The Vatican Museums comprise several galleries and museums. Growing from humble beginnings with Pope Julius II’s 1506 acquisition of the sculpture of Laocoön and his sons in the grips of a sea serpent, it now numbers dozens of individual galleries and thousands of works of art.
The Etruscan Museum, founded in 1837 is one of the later additions, holding many excavated samples of ancient works unearthed in southern Etruria and elsewhere. It is nearby the mosaics and ancient sarcophagi from the glory days of the Roman Empire held in the Egyptian Museum, which it resembles.
There is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of wall coverings from the 15th through the 17th centuries. First exhibited in 1814 these extraordinary weaves would be welcomed in any of the major museums of the world.
Nearby is the Gallery of the Maps, named after its painted walls. Forty different panels devoted to varying regions around the globe form a collection that was once as practical as it is beautiful. Before Global Positioning Systems and other modern technology, these maps were among the prime means for locating and tracking the Church’s far-flung spheres of influence.
Among the highlights of the Vatican Museums are the Raphael Rooms. A series of four connecting rooms, built between 1447 and 1455, these house many of the works of that Renaissance master. The rooms, ironically however, are not named for holding his paintings, but because of his work decorating them over a ten year period.
The plainly named Vatican Picture Gallery holds works that belie the room’s designation. Here are works of many masters, including Giotto, Perugino, van Dyck and Poussin.
Visitors may be disappointed if they visit the Gregorian Museum of Profane Art looking for early samples of pornography. The word was simply used to distinguish subject matter that was not sacred in theme. Opened only in 1970, here are Roman sculptures of the Republican and Imperial periods, sarcophagi and much else.
The Carriage Pavilion was opened even later, in 1973, in a building constructed under the Square Garden. It houses the carriages used to transport various Popes and other officials of the church. The main objects are supplemented with photographs of processions, harnesses, documents and other related items.
Of course, the centerpiece of the Vatican Museums is unquestionably the world-famous Sistine Chapel, in particular its 10,000 square foot ceiling painted by Michaelangelo. The chapel holds many works by Italian masters, not least of which is the master’s Last Judgment completed twenty years after the ceiling. Still, it is the ceiling that commands attention. Nine panels display figures from the Bible, Sibyls, Noah, random male nudes and Jehovah bringing Adam to life with a touch. Goethe said it best when he stated: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
The same might be said of many of the masters whose work is housed in the Vatican Museums.