Italian Government Tourist Board - North America

ITALY NEWS # 51 - May 5th, 2008

Art in the Vatican City


Art in the Vatican City

With its many and disparate treasures and a 17th centuries long history at its back, the Vatican city represents the cradle of the Catholic Church and Christianity.

The Basilica of St. Peter

is the most prominent building inside the Vatican City and the largest church in Christianity. Saint Peter was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Roman Catholic tradition, also the first Bishop of Rome.

Even though historians tell about the existence of a first church on this site dating back to the 4th century, the construction of the current basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on 1506 and was completed in 1626. The imposing facade of the basilica was designed by Maderno and built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by statues of Christ, John the Baptist, and eleven of the apostles.

Five portals give access to the basilica, of which three are framed by huge salvaged antique columns. Inside the Basilica the visitor will find on the first right Michelangelo’s suffered rendering of the Madonna and dead Christ (La Pietà).  Walking up the nave the visitor will see, marked on the pavement, the lengths of other basilicas from the entire world, shorter of course than St.Peter. As soon as one reaches  the center of the Basilica, directly under the dome, will find the masterpiece of an artist,  who  was to become regarded as the greatest architect and sculptor of the Baroque period; GianLorenzo  Bernini's  baldacchino, sustained by four spiral columns which are replicas of the ones of the Temple of Solomon, rises from the most sacred part of the church, the tomb of St Peter, and overshadows the papal altar. To the right of the baldacchino a stairway leads down to the Grotte Vaticane, a maze of corridors that run on the remains of the ancient basilica, containing the tombs of several popes.  

Walking out of the basilica on the right side of the portico is the entrance to the Cupola; St. Peter's dome rises to a total height of 136.57 m., and it is the tallest dome in the world; the long climb up to the rooftop (an elevator will drop you off half way up) offers one of the greatest view over the “eternal city”.

Even though the Basilica alone is impressive enough surrounded as it is by its huge dome (Cupola)by Michelangelo, it is given an even more majestic surround  defined  as it is by its enormous elliptical Piazza (Piazza San Pietro) designed by Bernini between 1656 and 1667 for Pope Alexander VII. The piazza is embellished by two semicircular wings (known as Bernini’s colonnade) which spread out, as a symbolic representation of the arms of the Roman Catholic Church reaching out to welcome its community. The central part of the Piazza is dominated by an Egyptian obelisk placed here on request of pope Sixtus V and by two fountains by Maderno and della Fontana. Try to stand on one of the two circles marked on the pavement near the fountains to see the colonnade, (which is actually formed by a line of four columns), appearing like a single row.

Nowadays a long wide street, the Via della Conciliazione, built by Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties, leads from the River Tiber to the piazza and gives distant views of St. Peter's as the visitor approaches offering one of the most stunning panoramas in the world.

 The Sistine Chapel

represents undoubtedly the most famous artistic treasure of the Vatican city and of the whole world. Its walls and ceiling offer to the visitors masterpieces from the major masters of the Italian Reinassance: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Perugino and Ghirlandaio.

Subsequently, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a series of tapestries to hang around the lower tier of the walls. These depict the lives of the two leaders among the Apostles who established the Christian church in Rome, Saints Peter and Paul.

The Last Judgment was painted by Michelangelo from 1535-1541 being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese. The work is massive and spans the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse. The souls of humanity rise and descend to their fates as judged by Christ and his saintly entourage. A curiosity is to be found in noticing Michelangelo’s self portrait depicted on a flayed skin held up by St. Bartholomew.

Together with its artistic richness, the Sistine Chapel is also worldwide known as the site where the Conclave, the gathering of the cardinals for the election of a new pope, takes place.

Follow the long line crowded behind the imposing walls designed by Michelangelo and you will reach

the Vatican Museums

entrance. Entering the museum follow the color coded routes which will lead the visitor to determinate spots depending on his preferences; the routes vary from a length of 90 minutes to 5 hours.

The Raphael rooms which formerly functioned as papal apartments,  are adorned with frescoes masterpieces from the genius of Raphael Sanzio. The first room the visitor will walk in is named Hall of Constantine, the Stanza di Eliodoro which features frescoes over the relationship between the Catholic Church and God, the Stanza della Segnatura, which preserves the world famous fresco known as “The Athen’s school” , and the last room known as  Stanza dell’Incendio di borgo owes its name from the fresco showing the fire in the Borgo.

Walking across the courtyard, entering the Museo Pio Clementino di Scultura  are located some of the most impressive works from Ancient Greece such as the Apollo del Belvedere and the Lacoonte group dating back to 1ST  century AD; THE Museo Chiarimonti also displays a magnificent row of Classical statues.

The Pinacoteca, located near the exit, features a huge collection of paintings, from Italy’s Reinassance  artists such as Beato Angelico, Perugino, Punturicchio through the art of XVI and XVII centuries with works by Leonardo, Caravaggio and Bellini; it also includes the Stefaneschi triptych by Giotto.

Visitors that will opt for a wider route into the museums should also take a look at the other three museums of the complex: The Egyptian Collection, The Etruscan Collection and the Gregorio Porfano Museum.



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