A trip to Rome is like a visit to an enormous open-air museum. There’s so much to see from the Coliseum, to the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps, there’s history and art around every corner.
But if you can’t make it to the eternal city just now then why not take a virtual tour of one of the city’s most famous attractions – The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.
Founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and enlarged by successive pontiffs, the Vatican Museums boast one of the world’s greatest art collections. The exhibits, which are displayed along 7km of halls and corridors, range from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to ancient busts, old masters and modern works. Highlights include the spectacular collection of classical statuary in the Museo Pio-Clementino, a suite of rooms frescoed by Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel with its famous ceiling by Michelangelo.
A visit to the Vatican Museums would ordinarily involve a lot of queueing in the hot sun, a lot of walking and an awful lot of people, around 20,000 visitors each day! But thanks to the Vatican Museum’s Virtual Tour you can enjoy some of the most famous features from the comfort of your own home.
The Vatican Museums’ virtual tour is a marvel in itself, incredibly easy to use, the simple controls allow the viewer to explore each of the areas covered in incredible detail.
Not So Fast!
Before you go rushing off to explore, here are some things to look out for.
Pio Clementino Museum – The Gilded Hercules
The Pio-Clementino museum houses some of the best examples of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures found anywhere in the world. The museum is named after the two popes who oversaw its foundation in the late 1700’s: Clement XIV and Pius VI.
In the Museum’s Rotunda Room (straight ahead on the virtual tour), you’ll find a magnificent gilded bronze statue of Hercules. This statue was found in 1864 near to Pompey’s Theatre. The statue wasn’t so much lost to history as it was deliberately buried. This magnificent relic was discovered lying horizontally in a trench and covered by a slab of travertine marble on which the letters F C S (Fulgur Conditum Summanium) had been cut. This indicated that the statue had been struck by lightning and, following the Roman custom, had been granted a ritual burial together with the remains of a lamb. The statue depicts a young Heracles leaning on his club, with the skin of the Nemean lion over his arm, and the apples of the Hesperides in his left hand. The work was, perhaps, inspired by a model from the Attic School of between 390 and 370 B.C. and has been variously dated to between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 3rd century A.D.
Before leaving the Rotunda Room look up, the doomed ceiling is modelled after The Pantheon, right down to oculus in the ceiling, and the decorative rosettes in each of the little niches in the dome. And then look down. The floor is also a work of art. It is made up of tiny, intricately designed mosaics from around the 2nd century and is simply stunning. These mosaics used to decorate an ancient Roman villa and are incredibly ornate and beautiful.
The Raphael Rooms – The School of Athens
Among the artistic treasures of the Vatican Museums, the four opulent suites that make up the Raphael Rooms are second only to the Sistine Chapel. Painstakingly created by artist Raphael and his students between 1508 and 1524, these four frescoed chambers were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. These rooms contain huge frescoes—foremost among them Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Many art historians and experts consider this to be one of the greatest paintings of the High Renaissance.
The painting, which is one of four depicting the themes of Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice, is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from classical antiquity. They are all together in this one painting even though they came from different places and different moments in time. That’s already whimsical in itself
but what Raphael did was even more fun. He put the faces of his fellow artists in the painting: Plato, in the centre talking to Aristotle, has Leonardo Da Vinci’s face. Another Renaissance master, Donato Bramante appears on Euclid’s body (he’s the one drawing on a chalkboard.) Raphael himself is in there, on the bottom right corner, looking out at us. And, while Raphael was painting this extraordinary masterpiece, he popped into the Sistine Chapel and saw what Michelangelo was doing … and put Michelangelo front and centre of The School of Athens, in the form of the Greek philosopher Heracleitus (he is the one resting his head on his arm, and with boots on, sitting on the steps.)
In a tour that’s pretty much jam-packed with highlights the Sistine Chapel is the ultimate showstopper. The grand chapel was built from 1475-1481 at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV. As well as being home to some of the most famous art in history the Sistine Chapel also serves an important religious function, most notably as the place where the cardinals meet to elect a new pope.
The Sistine Chapel is one of the most popular tourist attractions on earth and on any given day you could be sharing the room with 2000 other visitors. So why not enjoy this opportunity for a private viewing.
The Ceiling – The Creation of Adam
The one image that everyone who has come to this vast archive of human creativity wants to see is, perhaps fittingly, The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. The painting captures the moment when God reaches out and with a single touch imbues his creation with that indefinable commodity, a soul. It is one of the most famous images in history and one that resonates deeply within us all. The ceiling, which is made up of nine panels depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.
The chapel’s walls also boast some incredible artwork. Painted in 1481–82 by probably the greatest team of interior decorators ever assembled – Renaissance artists, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Perugino and Luca Signorelli. On the left the images represent events in the life of Moses and on the right, the life of Christ. Highlights include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ and Perugino’s Handing Over of the Keys.
The Altar – The Last Judgement
Michelangelo’s other great masterpiece in this room is the giant fresco above the altar, the image of The Last Judgement dominates the space. Painted between 1535 and 1541.
The painting shows the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment (Revelation of John.) The figure of Christ is in the centre actively handing down his judgement. On the bottom left are the souls selected for passage to heaven, and on the bottom right, are the damned souls being transported to hell by Charon on the river Styx.
Michelangelo was in his sixties by the time he created this piece. He’d become much more devout as he’d gotten older, and had a lot of inner conflict about his younger, more radical days. So the painting has a considerably darker feeling about it than the ceiling panels. And, if you look closely at the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, just below Jesus and to the right, you can see that it is Michelangelo’s face. It was his way of atoning.
The Virtual Tour often begins in the centre of the exhibition so be sure to explore what’s behind you as well as what’s in front of you. Use the left and right buttons on the edges of the menu to move from one area to another.