Popes and pagans
The Vatican Museums are located behind St. Peter’s Square
and comprise a complex of eight pontifical museums, filled with a breathtaking range of treasures. They began as a group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius in the early 16th century, and were among the earliest art collections to be made open to the public.
There is an abundance of ancient Roman sculpture – one of the largest collections in the world – depicting gods and Emperors (who often claimed to be gods) and many animals of religious or cult importance. It may seem strange that the Catholic Church has such a large collection of pagan icons, but many Popes have been attracted to Classical art and literature, particularly during the Renaissance.
All this, and Heaven too
The museums of course hold many ancient Christian artefacts, and there are sections dedicated to areas as diverse as Egyptian sarcophagi, Hebrew inscriptions, Chinese numismatics and Etruscan pottery. There is a bounty of paintings, statues, uniforms, frescoes, maps, mosaics (even micromosaics!) and tapestries - too much, in short, to see in one day.
Apart from all this, visitors wishing to see the spectacular Sistine Chapel
can access it through the Vatican Museums. Beware, though - it gets extremely busy. You will find yourself shuffled along or slowed down with the movement of the swarming crowd. However, if you try early in the morning or later in the afternoon you will likely have a more leisurely experience.
It’s a good idea to join a tour group in order to get the most out of the galleries, as there are not many information points along the way - though there are many gift shops throughout the museum where you can buy information books and souvenirs. Refresh yourself with a cool drink in the peaceful Vatican Gardens at the end of your visit.