A Tour of The Vatican Museums – Part 1

It was the first day of our two week journey to Italy. I was overcome with excitement. Today was the day I would finally get to see the Vatican museums, a maze of rooms filled with priceless treasures spanning more than 2,000 years, made by some of the most famous artists who have ever lived. In just a few hours time I would be standing in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the world’s oldest and most important churches. And I would finally have the chance to gaze up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I was so full of excitement, not even jet lag could slow me down.

The Walls of the Vatican

After a quick breakfast at the Trionfale Market (see post here), we made the quick walk to the Risorgimento Square to meet up with our tour group. We had booked a tour with a company called “Walks of Italy” (https://www.walksofitaly.com/vatican-tours/complete-vatican-tour). I could feel the excitement in the air as the group of 20 people began to gather in the square. We were greeted by our guide, a lovely Italian woman in her mid 30’s who had a degree in Ancient Roman history. She motioned for us to follow her across the street toward the steep walls of the Vatican. There were already throngs of people lining up in the hot sun. The line had already grown to about 10,000 people. I suddenly felt relieved that I had chosen to book the tour, which allowed us to skip past the line. I found out later that day that the Prime Minister of Poland as well as a large political delegation were visiting the Vatican that day, resulting in an unusually high number of people passing through the halls of the Vatican museums, around 29,000 people.

Crowd at the Vatican Museums

We walked past the crowd, following our guide’s makeshift flag, a pink silk scarf tied to the end of a pole. She went inside to obtain our passes then quickly returned, beckoning us to follow her through the doors of the museum. I could hardly contain my excitement!

Entrance to the Vatican Museums & pink tour flag

After passing through security, we entered into an atrium called the “Atrio dei Quattro Cancelli,” the “Atrium of the Four Gates,” a beautiful room filled with natural light, with four distinct corners. The atrium had been built during the 18th century, designed by the famous Roman artchitect Guiseppe Camporese. It had once served as an entrance for wealthy patrons of the Catholic church, the only people allowed to visit the museums at that time.

“Atrio dei Quattro Cancelli” “Atrium of the Four Gates”

The atrium led to a large courtyard called the “Cortile della Pigna,” the “Courtyard of the Pine Cone.”

View from the Courtyard of the Pine Cone

On one end of the courtyard stood a gigantic pine cone made of bronze standing almost 13 feet tall. It was surrounded by a beautiful fountain and two bronze peacocks on either side.

Giant Bronze “Pigna” “Pinecone”

The pinecone, fountain and peacocks were all part of the same set, dating from Roman times. The pine cone had once been a finial decoration on the top of Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, then later moved to the Temple of Isis near the Pantheon where it stood atop a fountain, water spouting out its top. In the ancient world, pine cones were symbols of eternal life, thus its presence at the Temple of Isis, the temple of the cult devoted to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the underworld.

“Fontana della Pigna” “Fountain of the Pinecone”

The pine cone fountain were located inside a giant half dome, called a “Nicchione,” th “Great Niche,” which was designed during by architect Pirro Ligorio during the 17th century. He used the giant niche inside the Pantheon as an inspiration for designing the niche in this beautiful courtyard, making what became the largest niche ever to be built since the time of ancient Rome.

The “Nicchione” the “Great Niche” of the pinecone

On each side of the pine cone were recreations of bronze peacocks which had also stood atop Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, but can now be found inside the museum in the Chiaramonti Museum.

Bronze Peacocks

There were also two bronze lions from Babylon just below the fountain, also recreations. The originals had long ago been moved into the Chiaramonti as well.

Babylonian Lions in the “Cortile della Pigna” “Courtyard of the Pinecone”

In the center of the courtyard stood a giant, round bronze sculpture from the modern era called the “Sfera con Sfera,” “Sphere within a Sphere,” designed by sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro in the mid 1990’s.

“Sfera con Sfera,” “Sphere within a Sphere”

Also on display in the courtyard was the Head of Emperor Augustus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, who became the first emperor of Rome in 30 B.C. The head was all that remained of this colossal marble statue which was found in the early 16th century and added to the Vatican museums.

The Head of Emperor Augustus

Standing on the edge of the courtyard I took one look back at the giant pine cone, reminding myself to take it all in. We were about to enter the museum’s Chiaramonti Wing where were would see some of the greatest works of art ever created, treasures obtained by the Catholic during an era when it was amassing great wealth which it used it to obtain important works of art from through out antiquity.


More stories coming…