The Vatican Museums were founded under the patronage of two eighteenth-century popes – Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799) – who were among the first to open collections of art to the general public for viewing, therefore promoting culture among the masses. Appropriately, the first building in the museum complex, the Pio-Clementine Museum, was named after these two pontiffs.
The origin of the museums’ collection goes back much further. It all started in 1480 with the discovery of a Roman statue, ‘The Apollo of Belvedere’, still one of the highlights of the Vatican Museums. In 1503 Julius II had the statue placed in the Cortile Ottagono, an octagonal courtyard.
As the decades passed, more popes added to the amazing collection of diverse artworks owned and displayed by the Vatican. Today, there are thirteen museums in a huge architectural complex comprising of two Vatican palaces. The building complex is worth a visit in itself as all the rooms and hallways are lavishly decorated with marble and frescoes.
It’s recommended not to try and see everything in one visit as the whole route along all the museums is seven kilometers long (4.4 mi). Instead just try to focus on a number of highlights or museums you want to see. And make sure you have some time and energy left over for the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, which are located towards the end of the museum.
To keep the massive crowds under control, the museum has four color-coded itineraries that range from one and a half hours to more than five hours. All itineraries end in the Sistine Chapel.
Roman and Greek art
One of the Vatican Museums’ main strengths is the collection of ancient Roman and Greek art, which is spread over four museums. Some of the most famous statues, including the Laocoön and the Apollo del Belvedere can be found here.
Part of the lure of a visit to the Vatican Museums is the chance to admire the lavish palace complex that houses the museums. The complex was built between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries and served as the main residence of many popes. Several rooms, including the Sistine Chapel, are occasionally still used by the papacy.