sides) would fit INSIDE St. Peter’s Basilica.
Nothing can truly capture how large this building is. How wide and thick the columns are. How high up the domes seem to reach. You truly feel small in what feels like the biggest space I’ve ever been inside of.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is built on the site of tomb of Saint Peter, early Christian martyr. This basilica was completed in 1626 but was started over a hundred years earlier. This present basilica replaced the “Old St. Peter’s Basilica” built in the 4th century AD. Peter’s burial site is marked by the carved wooden baldachin over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The earliest plan for the new basilica was by Donato Bramante in the form of a Greek Cross. Something resembling the Pantheon. However, with a new Pope, Bramante was replaced by Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael who changed the plan to resemble a cross with a long nave and more chapels. THEN, Raphael died at only 37, and a series of other architect’s plans were considered for the layout. At this point was when Michelangelo, in his seventies, was forced to design the dome and basilica architectural plans. Michelangelo went back to the plans of the original architect, to the Greek Cross design. From there the nave was extended once again (and the facade was added) by Carlo Maderno which unfortunately means as you approach the front of the basilica in Vatican City by foot, the dome itself is totally blocked from view. Ah, what a journey.
At the center of Saint Peter’s Square is the Vatican obelisk, taken from Egypt by Caligula the Roman emperor. The obelisk “witnessed” early Christian struggles. When it was first taken and erected in the Circus of Nero (also located in present day Vatican City), it became a site of martyrdom of many early Christians, and ancient stories say that this is where Saint Peter himself was crucified upside down.
And off we went to Calabascio, a mediterranean restaurant.
It was definitely a little fancier than we were expecting (oops) but we were so hungry and ready to eat that we went with it. We started off with bruschetta, toasted bread with cheese and eggplant and another with “spicy pork cream.”
We had a few ideas of what we wanted to do after lunch, but decided upon walking to Castel Sant’Angelo for a great view of the city if you didn’t want to climb all the way to the top of the Saint Peter’s dome.
The second half of the day will feature actually entering the Castel Sant’Angelo, views of Rome from the top, eating ice cream bars in the city center, and walking to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps at sunset. We visit the Pantheon (I napped inside), and ate dinner at a beer and burger place before heading back to Trastevere.
Thank you for reading! Leave me a comment if you enjoyed.
Much love friends.