The Vatican Museum holds so many treasures, including the world famous Sistine Chapel and the breathtaking Gallery of Maps and Raphael Rooms. We wanted to beat the crowds and make the most of our time there, so we chose a pre-opening tour of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s and the Vatican with The Roman Guy.
I’m quite an independent traveller but there are so many advantages of doing a tour of the Vatican. For one, only tours can enter before 9 am when the general public are admitted, plus you get so much more insight into the history of the site. The Privileged Entrance Tour starts at 7.30 am so you have a huge head start on the crowds and will get to see the rooms in much greater detail. We were handed headsets which meant that we could clearly hear our tour guide but didn’t have to stand right next to them at all times, allowing us the freedom to move around as we wished. The Gallery of Maps is a breathtaking sight – 40 maps painted between 1580 and 1585, representing the Italian regions and papal properties at the time of Pope Gregory XIII.
Moving on, we were surprised to find such a large green space inside the Vatican – but apparently this is just one of three – the Courtyard of the Pigna or Pinecone, with a modern sphere sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro.
The Sphere within a Sphere is an impressive bronze statue also known as Sfera con Sfera. Its huge fractured surface can rotate around with a bit of a push, as you’ll see our guide doing on the right in the second photo.
There are four Raphael Rooms, renowned for their frescoes and painted by Raphael and his workshop. Originally intended as apartments for Pope Julius II, he commissioned the young artist Raphael to redecorate the interiors and once completed this room was used for private audiences with the Pope. This vibrant ceiling detail is from the Stanza di Eliodoro or Room of Heliodorus.
This scene depicts the coronation of Charlemagne the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo or Room of the Fire in the Borgo. It is thought that Raphael made the designs for this fresco, but that it was probably painted by Gianfrancesco Penni.
You are not permitted to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, which whilst annoying for some, might be a good thing in that you can really concentrate on the work itself rather than trying to get the best photo angle. Reluctantly painted by Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, it is nonetheless one of the finest Renaissance artworks you’ll ever see. When you visit before general admission, you’ll get a peaceful moment admiring the chapel, but come back again a few hours later as we did and you’ll see quite a difference! We took a sideways peek at the magnificent Scala Regia or Royal Stairs, which is not open to the public, as it’s the formal entrance to the Vatican. It was restored by the famous artist and architect Bernini from 1663, who found a novel solution to the dark, awkwardly shaped tunnel staircase, by vaulting the tunnel, supporting it with columns and narrowing them at the end of the vista in order to exaggerate the distance.
Entering St Peter’s Basilica, you’re struck by the sheer scale of it. One of the two largest churches in the world (the other is in Brazil), it’s widely regarded as the best example of Renaissance architecture. It isn’t a cathedral, as you might think, and it isn’t the mother church of the Roman Catholic church, which happens to be San Giovanni in Laterano. Due to its location next to the Pope’s residence, most of the Church’s major ceremonies are held here nevertheless. The gold coffered ceiling of the nave, created by Maderno, is flooded with natural daylight.
The way that the light pours through the cathedral is stunning, and since a new LED system was installed in 2014 it’s light throughout the cathedral. You can take photos of the interiors and even the paintings, since they are all actually mosaics!
Don’t forget to go and find the Swiss Guards that I mentioned earlier, especially if you are a single lady – according to their job description they have to be tall, single, handsome and Swiss of course. They’re allowed to talk to visitors and are very friendly.
I’d highly recommend the Privileged Entrance Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Tour by The Roman Guy, you’ll save a lot of time and get to see the sights in style. Remember to cover shoulders and knees and to take comfortable shoes for the tour. The next day we did another of The Roman Guy’s tours to The Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, where we saw the deadly new machine that had just opened…