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Vatican Museum highlights – 12 must see art and sculpture exhibits


The Vatican Museum collection has 70,000 paintings, sculptures, statues, and other artifacts out of which 20,000 are on display.

The easiest way to see the best of Vatican Museum is to hire a Vatican Museum guide and let them show you the masterpieces.

Here are the must-see items in the Vatican Museum which we recommend –

The Bramante Staircase

There are two Bramante Staircases in the Vatican – the original, designed by Donato Bramante in 1505, and the modern version designed by architect Giuseppe Momo in 1932.

The original Bramante is not open to visitors, but during your visit to the Vatican, you must try out the modern version.

The double helix design allows people to go up and down without crossing each other.

Since this staircase is not in the original path of a regular visitor, you will have to indulge in a small detour.

The moment you come into the Vatican Museum, up the escalators, you will spot a gift-shop on your right.

Once you step into the shop, you will see the staircase (you don’t need to buy anything!).

Important: Explore the Bramante staircase for as long as you want, but DO NOT go down the stairs. These stairs lead to the exit, and once you are out, you can’t re-enter.

Raphael’s Transfiguration

Raphaels Transfiguration

This painting by Raphael is in Vatican Pinacoteca (Art Gallery) and depicts Jesus Christ as both human and God.

The painting has two distinct parts – the light-colored top half depicts Jesus and his serenity while the dark bottom half represents Earth with all its problems.

The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, who went on to become Pope Clement VII.

Raphael died before he could finish this painting.


Image: pixabay.com

The Laocoön is a group of statues, showing two sea serpents sent by the Gods in the process of killing Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons.

This sculpture is from 30 BC and was found in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.

This exhibit is one of the most exquisite Vatican museum statues, and hence a must-see.

Apollo Belvedere

The Apollo Belvedere is a marble sculpture and is a must-see because of three reasons:

– Till recently it was considered one of the most magnificent ancient sculptures ever made. 

– It was the first piece in the art collection of the Vatican – even before Vatican Museums was set up

– It was Napolean Bonaparte’s favorite sculpture, and he took it with him to The Louvre. After his defeat, the statue came back to the Vatican.

The Rome Tourist Pass is a super saver. For just €87 per person, the pass includes entry tickets to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Pantheon and a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. You also get a 10% discount code, which you can use (five times!) to get discounts on future purchases.

Visual Story: 14 must-know tips before visiting Vatican Museum

The Rotunda Room

Sala Rotonda (Rotunda Room) resembles the Pantheon of Paris, but is smaller in size.

During your visit to the Vatican Museum, do not miss out the Oculus in the ceiling and decorative rosettes in the dome.

Stunning 2nd-century mosaics decorate the floor and the Porphyry Basin is in the center.

Surprisingly these intricate designs are intact and haven’t lost their color.

Porphyry Basin

The Porphyry Basin is in the center of the Rotunda Room.

It is a giant basin with a diameter of 13 meters (42.6 feet), carved out of an igneous rock (a rock created from molten lava).

Porphyry Basin
Image: Eric Kopsch

The word ‘Porphyry’ comes from the Greek word for ‘Purple,’ the color meant for Roman royalty.

Tickets/Tours Cost
Basic Vatican Museum ticket €29
Guided tour of Vatican Museum €36
Guided tour with dedicated entrance €79
Private tour of Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel & St. Peter’s €200
Vatican + Colosseum + St. Peter’s Basilica €115

Tourists who are short on time book the Colosseum and Vatican combo tour and see both attractions in a day. While others prefer to see the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain on the same day.

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens is in the Papal Apartments and is one of the most exquisite Vatican Museum paintings.

In 1508, Raphael was hired to paint a room called Stanza della Segnatura. 

He decided to come up with one painting for each wall on the themes Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice.

‘The School of Athens’ represents Philosophy and is a fantasy gathering of famous personalities from different era and locations.

Some of the personalities featured in The School of Athens are Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Heracleitus, and Raphael himself.

Pinecone Courtyard

Pinecone Courtyard at Vatican Museum

Pine Courtyard gets its name from the 1st century BC gigantic bronze pinecone which sits at one end of the square.

The 13-foot high Pinecone, which was once a giant fountain, is flanked by two peacocks.

Karolinapatryk / Getty

Also known as Cortile Della Pigna, this area has yet another attraction – a Gold sphere called Sfera con Sfera (Sphere within a Sphere).

The Tapestries Hall

The Tapestries Hall
Image: Romewise.com

Also known as Galleria degli Arazzi, the Tapestry Hall is an essential part of the Vatican Museum collection.

Once you are in the Hall, look up at the roof – it may seem as if the roof is in 3D, but it is a painting.

On the walls of this Hall, you will find tapestries from two different periods and regions.

On the right, you will see 17th-century tapestries made in Rome, depicting the life of Pope Urban VIII (Barberini).

On the left, tapestries woven in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s School are on display.

Weavers in Belgium used silk, wool, gold, and silver threads to make these tapestries during the pontification of Clement VII.

The tapestries depict the life of Jesus and were woven based on drawings by ace painter Raphael’s students.

The Maps Room

The Maps room is also known as Galleria delle Carte Geografiche and contains a series of painted topographical maps depicting Italy and its provinces.

This Gallery measures 120 meters (393 feet), and that’s longer than a football field.

It took Dominican Monk and Geographer Ignazio Danzi three years to complete the 40 panels each 15 by 16 feet in size.

Tip: Don’t forget to look up to see the stunning paintings which adorn the ceiling.

The Papal Apartments

Back in the days, the Popes lived inside what is now the Vatican Museums.

These residences are collectively called ‘The Papal Apartments.’

The two most important ones are:

Borgia apartments

The Borgia Apartment consists of six rooms, which were decorated by Italian painter Pinturicchio, on the request of Pope Alexander VI.

Pinturicchio painted the frescos between 1492 and 1494.

Raphael rooms

The four Raphael Rooms are right above the Borgia Apartments.

Raphael started decorating these rooms in 1508, but couldn’t finish the task.

After Raphael’s death in 1520, his assistants finished Sala di Costantino, the last room.

Along with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s work in these rooms mark High Renaissance in Rome.

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel
Image: Calvin Craig

The Sistine Chapel is at the very end of the Vatican Museums.

If you book a guided tour, the guide explains everything outside the Chapel.

Once inside, everybody is expected to be quiet.

If you are on your own, remember to look for the following four exhibits –

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

Between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo painted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis on the roof of Sistine Chapel.

And the most famous painting in this series is The Creation of Adam.

In terms of popularity, it is equal to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement

The Sistine Chapel also plays host to Michelangelo’s yet another masterpiece – The Last Judgement.

It covers the altar wall of the Chapel and is one of the most beautiful Vatican Museum paintings.

The Last Judgement was painted between 1535 and 1541 when Michelangelo was in his sixties.

The Cosmatesque floor

In all the excitement of looking up, do not miss out on the fantastic ‘Cosmatesque’ floor patterns of Sistine Chapel.

This geometric stonework technique inlaid various shapes and sizes of stones to create never-before patterns on the floor.

The Cosmati family used this style to decorate church floors in Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries hence the name ‘Cosmatesque.’

The wall panels

The walls of the Sistine Chapel have masterpieces by many Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Pietro Perugino, and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

In all the excitement of seeing Michelangelo’s work, visitors tend to miss these frescos depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses.

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Tourist attractions in Rome

Pompeii Colosseum Vatican Museums
Sistine Chapel St Peters Basilica Roman Forum
Capitoline Museum Castel Sant Angelo Borghese Gallery
Catacombs of Rome Pantheon Rome Mamertine Prison
Da Vinci Experience Gladiator School Aquafelix Waterpark
Catacombs of San Sebastiano Catacombs of Priscilla Callixtus Catacombs
Museum of Illusions Palace of Castel Gandolfo Zoomarine Rome
Trevi Fountain Capuchin Crypt Villa d’Este in Tivoli
Domus Aurea Olympic Stadium Palazzo Colonna
Villa Adriana Bioparco di Roma Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Basilica of San Giovanni National Etruscan Museum Stadium of Domitian
Da Vinci Exhibition La Traviata Opera Palazzo Cipolla

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This article was researched & written by

Edited by Rekha Rajan & fact checked by Jamshed V Rajan

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