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Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel: history and art

The founding of the Vatican Museums can be traced back to 1503 when the newly – elected Pope, Julius II Della Rovere, placed a statue of Apollo in the internal courtyard of the Belvedere Palace built by Innocent VIII; he brought the statue from the garden of his titular church of st. Peter in Chains. In 1506 the Laocoon was added to the collection, after its discovery on the Esquiline Hill before the eyes of Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo Buonarotti. Scores of artifacts were added throughout the next two centuries and the collections were eventually reorganized under Benedict XIV (1740-1758) and Clement XIII (1758-1769). They founded the Apostolic Library Museums: the Sacred (Museo Sacro – 1756) and the Profane (Museo Profano – 1767) Museum.

The Christian Museum, comprising finds from the catacombs that could not be conserved in situ, was founded by Pius IX 1854 in the Lateran Palace and was moved to the Vatican Museums by Pope John XXIII. Pope Pius XI inaugurated in 1932 the definitive seat of the Vatican Picture Gallery (the Pinacoteca), near the monumental entrance of the Vatican Museums.


The Pine-Cone Courtyard: it was built in 1816. Under the Nicchione (big Nich) built by Pirro Ligorio, you can find the colossal pine-cone which gives the courtyard its name: the bronze pine-cone which was found in the baths of Agrippa, was fountain which dripped water with spectacular effects. During the Middle Ages it was located in the hall of the ancient Basilica. From the Pine-Cone Courtyard you can go up to the Greek Cross Room, where there are the two masterpieces of the low Empire, the sarcophagus of the Empress St. Helen and of St. Constance, Constantine’s daughter. The first represents a battle between Barbarians and Romans, the second shows the Eucharistic grape harvest.

Egyptian Museum: The Egyptian Museum, inaugurated by Pope Gregory XVI, contains objects and works of art that came from monuments and ancient collections located mainly in the area of Rome and its environment (Villa Adriana). You can find basalt statues of the priests of the seventeenth Dynasty and the big fragment of the seated statue of Ramsee II, the Pharaoh who persecuted the Hebrews. The mummies in their sarcophagus are the real attacation of this Museum, especially that of a princess of the 21st Dynasty, whose hair is coloured with red henné.

In the next room, characterized by the starry roof, the Serapeo, with its basalt Roman statues, which imitate the Egyptian ones, has been rebuilt in part. The scene represents the solar awakening of Osiride-Apis, who emerges from a lotus flower, in front of a canal which represents the Nile. Osiride’s face is that of Antinoo, the emperor’s favourite, who had found his death in the Nile.

Etruscan Museum: a collection of objects which belonged to the old pre-Roman civilizations which lived in Rome and Latium, it is one of the most important of the world. In 1837, Gregory XVI inaugurated the Etruscan Museum. The Etruscan collection consists of objects found during the fervid excavations that were undertaken in the years when Etruscan studies was a newborn discipline. The Regolini Galassi Tomb, with its rich furnishings, was uncovered in 1836-37; the bronze called the Mars of Tody (IV c. b.C.) was found in 1935; pottery and clay objects in great abundance were retrieved from Cerveteri; innumerable specimens of imported Greek ceramics were discovered especially at Vulci.

Chiaramonti Gallery: Greek and Roman art. Divided in three parts: the Chiaramonti, the Lapidary Gallery and the New Wing which preserves, among others, Eros who draws the bow, a copy of the original by Lisippo.

Pius-Clementine Museum: one of the most important collections of Roman-Geek sculptures; it preserves, among others, Apoxyomenos, a copy of the bronze original by Lisippo (IV century b.C.); Apollo by Belvedere, a copy of the bronze original of the IV century b.C.; Laocoon, a copy of the Greek original of the I century and Torso by Belvedere, a copy of the original by the Athenian Apollonios Nestor, who had lived in Rome during the I century b.C.

New wing: Pius VII was responsible for the construction of theGalleria Del Braccio Nuovo, modelled after an imperial collection of statues. At the centre of this collection there is the statue of the Augustus of Prima Porta.

Octagonal Courtyard: going towards the octagonal courtyard, there are other things to see: Scipione Barbato’s sarcophagus, the spiral stairs of Bramante, which was built for a pratical use (it united the different floors of the building and took to the gardens). In the octagonal courtyard there are different masterpieces: Apollo del Belvedere, which is one of the most beautiful Roman statues, the symbol of beauty which, with its harmony wins everything, and the Laocoon, an Hellenic work built by Agesandro of Rodi. It was found in 1506 in Nero’s Domus Aurea, and worshipped by the artists during the Renaissance. Perseo with the head of the Gorgone by the famous italian neoclassical sculpturer Antonio Canova.

The rooms near the Belvedere o Ocatagonal Courtyard are the:

Room of the Animals: where there is a collection of ancient Roman animal sculptures.

Gallery of Statues: with some precious Roman stautes, including some copies of Greek statues of the Classical period, such as the Apollo Sauroktonos (lizard-killer), copied by Praxiteles (c.350 B.C.) and a Sleeping Ariadne, copied in the second century.

Gallery of Busts: with portraits of oman emperors.

Hall of Masks: where it is possible to see the famous Venus of Cnidos, a Roman copy from the Greek original by Praxiteles (late fourth century B.C.).

Hall of Muses: with the notable Torso Del Belvedere, a mutilated statue of Ercules which was pariticularly appreciated by Michelangelo and some statues of muses and poetes copied from Greek originals.

Rotunda Room: built by Michelangelo Simonetti during the pontificate of Pope Pius VI in the late 18th century and the dome of the room is modelled on the the Pantheon. In this room there is a big circular mosaic of the III c. which represents fights between Greeks and centaurs, tritons and nereids. It has been found in Otricoli. A huge monopithic porphyry basin come from the Golden House (Domus Aurea the Nero’s House), and a stute of Herucles in gilded bronze (II century A.D.).

Greek-Cross Room: There are the colossal sarcofagi in red granite. The one on the left belonged to ST. Helen, the mother of the emperor Costantine and comes from her mausoleum at Torpignatara, south of Rome, while the sarcophagus on the right belonged to Costantina, the daughter of Constantine and was in the mausoleum of S. Costanza, along the Nomentana road. In the middle of this room there is a third century mosaic representing a shield with the bust of the godness Minerva with the phases of the moon (IV century A.D.), it cames from Tusculum.

The itinerary inside the Vatican Museum carry on with the visit of some importat Galleries and Rooms, before going in the Raphael’s Rooms and in the Sistine Chapel:

The Gallery of the Candelabre: it was originally an open loggia built in 1761 for the Pope Pius VII, the gallery was walled in at the end of the 18th century and the ceiling was painted in 1883-87. The name of the gallery comes from the II century marble candelabre that, with the pillars and the arches, subdivided the gallery. Here there some Roman copies of Hellenistic statues (third-first century B.C.), and the gallery contains the famous statue of Afrodite Efesina.

In the Gallery of the Tapestry: The tapestries were hung by Pope Gregory XVI in 1838. In contais the Flemish tapestries designed by Raphel’pupils (the New School series, commissioned by Pope Leo X and woven by Pieter van Aelst) and the tapestries representing the life of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who became later Pope Urban VIII (Barberini workshop, Rome 17C).

Gallery of the Maps: Gregory XIII (1580-1585) was responsible for the contruction of the Gallery of Maps. Here you can find forty map frescoes showing the topography of the regions of Italy and the possessions of the Church. The frescoes were painted, by ntoinio Danti, between 1580 and 1583 after cartoons by the Dominican priest, Fr Ignazio Danti, a distinguished geographer of the time.

Pius V’s Apartments: These aparments are composed by two small rooms and a chapel, and they were built for Pope Pius V (1566-72) and were frescoed by giorgio vasari and federico Zuccari. There are inside some Flemish tapestries of the 15th and 15th century, rich Mediaeval and Renaissance ceramics, some minute masaics, made in Rome in the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th century.

Sobieski Room: The name of this room comes from the huge 19C painting create by the polish artist Jan Mateiko that represents the repulsing of the Turks during the battle of Vienna (1683) by the King of Poland John III Sobieski.

Immaculate Conception Rooms: Francesco Podesti was the artist that decorated this room with frescoes representing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception prononced by Pius IX in 1854. In the middle of the room there is an elaborate showcase full of books about the dogma written in different languages.

Chiaroscuri Room: it was painted by Raphael and his collaborators. It was conceived at first as a bedroom from the Renaissance Popes, but later it became the place where the dead Popes were to be shown before being buried in the Vatican Grottoes.

The Chapel of Nicholas V: this chapel was built in one of the oldest part of the Vatican Palace. It was maybe formed part of a tower which was absorbed into the first papal palace in the 13 C, later Pope Nicholas V (147-1453) decided to transform it into a private chapel and he calls Fra Beato Angelico. This artist created the two tier paintings with the life of St. Stephewn (upper level) and St. Lawerence (lower level) and the Evangelists on the ceiling.

During the tour it is interesting to have a look to the Vatican Library and to the Borgia Apartaments. These last were fescoes by Pinturicchio, and present a wide collection of modern and contemporary works of art by Manzù, Messina, Van Gogh, De Chirico, Chagall, Bacon and others.

The ancient Picture Gallery contains many works. Some of these must absolutely be mentioned: the Polittico Stefaneschi by Giotto, the Madonna and Child with St. Domenic and St. Catherine by Beato Angelico, the Musician Angels and Sixtus IV and Platina by Melozzo da Forlì, The Madonna of Forlì, the Incoronation of the Virgin and the Trasfiguration by Raphael, St. Jerome by Leonardo, the Madonna of San Nicolò dei Frari by Titian, St. Matthew and the Angel by Guido Reni, Deposition by Caravaggio, Apotheosis of Vicenzo Gonzaga by Rubens, the Martydom of St. Erasmus by French painter Nicholas Poussin.

There are many other things to see, like the Museo Gragoriano Profano, the Museo Pio Cristiano, where there is a wide collection of sarcophagus and the Museo Missionario-Etnologico, with its objects illustrating the different forms of religion of extra-european countries.

Raphael’s Room

The room known as Raphael’s Room because they contain so many of the paiter’s masterpiecs, were built under the papacy of Nicholas V. Their decaration was initially entrusted to Andrea del Castagno, Benedetto Bonfligli and Piero della Francescsa. Afterwards, under Julius II, the undertaking passed to Lorenzo Lotto, Perugino, Sodoma, Baldassare Peruzzi, and Bramantino. Only in the last phase, upon Bramante’s advice, Julius II calls Raphael, who was already famous. The painter was also flanked by a choice team of "advisors". The Raphael’s Room became the private apartaments of Pope Juiliu II.

Chronologically the first Room to be frescoed, or rather the vault, was the Segnature Room (Stanze della Segnatura), so called because this was where the court of the Segnature met. Here Raphael painted the Disputation on the Sacrament, which was thus his first pictorial work in Rome and which depicts the exaltation of the glory of the Eucharist rather than a "dispute". Even more famous is the fresco on the wall across from the Disputa, the so called School of Athens, which gathers the wise men and philosophers of antiquity together with the "contemporary" artists and lords, in other words the protagonists of the Renaissance, in an imposing architectural setting where they are all assembled around the great ancients, Plato and Aristotle. The composition of Parnassus, which decorates the wall of the widow overlooking the Belvedere, is dated 1511 (the year is on the lintel of the window).

The vault of the same Room has medallions which contain symbolic representations of Philosophy, Justice, Poetry, Theology, and panels with the Fall of man, the Judgement of Solomon, Apollo and Marsyas, Astronomy. Next, chronologically speaking, is the Eliodoro’s Room, which furnishes an example of what might be called historical paintind, for Raphael had various mircaculous events which were decisive in the story of the Church, perhaps, suggested by Julius II. These included Leo I repulsing Attila, the Mass of Bolsena, the Expulsion of Heliodorus, the Liberatio of St, Peter. These date to the years 1512-1514, while the vault was presuma by frescoed by De Marcillat, who most likely continued Raphael’ss ideas. The decoration of the Burning Fire however dates to 1514-1517.

The name derives from the leading fresco which depicts the event of 847 when the Fire in Borgo was miracolously stopped when Leo IV nade the sign of the cross. An interesting detail in the frescoe shows us the main facade of old St. Peter’s, which had not yet been torn down when the picture was painted. The last of the Room is the Costantino’s Room, which cannot really be said to be by Raphael for the work was carried out almost entirely by Giulio Romano after the Master’s death, although the plans were certainly his. Is was finished in 1525. The decoration depicts episodes famous and less famouus in the life of the emperor Constantine: from the Baptism (on the entrance wall), to the Battle against Maxentius (on the facing wall), the Apparition of the Cross, the mythical Donation. Raffaellino Del Colle and, above all, Francesco Penni were Giulio Romano’s collaborators.



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