To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from the Vatican Museum. Just a few religious artifacts, then the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica and we're done. I should not have been surprised to discover a world-class museum, but I was very pleasantly surprised; after all, this is a major museum in Rome.
The entrance to the actual museum was in the "rear" of the Vatican. It's actually a small entrance in the giant walled-off complex that is Vatican City (a great picture of this wall is in the Wikipedia article for the museum). But when you start walking around the museum, you see how huge it is, how filled it is with Renaissance treasures, and how deep its collection. There are indoor wings, outdoor wings, corridors upon corridors of gorgeous Roman statues, busts, carvings, Renaissance paintings, and of course, religiously-themed art. There is even an outdoor courtyard next to the food court (a food court in the Vatican!) with a stairway entrance to a really cool "garage" museum of popemobiles, carriages, and palanquin. Did I mention the gift shops? There are several, including one at the top of a breathtaking curved staircase.
One cool exhibit is the museum stamp collection. I know, stamps, right? But this small exhibit is beautifully done.
Of course, the star attractions are the Raphael Apartments and Sistine Chapel. You know this because there are "Sistine Chapel -->" signs everywhere. It reminded me of the signs to "La Joconde" in the Louvre (that's the Mona Lisa). After what felt like walking on a scaffolding a few floors up, we enter the Raphael Apartments; which are just a series of three or four empty rooms painted by Raphael (they were formerly papal apartments). The last room is the glorious School of Athens; an amazing painting to see. Two things I didn't know: 1) the ceiling is curved here. You actually see this in the posters of the School of Athens in the top right and left corners, but only once you know. And 2) the painted wall starts about 6 feet above the floor. So you are looking up at it; in fact, you can see the top of the door that you enter through in any poster on the lower left. I just thought all these little details are really cool and you'd never know from anywhere else.
After the Raphael Apartments, there's a fantastic contemporary art room. Just some really beautiful pieces. Most people just skip over this to get to the Sistine, but it really is worth going through.
Finally, you are led into the Sistine Chapel. I certainly won't try describing how breathtaking it looks in real life and after being restored and cleaned. Let's just say it took me half an hour to agree to be dragged out kicking and screaming. Maybe not screaming, as the Vatican police are busy shushing everyone--which is both ridiculous and appropriate given the shushing the Vatican has done for so many things. I'd love to see a Sistine Chapel-full of atheists not being shushed and just talking about the beautiful room.
And then more gift shops towards the exit. The St. Peter's Basilica is actually a separate entrance, this one properly in the "main" Vatican square that you see on TV.
For the Basilica itself, I only have three observations.
- They are surprisingly lax here in terms of photographs and talking. You are allowed to take as many photos as you want and talk as loud as you want. I was expecting to be shushed here too and thankfully wasn't.
- Dripping in gold. D-R-I-P-P-I-N-G in gold.
- It's pretty damned gorgeous (pun intended). The floor inlays, the famous canopy, the statues, etc, etc. It's certainly an appropriate former seat of earthly power for an all-powerful empire. This is not a church, it is where you go for the pope to decide with his court whether you're going to be beheaded or burned at the stake. Historical criticism intended.
So there you have it; the Vatican Museum, an amazing place with gorgeous art. A must-visit.
Incidentally, that spam email also had these links, in case you're into that sort of thing: