Founded in the early 16th century by Pope Julius II and carefully amassed by the subsequent pontiffs, the Vatican Museums contain around 70,000 artworks, of which only 20,000 are on display along about seven km of halls and corridors, ranging from the Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronze statues to the old masters and modern paintings.
Although it is next to impossible to give a short account of the enormous collection, highlights include the spectacular collection of the classical statues in the Museo Pio- Clementino, founded in the 18th century by Pope Clement XIV, and enlarged by Pope Pius VI; the Stanze di Raffaello or Raphael’s Rooms (Ref - Raphaels rooms titbits), four rooms in the Apostolic Palace, entirely painted by Raphael; the Pinacoteca or the Picture Gallery, one of the more modern sections of the Vatican Museums, opened in the 1930s with sixteen rooms to display the cream of the Vatican’s collection of the medieval and Renaissance paintings; and the famous Sistine Chapel (Ref - Sistine chapel vatican city), containing the immortal frescoes by Michelangelo. Apart from that, there are also the ancient Egyptian exhibits of the Museo Gregoriano Egizio, as well as the Etruscan offerings of the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco.
The Museo Pio-Clementino is named after two popes, Pope Clement XIV, the founder of the museum, and Pope Pius VI, who expanded the museum and enlarged its collection. Although originally it contained only the Renaissance and antique works, today it also houses works of Greek and Roman sculptures.
It has several notable galleries, which include, among others: Sala Croce Greca, or the Greek Cross Gallery, containing the sarcophagus or coffin carved in Egyptian red porphyry in which Saint Helena, the mother of emperor Constance the Great was buried.Sala Rotonda, resembling a miniature Pantheon, decorated with ancient mosaics on the floor, and displaying ancient statues, including a gilded bronze statue of Heracles, lining the perimeter. There is a beautiful purple-colored porphyry basin in the center of the Sala Rotunda, which supposedly belonged to the Roman emperor Nero. The basin, 40 feet in diameter, was made of a single cooled lava rock from the bowels of Egypt. Galleria delle Statue, or the Gallery of the Statues, containing various important statues, including the Sleeping Ariadne, a Roman Hadrianic copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of the Pragamene school of the 2nd century, and is one of the most renowned sculptures of Antiquity.
Sala della biga, famous for the large marble group of the Cassa di biga, representing a chariot pulled by two horses, which dates from the first century AD, found in the Church of San Marco, where it was used as the throne of the bishop. It also houses a copy of the Discobolus, figuring a male athlete throwing a discus.
Sala della Muse, displaying series of sculptures uncovered in the so-called Villa of Cassius near Tivoli which included several statues of the muses, Apollo holding a lyre, Athena, and others. The centerpiece is the Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a nude male statue, said to be revered by Michelangelo Cabinet of Masks exhibits ancient theatre masks, and displays statues along the walls, including the Three Graces.
The Pinacoteca or the Picture Gallery was inaugurated on 27 October 1932 in a building built in the nineteenth century Square Garden, isolated and surrounded by avenues. Created by Pope Pius VI around 1790, it started with only 118 precious paintings, which continued to grow over the years until it reached the current nucleus of 460 paintings. Distributed among the eighteen rooms based on chronology and school, it contains some masterpieces of the greatest artists of the history of Italian painting which include, among others, the Stefaneschi Altarpiece by the Italian painter Giotto, Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno, Oddi Alterpiece and Transfiguration, Caravaggio’s the Entombment of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting St Jerome in the Wilderness and many others.
Since the beginning of the 15th century, the art collection of the popes was housed in the papal palace and the other buildings. The collection was shifted to the Museo Pio-Clementino, after it was founded by Pope Clement XIV in the 18th century, displaying the ancient sculpture Laocoon and His Sons (Ref - Laocoon sons), depicting the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons being attacked by giant snakes, which was purchased by Pope Julius II. Designed by sculptor Antonio Canova and established by Pope Pius VI in the 19th century, the Chiaramonti Sculpture Gallery or Museo Charamonti also houses the ancient sculptures. It consists of three parts, the museum in a gallery designed by Bramante, Braccio Nuovo, or the New Wing, and the Gallery of Inscriptions enriched with a peerless collection of ancient epigraphy. Containing more than 3000 stone tablets and inscriptions, the Galeria Lapidaria is also a part of the Museo Pio-Clementino, accessible only with special permission.
The Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, founded by Pope Gregory XVI, has nine galleries and houses lots of important Etruscan pieces, procured from archaeological excavations. Apart from that, it also houses objects from the Regolini-Galassi tomb with its invaluable collection of Etruscan jewelry. On the whole, it exhibits the history of the Etruscan society from the Iron Age to the development of the Etruscan cities.
The Museo Gregoriano Egizio was inaugurated on 2 February 1839 to commemorate the anniversary of the accession to the papacy of Gregory XVI, and houses a huge collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt that include papyruses, the Grass Collection, animal mummies, and reproductions of the Book of the Dead. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of spells which enable the soul of a deceased to navigate the afterlife.
The huge complex of the Vatican Museums consists of two palaces, the original Vatican Palace and the Palazzetto di Belvedere, joined by two long galleries. On the inside, there are three courtyards. The Cortile della Pigna or the Pinecone Courtyard is named after the giant bronze sculpture of pinecone of around 13 feet tall and dates to the first century, found in the campus Martius area of Rome, near the Pantheon. While the Cortile della Biblioteca contains the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Gallery of Maps, containing a series of painted topographical maps of Italy, is located on the west side of Cortile del Belvedere, or the Belvedere Courtyard.
It is rightly said that one life is not enough to appreciate the wonderful man-made creations contained in the Vatican Museums.