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My experience of a Vatican Tour

2nd Aug 2016

When I see the length of the lines outside the Vatican Museums, I feel incredibly relieved to be part of a private tour of the Vatican. Although it’s early in the morning, it’s already hot - about 32 degrees Celsius (89 Fahrenheit) - and according to our guide, Caterina, most visitors to the Vatican Museums have to endure the queue for 2-4 hours, with barely any shade.

With Caterina, however, we’re able to enter immediately - no queueing necessary. After a brief security check, which reminds me that we’re technically entering another country - the smallest country in the world - we begin our tour of the Vatican.

I had been to the Vatican Museums before, and found it an enjoyable but slightly overwhelming experience. With 1,400 rooms filled with priceless masterpieces, it can be hard to know where to begin, and where to end. Seeing everything in one visit is impossible, but nevertheless, you feel compelled to see as much as you possibly can, rushing through galleries of Roman statues without really knowing what you’re looking at. I was looking forward to experiencing an in-depth Vatican tour, exploring the museum with an expert who would show me the highlights as well as some hidden treasures, providing valuable context.

Visiting the Vatican with no historical context is ultimately a bit meaningless. Caterina, an art historian, is able to turn our five hour visit into a journey through the history of art, from Giotto’s pre-Renaissance altarpieces to dramatic Baroque works by Caravaggio and Bernini.

We begin our tour with a visit to the Pinacoteca (picture gallery) - a fascinating part of the Vatican Museums overlooked by most other tour companies - and see Leonardo da Vinci’s haunting unfinished painting St Jerome, along with some other Renaissance masterpieces. The highlight of the collection is Raphael’s Transfiguration. Although it’s an impressive work at first glance, Caterina’s explanations give me a deeper appreciation for Raphael’s work, as she draws our attention to the use of light and the innovative composition. As she compares the Transfiguration to the pre-Renaissance paintings we’d seen before, I finally start to understand how fresh and exciting Raphael’s work must have seemed at the time. Even more radical is Caravaggio’s Deposition, a harshly realistic portrayal of the dead Christ.

All the paintings in the Pinacoteca are religious in theme, and if they weren’t all masterpieces, perhaps some visitors might find the gallery monotonous. On the contrary, there’s a pleasing sense of unity and continuity in the Pinacoteca, as you can trace the development and transformation of certain styles and themes. The execution of St Peter, for example, is a recurring theme in the Pinacoteca, and it’s interesting to see how the subject was treated by different artists across the centuries. Caterina also points out the connections between artists, such as Perugino’s influence on Raphael.

We walk through the sunny Pinecone Courtyard, pausing to admire the enormous bronze pinecone fountain (1st century AD), and then continue our Vatican tour in the sculpture galleries. We see famous Roman statues such as the Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso and Laocoon, and learn how they influenced the work of Renaissance artists. Michelangelo was particularly inspired by the muscular Belvedere Torso, and Caterina points out similarities between the Roman statue and the painting of St Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel. Although the Roman statues are impressive in their own right, they become even more special in the wider context of art history, and I start to realise just how important Greek and Roman art was for Renaissance artists.

Caterina also shows us some interesting details that I might easily have missed otherwise, such as the statue of Mithras slaying the bull in the Hall of Animals. Most visitors walk right through the gallery without giving the statue a second glance, but we pause for a moment to learn about the mysterious religion of Mithraism, and some intriguing parallels with Christianity. During my tour of the Vatican Museums, something that strikes me is the fact that even before Christianity, art and religion were always closely intertwined.

A walk through the beautiful Gallery of Maps takes us to the Raphael Rooms - my favourite moment of the tour. We spend a while admiring the School of Athens, and Caterina provides some interesting interpretations of the Deliverance of St Peter and the Expulsion of St Heliodorus. Her explanations help to evoke a sense of what the rooms would have been like in the 16th important century. Seeing the rooms in their historical context - as the richly decorated private apartments of the pope - adds a new dimension to Raphael’s masterpieces.

Our Vatican Museum tour ends with a visit to the most beautifully decorated room in the world - the Sistine Chapel. While Raphael was painting the walls of the papal apartments, Michelangelo was working on his own masterpiece just around the corner. His first work in the Sistine Chapel was the vast ceiling, covered with frescoes depicting Biblical scenes including, perhaps most famously, the Creation of Adam. Caterina makes us see Michelangelo in a different light - as a reluctant painter who viewed the ceiling through the ideas of a sculptor. She points out interesting details of the ceiling fresco, as well as the Last Judgement on the altar wall, and tells us where to stand to get the best perspective of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

Although the chapel is crowded, and I can see the advantage of an Early Entrance Sistine Chapel Tour (which allows you to avoid the crowds), I find the visit to the Sistine Chapel much more relaxing than I was expecting. Caterina gives us plenty of time to explore the Sistine Chapel on our own, and there’s finally an opportunity to rest our weary legs, sitting on the benches along the side of the chapel as we gaze up at Michelangelo’s extraordinary ceiling.

As I walk through St Peter’s Basilica at the end of the Vatican tour, admiring Michelangelo’s Pieta and theatrical sculptures by Bernini, I reflect on everything I’ve seen and learned. With the exception of a few paintings and sculptures in the Vatican Museums, there was nothing on the tour that I hadn’t seen before. Before I moved to Rome, I had visited the Vatican Museums a couple of times as a tourist, and I visit St Peter’s Basilica every now and then, usually when I have guests staying with me in Rome.

Yet a visit to the Vatican becomes a much more meaningful experience when you’re there with an expert - a knowledgeable guide who’s passionate about the art and history of the Vatican, and who knows how to join the dots. Look at Laocoon on your own and you just see a statue. Look at Laocoon in the company of a guide, and you see Ancient Rome, Renaissance rediscovery, and the figures that inspired generations of artists. If you want to see the bigger picture, visit the Vatican with an expert, and take the time to absorb and appreciate centuries of artwork.

~by Alexandra Turney~