TooMuchItaly Travel off the beaten path

7 marvels of the Vatican

Vatican - Raphael Rooms

Finally I made it and visit the Vatican Museums. It’s been in my wish list since I was in high school and studied the art of Michelangelo and Bernini. So I came out with a short list of Vatican’s 7 marvels!

1. A state of records

The Vatican is definitely a state of marvels and records. It’s the smallest country in the world – 8 time smaller than Central Park – but it’s one of the most powerful, as well as one of the richest. It counts less than 900 residents and no-one is born in this country – no hospital actually; the citizenship is granted for work not for birth and only the Pope could invite you to live inside his State.

It’s the only country included in UNESCO World Heritage List and counts one of the largest art collections in the world. The Vatican is a proper country and has its own radio network and post office since 1929: letters, postcards and documents with a Vatican stamp have to be mailed only in the yellow letter boxes inside Vatican city. I had fun in sending a postcard to my son from the Vatican!

Postcard from Vatican city

2. A Church of records

The Basilica of Saint Peter is the largest church in the world – located in the smallest world’s country: it’s as big as 2 American football fields! It counts 233 windows, 77 columns and 46 altars. It took 120 years and 22 different popes to build this enormous church: works started under Pope Julius II in 1506 and ended under Pope Urban VIII in 1626; only the best artists such as Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante, worked at its construction.

Inside the basilica there are no paintings. The framed artworks you see on the many altars are mosaics made of precious hard stones.
St. Peter's Basilica by night
Entrance of the Vatican Museums

3. The marvelous dome

The cupola of St. Peter’s church was designed by Michelangelo when he was in his 70s. The dome’s internal diameter is 41 metres and rises to a total height of 136 mt – actually someone recently claimed it to be the tallest dome in the world.

You can climb on the top of the cupola by taking the elevator to the terrace and then climbing 330 steps. Be sure you’re not claustrophobic, because the stairs are really really narrow and steep. The view from the top is definitely worth: you can admire the entire Vatican State including the private gardens of the Pope and of course the eternal city, Rome.

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica
View from top of the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica

4. The Vatican Museums

This museum is the fifth most visited museum in the world, and you can tell it from the endless queue at the entrance. Over 4.5 million people visit this museum every year and there is not a good time to visit it.

The Vatican Museums count 9 miles of pieces divided in 54 different galleries or collections: you would need several days (and nights) to see the entire Vatican’s collection. The visit can be quite overwhelming, unless you book a Vatican tour, as I did with the Roman guy.

It was my first time in the Vatican Museums and I was really happy to take a guided tour. I had the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel before the museum’s opening, i.e. not overcrowded. The tour lasted 4 hours and Raffaella, our tour guide, showed us the unmissable artworks, providing precious and interesting information. Here my top 3 things you have to see on your tour:

  • the spiral staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, now the museum’s exit – sometimes mistakenly called the Bramante’s staircase;
  • the view of Saint Peter’s dome from the terrace of the museum, located next to the exit;
  • the Pignone, a huge bronze pine cone in the Vatican courtyard dating back to Roman times when it was located near the Pantheon;

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica
The Vatican Museums' staircase
The frescoed ceilings of the Vatican Museums
The endless corridors of the Vatican Museums

5. Michelangelo and his bittersweet artworks for the Popes

Michelangelo came to Rome for the first time in his 20s to escape from Florence, where his patrons, the Medici, fled out of power. During his first stay he sculpted one of the most beautiful statues in the world: the Pietà. The sculpture, representing the Madonna with Jesus on her laps after the Crucifixion, is located in the first chapel on the right as one enters St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Pietà was commissioned to Michelangelo by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, who wanted “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better” for his funeral monument. Michelangelo took the dare and sculpted the only artwork he signed during hi life, carved from one single slab of Carrara marble.

He then came back to Rome later in his life, when Pope Julius II commissioned him to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s private Chapel. Michelangelo wasn’t happy to take over the work, because he was a sculptor, rather than a painter, and didn’t really like to paint. But Julius II didn’t change his mind and let the artist whatever he liked, as long as he accomplished the work.

Michelangelo painted 300 figures that cover 12.000 sq ft, in just 4 years, and depict 9 scenes from the Book of the Genesis. The most famous scene is the Creation of Adam, depicting the creation of human kind by God. According to scholars Adam’s stone is real and it’s in Tuscany, more precisely close to Michelangelo’s father work place and I’ve seen it!

Inside the Sistine Chapel you can also admire the Last Judgment by Michelangelo. The fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel is another masterpiece commissioned by Pope Clement VII to a 60 years-old Michelangelo. It depicts the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity with striking shiny colors.

Across the fresco there are many symbolic figures and meanings, but the most intriguing detail is for me the self portrait of Michelangelo: he actually portrayed himself as the flayed human skin held by St. Bartholomew. Scholars are still disputing on its meaning, even though it’s believed he wanted to represent his psychological torment.

I think that the words of 19th century German writer Goethe well described these masterpieces by Michelangelo:

Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.

The Sistine Chapel
The Pietà by Michelangelo

6. Raphael’s portraits

While Michelangelo was working at the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was working at the private rooms of the Pope’s apartments. Both artists had been called by Pope Julius II, who wanted only the best.

Raphael was 25 years old and pretty unknown when he started this work; he actually painted just two rooms in full, with few other details in some other rooms, that were finished by his students. In the Sala della Segnatura, he realized The School of Athens, a masterpiece representing the perfect example of Renaissance art.

In the fresco he depicts Philosophy with Plato and Aristotle in the center surrounded by other famous philosophers. He portrayed 21 figures, many of which are real portraits: Plato is the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo is represented as a pensive Heraclitus in the foreground, Bramante as a bended Euclid on the right, next to Raphael himself portrayed as Apelles.

Raphael's Rooms
Raphael's Rooms

7. The guardians of the Renaissance

The Pope has a special army that is more than 500 years old. This special police is called the Pontificial Swiss Guard and was founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II, that he named as “The Defenders of the Church’s Freedom”.

The Swiss Guard counts about 130 soldiers; every soldier should be a Catholic Swiss single man between 19 and 30 years old, at least 1,74cm tall; he should have a diploma and have served with the Swiss military.

The funny uniform was designed by captain Jules Repond at the beginning of 1900 after an extensive historical research. As a matter of fact the uniform is inspired to the Renaissance uniforms depicted by Raphael in some frescoes. People think these uniforms were designed by Michelangelo, but this is not true.


Visit the Vatican State and the Vatican Museums could not be as easy as it seems. Here few tips for your visit:

  • don’t bring backpack, suitcases or large bags with you – you’re not allowed to carry large bags or backpacks inside the Vatican Museums. There is a garderobe, but take into account to walk all way back to grab your staff after the visit;
  • wear comfortable and formal dresses – don’t wear shorts or too inconvenient clothes, because you may hurt someone else feelings. Wear also comfortable shoes because you need to walk a lot, especially if you’re going to climb the cupola;
  • be respectful you’re in a holy place – don’t be loud and turn your phone off, because you’re in a religious site;
  • book a Vatican tour – if you have just few days, save your time and money and take a tour to visit the Vatican Museums. I recommend The privileged Entrance Tour by The Roman Guy

The Swiss guards

Are you going to Rome? Read my tips for foodies in Rome!


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