The Museums of the Vatican

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Published: 10th February 2011
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The Vatican Museums have become so crowded that the authorities have had to resort to four color coded tours to impose order. The only one that covers all the important sights is the yellow tour, which supposedly lasts five hours, but by following the yellow route and stopping only at the highlights listed below you can cut that time in half. (Ticket sales stop at 1 :30 P.M. except at Easter and from July to September, when they stop at 3:30. The museums are closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of the month, when they're free. Wear comfortable shoes; take binoculars and a fan.)

The Egyptian Museum. Head straight for Room V, where the most impressive relics are the colossal granite statue of Queen Tuia, mother of Ramses II, and the sandstone head of Pharaoh Menuhotep across from it. Before leaving the room, peek through the door into the outdoor niche, which con tains the giant bronze fir cone found near the Thermae of Agrippa, and to which Dante compared the giant's face (just as wide as St. Peter's cone in Rome) in the Inferno. Braccio Nuovo. Here stands the famous statue of Augustus, found in 1863 on the grounds of the dread Livia's estate at Prima Porta.

Chiaramonti Museum. Rather than dwelling on any single work of art here, take a look at the display, which was laid out in the early 19th century by Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. The realistically human portrait busts of ancient Romans are the prized objects here.

Pio Clementino Museum. Two of the most celebrated antique sculptures in the world are exhibited in Room VlII. The undisputed star is the Laocoon, described by Pliny the Elder as a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced. The first original Greek work of art to be discovered in Rome (it was un earthed in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill), it depicts a passage from the Aeneid in which Virgil describes the wrath the gods released on the priest Laocoon for warning the Trojans about the horse, sending two serpents to destroy him and his two sons. In the same room is another famous work, the Apollo Belvedere (a Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek statue once displayed in the Agora in Athens), which influenced Canova's nearby Perseus. Apollo's face came to symbolize beauty incarnate.

Father Nile is a favorite, resting on a cornucopia and a sphinx, dotted with babies. Other highlights of this museum are the Apollo Sauroktonos (Room V), the Cnidian Venus (Room VlI), the Belvedere Torso (much preferred by the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to the Apollo Belvedere; Room III), the Jupiter of Otricoli (Room II), and the sarcophagi of Helen and Constantia, mother and daughter, respectively, of Constantine (Room I).
Gregorian Etruscan Museum. Highlights in this newly re opened section are the Etruscan RegoliniGalassi Tomb (Room II) and Mars of Todi (Room III), the Greek Head of Athena and funerary stele (Room of Greek Originals), and the Greek amphora of Achilles and Ajax Playing Morra (Room XII).

Stop in the Sala della Biga (Chariot Room) for a sweeping view of St. Peter's from the window. Raphael Rooms. These four rooms were the official apartments of Julius II, who commissioned frescoes from Ra phael, the masterpiece of which is The School of Athens. According to tradition it contains portraits of Leonardo as Plato, Michelangelo as Heraclitus, and Raphael himself as the figure in the dark cap second from the extreme right. Truth, beauty, and justice were his themes throughout. The Borgia Apartments. Here, Alexander Vl had Pintu ricchio paint frescoes, of which the richly decorated Room of the Saints is considered the major work. Sistine Chapel. The chapel has been undergoing cleaning for a decade. Its most famous feature the ceiling, which depicts scenes from the Book of Genesishas been un On audience days the square is filled with religious pilgrims, often grouped together and carrying banners an nouncing their places of origin.

Even at other times the square is bustling with large scale activity, as befits a monu mental space. Tight phalanxes of black clad nuns and priests scuttle back and forth on official Vatican business. School teachers lead groups of their uniformed charges and try to distract them from the surrounding grandeur with lectures. Fatigued tourists squint at the immensity of the piazza and the facade of St. Peter's. And the occasional self contained honeymoon couple from the provinces wanders dazedly toward the basilica.

Keeping watch upon it all are the 140 stone saints above Bernini's colonnade and the 13 giant statues over the facade of St. Peter's. For aerial variation, flocks of pigeons swoop freely to and fro, and if you're especially fortunate, it's all topped off by the colossal clusters of cumulus clouds that God seems to have designed especially for Baroque Rome.
The focal point of Bernini's oval piazza is the obelisk at the center, originally from Alexandria, where it had been erected by Augustus, and brought to Rome by Caligula.

Not until much later was it erected on its present site; in 1586, chroniclers tell us, 900 men, 140 horses, and 44 winches accomplished the feat. Another account tells of a Ligurian sailor who, defying the papal order to remain silent during the dangerous enterprise, saw that the ropes were about to give out and cried, Aigua ae corde! an admonition to wet the ropes. He thus saved the day and Pope Sixtus V not only spared his life but rewarded him by starting the tradition of supplying the palms for Palm Sunday from his native port of Bordighera. Apocryphal as the tale may be, it is a charming example of the innumerable secular legends that surround the Vatican.

On either side of the obelisk spout the jets of two Ba roque fountains, and between the two fountains and the colonnades is a circle of black marble in the pavement. If the squealing schoolchildren will allow you to stand on it, look toward the colonnade and you'll see the four rows of columns blend into one.
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