As we approached the Vatican Museums at 2pm on day six of our visit, thankfully armed with prebooked tickets, the Heavens opened for a spectacular thunderstorm. Inside, staff rushed to close doors and windows and lights were hurriedly turned on as summer quickly disappeared.
I’d been here twice before: the second visit was particularly memorable as it included a trip to the Vatican Gardens, Pinacoteca and Borgia Apartments. That still left a lot to see. This time we were deliberately staying away from the route to the Sistine Chapel, and hoping to focus on other areas. Sadly, the Etruscan, Ethnological and the Gregorian Profane museums were all closed, but that left more than enough for an afternoon’s exploration.
The Pio Christian Museum
This area of the museums contains some of the earliest known Christian art, including the earliest sculpture of Christ as the Good Shepherd. This is thought to be from the 3rd Century AD, and represents a very different image to what most of us have become used to.
There’s also much material from ancient Jewish and early Christian cemeteries and catacombs within Rome, with much of that taking the shape of highly-decorative sarcophagi.
The Chiaramonti Museum
Back in time to Ancient Rome and Greece here, with more enough than enough artefacts from both to keep anyone busy. This long skinny space, curated by Antonoio Canova, is decorated wall to wall with busts of the great, good and renowned. There’s a lot to take in and sometimes more explanation would be helpful.
That very stern Trajan above would surely approve that his markets are still being put to good use!
On to the octagonal courtyard, steeped in masterpieces. This area formed the basis of the original museum of Julius II, formed in the early 16th Century.
Indeed, this sculpture below – Laocoön and his sons – holds a very special place in Vatican history. According to the Museums’ website, this was simply “found” or rediscovered somewhere in the Esquiline Hill, close to the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea, in 1506. It was displayed to the public just a month after it was acquired (by Michelangelo who was, at the the time painting the Sistine Chapel and sent on a mission by the Pope). This moving sculpture depicts the fate of the Trojan priest Laocoön who warned his fellow Trojans not to accept their equine gift, and whose punishment was a giant sea serpent despatched by Athena and Poseidon.
The former statue itself influenced this Canova depiction of Perseus, sculpted in 1800/1801. He doesn’t look out of place among his ancient counterparts.
Back inside, and the visit to this part of the museums is only halfway through. The Round Hall was built in 1779 by Michelangelo Simonetti to mimic the Pantheon: its dome certainly does look familiar. But don’t forget to look down either, as the mosaics there are from the 3rd Century!
Antinous makes not one but two appearances here. On the right is the so-called Braschi Antinous, reputed to have been found at another villa owned by Hadrian.
While this colossal gilded bronze Heracles was found somewhere in the vicinity of Pompey’s theatre.
In the Hall of the Muses, the Belvedere Torso – another highly influential piece to Renaissance artists – has just returned from a short break in London, as one of the centrepieces of the British Museum’s ‘Defining Beauty’ exhibition.
Moving on to the Room of the Greek Cross: here, the vast porphyri sarcophagi of Emperor Constantine’s mother St Helena and his daughter Costanza take centre stage. So polished that they look like they could literally have been made yesterday!
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Accessed from the Hall of the Greek Cross, this particular museum was founded in the 1830s to showcase Eyptian finds from Rome and Egypt, but also from Hadrian’s Villa – so a nice link to our visit there earlier in the week. Exhibits included this version of Antinous in the guise of an Egyptian god in a mockup of the villa’s Serapeum.
Day to day life and death in Egypt was also explored…
The finds went wider than Egypt too, with these funerary reliefs from the Syrian city of Palymyra being among the displays.
The Coach Pavilion
This collection was originally housed in the Lateran Palace, and fittingly the exhibit detailed the ceremony by which Popes take possession of St John Lateran. Its main attraction is the grand Berlin coach.
While other more modern cars and a popemobile or two also share the limelight.
By the end of our visit, the blue skies had more or less returned and the museum had begun to empty out, with preparations underway for the Friday evening reopening. A great time to enjoy a quieter space.
It’s now possible to travel from the Vatican’s own railway station to Castel Gandolfo – that might just inspire me to go back to this sprawling and busy site for another visit.