Vatican self guided walking tour to Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
Using the Vatican Map, Explore at your own pace with this complete Vatican self guided walking tour
In this Vatican City self guided tour use google map to explore the Vatican museum and galleries that make up the Vatican Museum. Then head over to the Sistine Chapel. If you have very little time, (3-4 hours) you may want to explore the Pinacoteca Gallery, the Pio-Clementine Museum, the Candelabra, Tapestry and Map Gallery, the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
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If you have less time, concentrate on the Candelabra, Tapestry and Map Gallery, the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Most people tend to rush though many of the Vatican museums and make a beeline for the Sistine Chapel and onto to St Peters Basilica however they miss many of the smaller museums located inside the Vatican museum. The Vatican self guided tour is flexible and you can explore at your own pace. Don’t just get caught up and follow the crowd. The number of museums and display items seem overwhelming, take your time to visit the attractions and follow the self guided walking tour to the Vatican attractions.
Click to download an interactive Vatican attractions google map or a PDF map with the Vatican self guided tour
Download the Vatican self guide tour Interactive Map HERE
Download the Vatican self guided walking tour PDF Map HERE
The lineups can be very long, I recommend you purchase tickets in advance. There are a variety of packages and combinations (with Sistine Chapel and / or St Peters Basilica) that can be purchased online. The best is to purchase a skip the line tickets. Book online here options include combo entrance tickets (some with guided tours), select the one that best suits you. If you want entry tickets and tours of attractions nearby, several options are available here to book in advance.
Vatican Museum Entrance – Musei Vaticani
To start the Vatican City self guided tour, enter the Vatican museum and turn RIGHT instead of left at the top of the last escalator to go to the Vatican Pinacoteca – Gallery of Old Masters Museum at the Vatican Museum. The Vatican visitor crowd will be going left, do not follow them as you will miss the Pinacoteca Gallery.
How to Visit Vatican Museum: self guided walking tour – Main Floor Attractions
1. Vatican Museum: Pinacoteca Gallery of Paintings
This is the first stop in the Vatican Self guided tour. The gallery was opened in 1932, it has some of the finest paintings in the Vatican. Most Vatican visitors concentrate on the paintings in the Raphael Rooms or the Sistine Chapel, while the treasures found in the Pinacoteca rooms are largely unseen. The Pinacoteca, Vatican Art Gallery is located on the main floor towards the right of the entrance. It is a real treat for art lovers and missed by many Vatican City tours. It is a long gallery of 18 with rooms on either side separated by a wall. You will start in Room I and move to the end of the gallery to Room 8 (the Raphael Paintings) and then up the gallery towards the exit at Room 18.
This Vatican self guided tour will lead you to each room with an explanation and highlights. If you love paintings of the Old Masters, do not miss this Vatican attraction! Paintings are displayed in chronological order starting in the 12th century to the 19th century as you move from room 1 to room VI, note the changes is style. From Room 14 onwards there are various objects and sculptures including those by Bernini. You will also find Byzantine icons.
Room 2 (13th to 15th Century)
Of the paintings by Giotto the most famous is the 1313 paining of Stefaneschi triptych which is used as an altarpiece for one of the alters of Old St. Peters Basilica. The middle panel is that of St. Peter on the throne with saints by his side. Cardinal Stefaneschi is kneeling on Peters right offering up the the altarpiece. The back central piece is similar except St Peter is replaced by Christ. Notice the detailing on the miniature altar piece that the cardinal is holding. The left panel is the crucifixion of St Peter and the right panel is the beheading of St. Paul representing the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul (They were held in the Mamertine prison in the Roman Forum).
Tickets to the Roman Forum are Here or reserve a spot on a Guided Tour Here. Guided tours usually include the ticket entrance fee, check to make sure so that you are not paying twice for the entrance to an attraction.
Room 3 (15th Century)
This room houses paintings by two monks: Fra’Angelico and Fillipo Lippi. Fra Angelico’s painting “Madonna and Child”. Madonna holds a rose while St Catherine and St Dominic kneel beside her. Note the level of gold used in the paintings. As you move to the Raphael rooms the gold leaf painting style is eventually replaced and you will see the use of blue pigments which were used instead of the red and gold signifying a transition in the style of paintings. In 1982 Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
In Room 3 you will also see Fra Filippo Lippi’s triptych painted in 1460 (note the style difference of the one in room 2 painted by Giotto in 1313). His painting of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary is in the middle panel. The model for the Virgin Mary was a young woman named Lucrezia Buti. He convinced the nuns to allow her to sit for him for the painting. However this led to more than just painting and he eventually abducted her causing quiet a scandal. The nuns, the Church and the powerful Medici family had to intervene to prevent Lucrezia’s family from bringing charges against the monk. They eventually married and she bore him a son. Filippo became a successful painter.
This room has five Raphael paintings including the 13.5 foot high painting titled “Transfiguration” and a number of tapestries. The Altar of Transfiguration is in St Peters Basilica. The Raphael paintings were sketched and painted by Raphael, unlike the Raphael paintings in the Raphael room upstairs. The “Transfiguration” was Raphael’s last painting and one of his best works. It is painted in vivid colors showing the Apostles helping a boy suffering from demonic possession in the lower section and the transfiguration of Christ in the upper section. The painting was discovered almost complete in his workshop when he died suddenly at the age of 37. It was carried through the streets of Rome during his funeral procession.
There is also a tapestry of The Last Supper made in a Flemish workshop and based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, The full scale reproduction of the intricate tapestry work is incredible and a must see.
Contains works from Leonardo DaVinci. Pay particular attention to the painting titled “St Jerome in the Wilderness“. The Altar of St Jerome found is in St Peter’s basilica. It is an unfinished work where you see St Jerome living the life of a hermit in the desert with a lion. He has just removed a thorn from the lion’s paw. You will notice that the Lion is still a sketch and the rest of the painting has a faded ghostly quality about it. That is because the paining is unfinished.
The Italian painters, such as Raphael and DaVinci, started with a sketch and then painted over them, however the Venetian painters did not have sketches and painted directly onto the canvas. Sometimes Italian painters prepared the sketch while their apprentices completed the paintings. You will see this in the Raphael Rooms upstairs where many of the paintings were sketched by Raphael but painted by his apprentice.
Works of the master painter Titan and Veronese are placed here such as the Veronese painting “The Vision of St Helena”. St Helena was the mother of Emperor Constantine who was famous for her dream that led to the discovery of the “True Cross” in Jerusalem. The painting is of her sleeping peacefully while a cherub holds the cross in front of her. St Helen’s Statue is found in the St Peter’s Basilica.
There are many realism style paintings from Caravaggio including the “Entombment of Christ” painted in 1603-1604. There are not many of Caravaggio’s paintings in the Vatican Museums. The Entombment has been copied by many French and Flemish painters including Cézanne. Caravaggio paints in a “dark” style called tenebrous, where there is no background, just darkness and therefore focusing strictly on the figures. The painting shows John, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary removing his body from the cross to place it in the tomb. Note the details and structure of the torso.
The twisted pose of the torso and musculature were highly influential in Renaissance and baroque artists. Note the statue of the “Belvedere Torso” when you get to the Pio-Celmentino Museum. This was used by Caravaggio and other masters when sculpting torso’s on their statues, if you look closely at the different torso’s you will find they are modeled on the Belvedere Torso. Interestingly not much is known about Caravaggio’s personal life except information found in public police records. He had minor offences like carry a weapon without permit to serious ones including violent fights. He spent the last few years of his life on the run from police after being found guilty of killing a man over a bet.
A room of sculptures including 7 pieces by Bernini. When you have finished viewing the gallery, continue the Vatican Museum self guided tour by visiting the Momo Staircase and the Ethnological Museum located across from the Pinacoteca Gallery (items 2 and 3 below) or if you are short on time, skip to the Egyptian Museum and the Pio-Clementine Museum (items 4 and 7 below).
2. Momo Staircase, double-helix staircase
There are two staircase in the Vatican museum with the same name. The Momo staircase built in 1505. The staircase is in a rectangular tower and connects the Belvedere Palace to the outside. It is located at the back of the Pio Clementine Museum. Bramante got his inspiration from the Momo staircase. It is an intricate double-helix stairs designed by the architect Giuseppe Momo and was inspired by the original Bramante Staircase (Bramante was the palace architect and many of the designs are attribute to him). Unlike the Momo staircase, the Bramante staircase is open to the public.
The Bramante Staircase is found:
– Main floor in the Pio Clementine Museum (Momo Staircase, also called the Bramante staircase. This area may be closed)
– Upper floor in the gift shop which is right next to the escalator going up
DO NOT GO DOWN THE BRAMANTE Staircase; it is the exit to the museum and you will not be able to get back in
The next two stops on the Vatican self guided walking tour are the Ethnological Museum and the Egyptian Museum. These two Vatican Museum attractions are not as popular, however they are definitely worth a visit if you can spare the time. Most tour guides skip these museums. As you exit the Pinacoteca, head back to the entrance of the Pinacoteca Gallery; the Ethnological Museum and the Egyptian Museum are across from the Pinacoteca Gallery.
3. Vatican Museum: Ethnological Museum Misionero Ethnological Museum
A collection of about 100,000 artifacts from non-European religions and cultures around the world including Buddhist, Islam, Hindu, African, Chinese and Native American. As catholic missionaries travelled the world to convert people, they also brought back items of cultural significance that are now displayed in this Vatican attraction. The geographic range of the items displayed is a testament to the reach of the missionaries.
4. Vatican Museum: Egyptian Museum
This Vatican museum opened in 1839 with collection pieces from Egypt are located here. There are many Egyptian antiquities including a brightly painted sarcophagi and mummy box, statues of pharos and queens including one of Rameses II.
General Orientation – From this area you can access the Pine Cone Courtyard (or from the Pio-Celmentine Museum).
if you want to take a break, head out to the Pine Cone Courtyard (Courtille Della Pigna) and explore the area. When you are done come back to this point to continue the Vatican self guided tour. There is another opportunity to visit the Pine Cone courtyard, at item 10 below.
5. Vatican Museum: Museo Chiaramonti
The Museo Chiaramont is the next stop on your Vatican self guided walking tour. It is a passageway (Loggia) that links the Vatican Palaces to the small Belvedere Palace. The Chiaramonti museum is named after the birthplace of Pope Pius VII, Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonti. Built in 1807 and based on the design by Bramante, it is about 300m long. It is a long corridor along the east wall of the Belvedere Museum and houses statues of gods, Roman Patricians and cherubs. You will also find a collection of Roman busts and statues with a variety of expressions, many of which were used in ancestral portraits by the romans. There are about a thousand sculptures, including portraits of Emperors and gods, several fragments, friezes and reliefs of sarcophagi.
6. Vatican Museum: Braccio Nuovo
A room with more Roman statues including one that portrays the Roman Emperor Augustus. This statue was discovered at the villa of Livia Augusta in Pompeii in 1863. The floor is a specular Roman mosaic tiled floor.
The next stop on the Vatican self guided walking tour is the Pio-Clementino Museum. This Vatican attraction is very popular and consists of several rooms.
7. Vatican Museum: Pio-Celmentino Museum Pius and Clementine’s Museum
Named after Pope Clementine XIV and Pope Pius VI, it has the largest collection of Greek and roman sculptures in the world. A very popular Vatican attraction, The museum has 12 rooms and Bramante’s Staircase (listed in no particular order):
– Sala a Croce Greca sarcophagus of Constantia and her daughter -Room of the Animals
– Round Room / Sala Rotunda (porphyry basin)
– Hall of Muses (Belvedere Torso)
– Hall of Animals
– Cabinet of Masks (may be closed)
– Gallery of Statues
– Octagonal Courtyard (Belvedere Apollo, Laocoön and the athlete just before entering the courtyard)
– Bramante Staircase (access from Pio-Clementine museum may be closed)
Sala a Croce Greca (sarcophagus of Constantia)
In this hall you will see two Sarcophagai. The first one is the porphyry sarcophagi of Constantia, daughter of Emperor Constantine and the second porphyry is the sarcophagus of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor. It was St. Helena who discovered the true Cross of Christ and brought it to Rome. The Statue of St Helen’s is in St Peters Basilica. A painting depicting this scene is in the Raphael Room 1 Hall Of Constantine titled The Vision of the Cross (east wall).
Round Room – Sala Rotunda
The room has a lot of unique features including the floor, the dome ceiling and of course the huge red salad bowl as the centerpiece. The well preserved mosaic floor is from a roman villa from the 2nd century. It is closed off and you cannot walk on it but can admire its intricate details and colorful pattern. The black and white tiles you can walk on are also ancient and authentic. The dome is designed after the pantheon but on a smaller scale.
The ceiling has an oculus and there is a decorative rosette in each of the niches of the dome. The centerpiece is a huge porphyry basin. The reddish-purple porphyry basin gets its name from the word porphyry which is the Greek word for purple, the color of royalty in Rome. Porphyry is an igneous rock and this piece served as Nero’s bath for his golden House (Domus Aurea). The VERY “hard to cut rock” was taken out of a quarry in Egypt and carved into single piece 2000 years ago. This incredibly heavy bathtub was then transported to Rome.
Hall of Muse / Sala della Muse
This was opened in 1784 to display the Villa of Cassius near Tivoli and have been dated to the time of Emperor Hadrian. It is the location of the famous Belvedere Torso by the Sculptor Appolonios from 50 BC. It is famous as the muscles, bones and veins are so lifelike and it was used as a base of the human torso in other paintings. There is speculation that it is the torso of Hercules. Memorize the structure of the twisted torso and look for its replica in the Sistine chapel.
Hall of the Animals
Designed in the time of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), it displays statues of animals who were considered protagonists with the goal of creating a “stone zoo”. Here you will find many statutes of animals; one of the best ones is the one of the little boy trying to hold onto a goose.
Cabinet of the Masks (Gabinetto delle Maschere)
The mosaic floor of this room is from the Villa Adriana and shows a display of theater masks, this area may be closed.
Gallery of Statues
The gallery of statues was a summer house of Pope Innocent VIII and was converted into a museum by Pope Clement XIV. Here you will also find the bust of Menander (yes the same Menander from the House of Menander in Pompeii).
8. Vatican Museum: Octagonal Courtyard
Continuing the Vatican self guided walking tour, you will be approaching the Octagonal courtyard. Before entering the octagonal courtyard, you will find the 1st-century statue of Apoxyomenos, the Statue of an Athlete by Lysippos. He is scraping sweat off his body with a strigil, a curved instrument. It is one of the earliest known sculptures showing a figure whose arm is raised and exposing his entire torso. What is also unusual about this statue is that the athlete’s head is smaller than the body. It is 1/8 the size of the body where sculptures of that time were 1/7 the size of the body. Also unusual is the slender figure of the body rather than the musculature torso of other sculptures.
The octagonal shaped hall was the creation of Simonetti and contains 16 columns made from Carrera marble. It holds two important statues; The Statue of Apollo Belvedere and the Statue of Laocoön.
The Apollo Statue
A marble Greek sculpture of the god Apollo is from 1st century BC. It was found in the 15th century and moved to Vatican City into the Belvedere Courtyard, hence the name Apollo Belvedere. This was the first piece of the Vatican art collection that started the entire collection. It was also Napoléon’s favorite piece that he took to the Louvre. It was returned to the Vatican after the fall of Napoléon.
The Laocoön Sculpture
The sculpture from 30 BC was found in the Esquiline Hills of Rome in 1506. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who warned the Trojans not to allow the Trojan horse into the city. They did not listen to his advice and the Greeks leapt out of the horse surprised and killed the Trojans and the capture of Troy. The sculpture is that of Laocoön and his two sons. The sons are being attacked by the serpents. There are many versions of the story surrounding this sculpture; Laocoön was punished for doing something right (in one version) or for doing something wrong (in another version). Whatever the true reason, this is a spectacular sculpture!
9. Vatican Museum: Bramante Staircase- Scala del Bramante
The original Bramante staircase located in the Pio-Clementine museum was built in 1505 by the Vatican architect Donato Bramante. Its’ purpose was to allow people and animals to access the palace from the outside. As a dual function it allowed Pope Julius II to access the palace in his carriage and avoid walking up and down several flights of stairs. The modern Bramante staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo was built in 1932 and inspired by the original Bramante staircase. Like the original, it is also a double helix spiral and allows people to walk up and down the stairs without meeting each other. The balustrade around the ramp is an ornately decorated metal work. It is located at the end of the museum and visitors leave by this route.
There are two ways to access the staircase:
– from the main floor, it is just off to one corner in the Pio-Clemntino Museum (this access may be closed)
– as you go up the escalators, enter the gift shop next to the escalator; the staircase is in the gift shop.
Orientation Pinecone Courtyard: It can be accessed from the Pinacoteca Museum Area or the Pio-Clementine museum or the Egyptian Museum.
10. Vatican City: Pine cone courtyard; Cortile della Pigna
Pine cone courtyard, also called Cortile della Pigna named after the 13 foot high bronze pine cone fountain from the 1st century BC with water coming out of the top. So why a pine cone? The pine cone represents the pinal gland responsible for light and symbol of the “third eye” the center of enlightenment. It is interesting that a symbol of the third eye is in a prominent spot in the conservative catholic city. The pine cone fountain was discovered near the pantheon and it is speculated that it was part of a pagan temple dedicated to Isis. The two peacocks on either side of the pine cone are copies of the bronze peacocks found on the entrance of Hadrian’s Mausoleum (Castel Sant”Angelo). The originals are in the Braccio Nuovo. The courtyard was designed by Donato Bramante (yes, the same guy who designed the staircase and the first designer of St Peters Basilica Cuppolo). One gets the feeling that the entire Vatican was designed by just a few talented craftsman.
The globe in the center is a modern piece sculpted by Arnaldo Pomodoro, to continue the Vatican City self guided walking tour, re-enter the museum to go upstairs for the Vatican Museum attractions located upstairs.
How to Visit Vatican Museum: Upper floor Attraction
11. Vatican Museum: Etruscan Gregorian Museum
Located at the top of the Simonetti staircase, the museum has artifacts from the early iron age to 9th century BC. The artifacts are from the excavations in the city of Etruria and the Etruscan tombs. There are Roman antiquities, an extensive collection of greek and Italian vases, jewelry and a statue of a hallow bronze warrior from the 5th century, the Marte di Todi (Mars of Todi).
12. Vatican Museum: Gallery of Candelabra – Galleria dei Candelabri
As you continue to explore the upper floors, the next stop on the Vatican self guided walking tour is the Gallery of Candelabra. This area was originally an open air loggia (long narrow covered space running alongside a building, similar to a porch, open to the street). It was walled in the 18th century closing off the space and creating a long narrow corridor. It has been subdivided into several rooms separated by arches. The first room is the Gallery of Candelabra, completed in 1888 after 5 years of work. It underwent an extensive restoration and opened in 2016 costing 700K Euros. The room is 262 ft long with eight candelabras of white marble and marble columns dividing the area into six sections, displaying Roman antique sculptures and a richly painted ceiling.
13. Vatican Museum: Gallery of the Tapestries – Gallery delgi Tapestries
This was one of my favourite displays. It was really crowded even though we took a private tour before the museum opened to the public. The Vatican self guided walking tour allows you to explore at your own pace, take your time in this gallery as there are many intricate pieces with complicated designs. The tapestry hall is divided by both time and regions. The right side of the wall are mostly pieces made in the 17th century and showcase scenes from the life of Pope Urban VIII, the pope at that time.
The tapestries were designed by students of Raphael and woven elsewhere. It took years to make them and they were woven from using the finest wools, silk, gold or silver threads made by the most talented weavers who were found in Flanders or Belgium.There are some amazing tapestries on the left wall. There are tapestries from the 1500’s which were woven in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s school. There are tapestries based on drawings by Raphael’s pupils depicting the life of Christ starting from his birth in the manger to the Resurrection tapestry.
The tapestry of the “Resurrection of Christ” is an excellent example of moving perspective; as you move past the tapestry the eyes of Christ will follow you. This is similar to the technique found in the Mona Lisa painting but is much more difficult to duplicate in a tapestry and shows the talent of the craftsman involved in the production of these tapestries. A fabulous Vatican attraction, I spent some time here trying to see if the eyes would follow me!
14. Vatican Museum: Gallery of the Maps – Galleria delle Carte Geoprafiche
The ceiling is the second most photographed ceiling in the museum, the Sistine chapel being the most photographed ceiling (even though taking picture in the Sistine Chapel is not allowed, somehow it happens!). The largest collection of geographical paintings are housed in the 120 meter long Gallery of maps. Commissioned in the 16th century, there are 40 geographically accurate maps of Italy and its provinces. Based on the three year work of the 15th century monk Ignazio Dante, the maps contain details such as boats and sea creatures.
15. Vatican Museum: Museum of the Carriages – Museo Storico – Padiglione delle Carrozze
Created in 1973 by Pope Paul VI, it is an immense area under the Square Garden. It houses sedan chairs, carriages, cars, the popemobile and other transportation used by the various popes. Busts of bronze and marble are displayed next to their specific mode of transport. Of particular interest are the enclosed sedan chairs with four poles held by porters that was used to transport the pope before carriages and cars were invented.
The next stop on the Vatican self guided walking tour are the Raphael Rooms.
16. Raphael Rooms
Pope Julius II (1503-1513) refused to live in the Borgia apartments and wanted to distance himself from former Pope Alexander VI. He hired a 22 year old artist named Raphael from Umbria to paint his private apartments located above the Borgia apartments. This created an uproar as Raphael was largely unknown however the Pope really liked his work and entrusted him with the task. The numerical rooms are not in chronological order and Raphael started his masterpiece in Room 3 in 1508AD.
Raphael Room 1 Hall Of Constantine
This room is named after Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD) who embraced Christianity and allowed for freedom of religion within his Empire. The walls depict the lives of the Emperor where Raphael started work on this room and sketched the paintings. However the work was completed/painted by his apprentices after Raphael’s untimely death. The Statue of St Helene is found in St. Peters Basilica.
The Donation of Constantine (north wall)
- Constantine kneels before Pope Sylvester, who has the face of Pope Clement VII in a tribute to Clement the VII for the continued support of the Raphael rooms. In this painting the emperor donates Rome to the pope.
The Baptism of Constantine (west wall)
- After he wins the battle with Maxentius, the emperor kneels naked before Pope Sylvester (who has the face of Pope Clement VII) for his baptism .
The Vision of the Cross (east wall)
- Refers to the vision Constantine had before his battle with Maxentius who wanted the throne. Constantine had a vision that he would win the battle as long as he used the cross as his symbol. His mother, St Helena had a vision that indicated where Christ’s cross was to be found. She was instrumental in bringing the cross to Rome based on this vision.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge (south wall)
- The battle with Maxentius takes place of the Milvian Bridge where Maxentius loses and is drowned in the Tiber river while Constantine rides away victoriously on his white horse.
Raphael Room 2 Hall Of Heliodorus (1512-1514)
The themes is political in nature documenting important religious moments in history from the Old Testament to medieval history centered around the protection of god over the church.
Deliverance of Saint Peter (north wall)
- An angel saving St Peter from prison, unshackling him while the guards fall into a deep sleep. The face of St. Peter is Pope Julius II face as Raphael wanted to pay tribute to the pope. A scene depicting St Peter’s baptism of the prison guards is found in St Peter’s Basilica.
The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila (west wall)
- Attila the Hun reaches Rome to complete the invasion of the Roman Empire. He is met by Pope Leo. During the meeting St Paul and St Peter appear armed with swords resulting in Attila not invading Rome. An Altar to Leo the Great is in St Peters Basilica.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (east wall)
- God sends angels who in turn get two youths and a horseman to banish Heliodorus for attempting to steal treasure meant for the temple of Jerusalem.
The Mass at Bolsena (south wall)
- The Christian faith being doubted by many including a priest in 1263 who doubted that the bread and wine offered at mass could be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. In this scene a white linen cloth on the alter became stained with blood.
Raphael Room 3 Room of the Segnatura (1508-1511)
Started at the same time as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel by Michelangelo in 1508. The Stanza della Segnatura was the private study of Pope Julius II. The della segnatura is the room where the pope signed the verdicts of the segnatura, the church’s tribunal. This was the only room Raphael completed on his own as he become distracted by his other work such as the work at St Peters Basilica. All the other rooms were completed with the help of his apprentices. Each wall has paintings along the four themes of: Theology, Philosophy, Justice and Poetry representing the concept of Truth, Good and Beauty. This room is well known for the painting of the School of Athens, its most famous fresco.
The Parnassus (north wall)
- Along the themes of poetry and beauty. The painting shows the view from the Vatican of the Parnassus, the mythological home of Apollo. Apollo is seated in the center on Mount Parnassus surrounded by 9 muses on either side of Apollo who are the protectors of arts, poetry and music. Homer, Virgil and Dante are painted at his shoulder.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (west wall)
- Painted on the theme of theology, it was Raphael’s first work. The image of the Trinity is surrounded by saints and prophets sitting on a bench of clouds. Below the image are the faces of famous theologists who were hanged or burned including Dante and Fra Angelico. It is an image of the church that spans both heaven and earth.
The School of Athens (east wall)
- Represents philosophy and is one of his most famous paintings in the Raphael rooms.
- The School of Athens receives a lot of attention (Philosophy) as he painted his friends into the paintings. You will find Plato standing in the center in an orange robe, and Aristotle (in the blue robe) talking to him and on his right. Plato’s face is that of Leonardo Da Vinci. You will see Pythagoras in the very front left in a light pink robe with a book in his hand. Euclid on the right (in the red robe) is drawing on the chalkboard however he has the face of Bramante. You will see Raphael behind the pillar on the bottom right corner looking out at us (in a black hat and black robe) and finally he put Michelangelo front and center. On the left hand side with his head in his arms is the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, however his face is that of Michelangelo.
The Cardinal Virtues (south wall)
- The three cardinal of virtues are personified by the three women in the painting. The virtue of Fortitude (seated on the left holding branch), Prudence (center) and the virtue of Temperance (right). The painting also represents the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are that are personified by the cupids. The fourth virtue of Justice is on the ceiling.
Raphael Room 4 – Room of Fire in the Borgo (1514-1517)
The painting started during the term of Pope Leo X (and his namesake predecessors Leo III and Leo IV) and shows the political journey of the Pope (1514-1521). It was used as a place for music and dining. The work was the third and last room Raphael worked on and was completed by his apprentices.
The Oath of Leo III (north wall)
- Pope Leo the III is on trial as a result of accusation of misconduct by the nephew of his predecessor Pope Hadrian I. The pope confirms that he is responsible for his actions to god alone.
The Coronation of Charlemagne (west wall)
- The coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Eve 800 in the St Peters Basilica. The emporer has the face of the Emperor of France and the Pope has the face of Leo X, attesting to the agreement between the Holy See and France in 1515. The round marble stone slab upon which Charlemagne kneeled during his coronation is on the floor of St Peters Basilica. Charlemagne’s Statue is also found in St Peters Basilica.
The Battle of Ostia (east wall)
- The papal armies defeat the Saracens at the mouth of the Tiber River in 849.
Fire in the Borgo (south wall)
- Personally painted by Raphael, the Pope IV is making the sign of the cross from his balcony to miraculously extinguish the fire burning in the Borgo district of Rome.
17. Vatican City: Capella Niccolina Nicola Chapel
This stop in the Vatican self guide tour may not be accessible. The chapel is not on the Vatican map and may be closed. After complete the tour of the Raphael rooms, go to the Sala dei Chiaroscuro (Room of the Chiaroscuri), located in the same area (the Apostolic Palace). The Chiaroscuri room has been used to house parrots, those entrusted with surveillance of the Pope, those responsible for carrying his sedan chair, and as a secret meeting room. It has a 16th century wooden ceiling and a small doorway in the corner. Enter the doorway to access Chapel of Nicholas V (1447-1449). It may be closed off with a bar.
Chapel of Nicholas V is a tiny chapel with frescoes by Fra’Angelico. This was the private area for Pope Nicholas to pray. It is covered in gold paintings featuring Chritian Martyrs such as St. Peter, St. Laurence and St. Stephen. Much of the gold used here was brought back by Christopher Columbus when he returned from his voyages.
18. Vatican City: Borgia Apartments
The Borgia apartments in the Vatican self guided tour consist of several rooms and are a popular Vatican attraction. The apartments are a series of 6 rooms that were converted into a private apartment for Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo de Borgia and his family. He commissioned Bernadino de Betto de Baigio (known as Pintoricchio) to paint the apartment with frescoes between 1492 and 1495. The frescoes depict religious themes centered on the martyrdom of saints, mysteries of faith and the medieval themes of Trivium and Quadrivium.
The paintings show the Spanish roots of his family from the Spanish mosaic tiles on the floor to the Borgia family symbol, the bull, painted on almost every wall. The entire apartment shows the pride the pope felt towards his Spanish origins and his family name. The most famous fresco in the rooms is “The Disputation of Catherine” which features the images of the Borgia family and St Catherine is said be the image of the pope’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia. The painting is centered around the Arch of Constantine which has the Borgia Bull centered atop it.
Room of the Sibyls
This is the first of the 6 rooms. The ceiling has an astronomy theme with seven planets on a blue background. The bull was the Borgia’s coat of arms. There are 12 lunettes with sibyls (female oracles) and prophets with banners depicting their prophesy.
Room of the Creed
The ceiling has a complex geometrical pattern. Once again there are 12 lunettes but this time with apostles and prophets with banners that have quotes from the scriptures.
Room of Liberal Arts
This is the personal library of the pope. He ceiling is a double barrel vault which is divided by arches. There are motifs are of justice in both biblical and classical examples. There are 7 lunettes divided into three or four. Both Cicero and Bramante can be seen on the throne.
Room of the Saints
Once again the ceiling is divided into vaults with an arch in the middle. The theme is of divine justice and features the Egyptian mythical gods Isis and Osiris. The lunettes depict stories from the lives of the saints.
The next stop on the Vatican self guided tour is the Sistine Chapel.
19. Sistine Chapel
Original Sistine Chapel
This is the last stop on the Vatican self guided tour. Take your time exploring the ceiling and wall frescos. There is an immense amount of detail to absorb. I found the fresco of the day of judgement both fascinating and frightening.
The Sistine Chapel is named after the Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned it as a simple palace chapel that would hold the conclave where the college of cardinals meet to elect a new pope. The chapel is on the exact spot of the Great Chapel and was designed by Giovannino De’Dolci. It was to have the the same dimensions as the Solomon Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD at about forty meters long, 13 meters wide and 20 meters high (seven stories)
Pope Sixtus’s vision for the walls of the chapel were to depict scenes of Moses guiding his people out of Jerusalem and other stories from the bible painted by Perugino, Botticelli and Signorelli. The ceiling was painted a simply blue sky with gold stars and the floor was geometric patterns of multicolored mosaic tiles. The floor is the same that you see today
Sistine Chapel Restoration
After completion of the Sistine Chapel, the excavation of the new St Peters Basilica began next door. It caused a huge crack in the ceiling and the frescoes also suffered damage. Bramante had to reinforce the ceiling. The pope at the time, Julius II was left with the task of restoring the Sistine Chapel. Bramante suggested Michelangelo, a well-known, cantankerous, poverty stricken sculptor who was a rival of Bramante for the restoration work.
Bramante felt sure that Michelangelo would turn it down as he was busy on the tomb of Julius II and he thought that Michelangelo would fail as he was a sculptor and not a painter. Bramante preferred Raphael who was a friend and a relative and felt that Michelangelo’s failure would lead to the hiring of Raphael.
Michelangelo was humiliated at being asked to paint a ceiling and that he considered himself a sculptor and not a painter. He eventually conceded when the pope offered him free reign and accepted the pope’s challenge of transforming what Michelangelo considered “the roof of a barn” into a Vatican jewel.
Since the walls already had paintings of Moses (left wall) and Jesus (right wall), Michelangelo decided to tell the story of the creation of man. He painted the ceiling and the altar wall. The work was started in 1508, the same year as the Raphael’s salle della segnatura room. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling lying down on his back. Originally Bramante built him a scaffold that Michelangelo considered flawed. Upon protest (all the way to the pope), Michelangelo designed his own scaffold and painted the ceiling in a standing position.
He originally worked with assistance, however fired them all as he was not much of a team player. Michelangelo locked himself in the chapel for four years rarely, letting anyone in and working in solitude all the time complaining about his back, his neck and paint dripping into his eyes. The work was completed in October 1512 and the unveiling overshadowed the walls of Jesus and Moses.
In 1536, about 20 years later, Pope Clement VII called upon Michelangelo again to paint a giant fresco, “The last Judgment” behind the altar. In his 60’s now, it took Michelangelo 5 years to paint it from 1536-1541.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Sistine Chapel Middle Section of ceiling
The most popular and splendid Vatican attraction. The middle panel of the ceiling are frescoes of nine stories from the Book of Genesis; there are six panels on the stories of Creation and the last three panels depict stories of Noah. The first three panels of Creation represent the six days that God created Earth, resting on the seventh day. The net three panels are taken from the story of Adam and Eve. The creation of Adam shows god reaching out to touch Adam with the spark of light and it is a famous scene The next three panels concern Noah and include the sacrifice made by Noah’s family, being saved from the Great Flood, Noah growing vines and in the process gets drunk and accidently exposes himself.
Sistine Chapel: There were 12 prophets and sibyls Prophetic women
There are four Major Prophets and three Minor Prophets. Though minor, these prophets must have had a significant effect. The five Sibyls were prophetic women who resided at shrines or temples. The five depicted here were said to have prophesized the birth of Christ.
- Jonah (above the altar), Prophet of the Northern Kingdom. Book of Jonah
- Jeremiah, major prophet in the Hebrew Bible, Book of Jeremiah
- Persian Sibyl, also known as Babylonian
- Ezekiel, a Hebrew prophet, Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel means “God’s Strength”
- Erythraean Sibyl, a prophetess of classical antiquity
- Joel, a minor Prophet of ancient Israel
- Zechariah (above the main door of the chapel), a minor prophet, Book of Zechariah
- Delphic Sibyl, an oracle and priestess of Apollo
- Isaiah, a Jewish prophet from the 8th century, Book of Isaiah
- Cumaean Sibyl, an Oracle of Apollo
- Daniel, meaning “God is my Judge”, Book of Daniel
- Libyan Sibyl, prophetic priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon
- The Ancestry of Jesus – Shows Jesus physical male lineage through his father Joseph, from the time of Abraham as per the Gospel of Mathew
Sistine Chapel Walls
The Walls: I have included the names of the paintings in the walls in the event you want to look them up for their history:
Sistine Chapel Southern Walls 1481–1482:
Stories of Moses, starting from the altar:
- Moses Leaving to Egypt painted by Pietro Perugino and assistants
- The Trials of Moses painted by Sandro Botticelli and his assistants
- The Crossing of the Red Sea
- Descent from Mount Sinai
- Punishment of the Rebels by pained by Sandro Botticelli
- Testament and Death of Moses
Sistine Chapel Northern Walls, 1481–1482
Stories of Jersus:
- Baptism of Christ painted by Pietro Perugino and assistants
- Temptation of Christ painted by Sandro Botticelli
- Vocation of the Apostles painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio
- The Sermon on the Mount,
- The Delivery of the Keys painted by Pietro Perugino
- The Last Supper painted by Cosimo Rosselli
Sistine Chapel Eastern wall
Resurrection of Christ
- Resurrection of Christ painted by Hendrick van den Broeck (1572) over Domenico Ghirlandaio’s original painting
- Disputation over Moses’ Body painted by Matteo da Lecce (1574) over Luca Signorelli’s original painting
Sistine Chapel The Last Judgment (1536-1541)
The last judgment as described in the book of John, chapter 20. It shows the second coming of Christ who is judging mankind. Christ is high on the wall and surrounded by saints. At the base of the painting are the dead who arise from their graves ready to be judged. The damned are on the left being dragged down to hell and the blessed who are heading to heaven are on the right. There was great controversy around the figures as many of them were nudes especially by the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Cesena. In response Michelangelo painted Cesenas’ face on Minos, the Judge of the underworld. When Cesena protested to the pope, the pope is to have said that he does not have influence over hell. Eventually a cloth was painted partially covering the nudes by another painter.
20. Michelangelo wrote a poem describing his work at the Sistine chapel:
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
Unhappy and miserable, Michelangelo produced one of the greatest works of art!!
Day Trips from Rome
Guided tours with local guides are booked HERE. Options for tours include combination tours with the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. You can also purchase tickets, without the guided tours, to the various attractions. Some options include explorer pass where you can choose several attractions, or unlimited 24 hour tickets, or the City Card. The lineups to purchase tickets can be long, once tickets are purchased you then have to wait in another line to enter the attractions. We always bought tickets in advance online and often times bought the skip the line tickets. Purchase your online tickets in advance here.
Hop On Hop Off Tours
The hop-on-hop-off is a great option if you are short on time or do not want to worry about transportation to the different attractions. Purchase your hop-on-hop-off online here, various options are available.
Other Attractions in Italy
- Visit the Roman Colosseum. Click on the Roman Colosseum attractions map HERE and accompanying Colosseum attractions guide HERE
- Take the Rome attractions map and self guided tour: It includes the Vatican City attractions map HERE and the Vatican attractions guide HERE
- Self Guided Walking tour to explore the neighborhood of Trastevere with map of attractions HERE and guide of attractions HERE
- Visit St Peters Basilica. Explore all the attractions in St Peter’s Basilica with the attractions guide HERE
- One of my favorite places is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The map of attractions is HERE and the self guided walking tour is HERE
- Self Guided Walking Tours – Day Trips from Rome