Last Updated on April 30, 2021
What is a trip to the Vatican in Rome without seeing Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel?
The Vatican Museums are the 54 museums of the Vatican City that are all located within the boundaries of the city. Within the museums you will find works of art from collections built up by the Popes throughout the centuries and these collections include some of the most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the entire world. The incredible Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was decorated by Michelangelo and the Stanze della Segnatura was decorated by Raphael.
The museums were first founded in the 16th century by Pope Julius II. In 2013, the museums were visited by 5.5 million people, which combined makes it the 5th most visited art museum in the world.
Walking through so many museums can be enough to make your head spin and miss many details. How much do you remember about your visit to the Vatican?
Explore 11 things you may not have known about the Vatican:
1. The Vatican is its own country – and is the smallest country in the world. There are only about 800 residents, with even fewer citizens. It is interesting to note that Vatican citizenship is not guaranteed by birth, but instead by appointment, and also ends when a citizen discontinues residency.
2. St. Peter’s Basilica sits atop a city of the dead – In pagan times, a Roman necropolis stood on Vatican Hill. In A.D. 64, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for a fire that caused much of Rome to become leveled. Christians were executed by either burning them at the stake, tearing them apart with wild beasts, or crucifying them. Among the Christians that were crucified was St. Peter, known as a disciple of Jesus Christ,leader of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome. St. Peter is said to have been buried in a shallow grave on Vatican Hill. It took until the fourth century and the official recognition of the Christian religion within Rome for Emperor Constantine to start the building of the original basilica, atop the ancient burial ground, where the tomb of St.Peter is said to be at its centre. The basilica you see today, that was constructed in the 1500’s sits over the catacombs, including what is believed to be St. Peter’s grave.
3. The Vatican Museums contain one of the largest art collections in the world. There are over 9 miles of art pieces. Its 1400 rooms, chapels, and galleries are the former wings of the Vatican Palace.
4. For nearly 60 years in the 1800s and 1900s, Popes refused to leave the Vatican.
Popes ruled over a collection of sovereign Papal States throughout central Italy until the country was unified in 1870. All the land of the Papal States was seized, except a small patch of the Vatican. This caused cold war to break out between the church and the Italian government, leading Popes to refuse to recognize the authority of the Kingdom of Italy. For almost 60 years Popes refused to leave the Vatican and submit to the Italian government. Even when Italian troops were present in St. Peter’s Square, Popes refused to give blessings or appear from the balcony.
5. Every Wednesday morning the Pope holds a Papal Audience where he addresses the public in multiple languages and concludes with a final blessing of people and objects.
6. The Swiss Guard was hired as a mercenary force. The Swiss Guard, easily recognizable by the armor and colorful Renaissance-era uniforms, has been protecting the pontiff since 1506. The Swiss Guard’s purpose in the Vatican City is strictly to protect the safety of the Pope. The Guards may seem to to be strictly ceremonial but its soldiers are actually extensively trained and highly skilled marksmen. Even today the force is entirely comprised of Swiss citizens.
7. Michelangelo’s attention to detail is easily and often overlooked. The tree from which Eve plucks the forbidden fruit in the Sistine Chapel is actually a fig tree, not an apple tree, as determined by the shapes of its leaves.
8. At several times during the Vatican’s history, Popes escaped through a secret passageway.
In 1277, a half-mile-long elevated covered passageway, the Passetto di Borgo, was constructed to link the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for popes. In 1527, having the escape route saved the life of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. While the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V rampaged through the city and murdered priests and nuns, the Swiss Guard was able to ensure the enemy was held back long enough to enable Clement to safely reach the Castel Sant’Angelo. Sadly, 147 of the Pope’s forces lost their lives in the battle.
9. The Pieta statue, located just to the right of the entrance of St. Peter’s is one of the only statues to have been signed by its creator. Michelangelo overheard two clergymen talk about how they found it hard to believe that that such a young artist could make such a masterpiece. This caused Michelangelo to sneak into the Vatican and carve his name in the sash of the Virgin Mary.
10. The Vatican Observatory owns a telescope in Arizona. As Rome continued to grow, the pollution caused made it difficult for astronomers at the Vatican Observatory to view the night skies.
So, in 1981 the observatory opened an additional research center in Tucson, Arizona. Arizona is where the Vatican conducts astronomical research with a state-of-the-art telescope that sits atop Mount Graham in southeast Arizona.
11. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world. To prove this, the Church has actually placed the measurements of the largest churches in the world in the marble of the Nave to show that it is possible for all other basilicas to fit within the Basilica.
The highlight of our trip to the Vatican museums was definitely witnessing the Sistine Chapel. No photos are allowed and you could continually hear guards over the loud noise of the swarms of people making their way through shouting “No photo!” as people who did not respect the preservation policy snapped away anyways. Michelangelo’s art is truly breath-taking.
Have you visited the Vatican before? What were your thoughts and highlights of your visit?