The Vatican Museums: Not just the Sistine Chapel

by Agnes Crawford

Anyone visiting Rome over the next week or so may have been dismayed to find that at 1pm today the Sistine Chapel closed to allow preparations for the conclave to take place, and will remain closed as long as is necessary. The next time it opens there will be a new Pope. When the last conclave took place in 2005, I was a guide in Rome (though Understanding Rome didn’t yet exist), and I remember the Chapel remained off bounds to the public for two weeks. The Vatican likes to remind us that the Chapel has another, and far more lofty, principal function than our visit.

If, however, the Sistine Chapel being off the itinerary puts you off visiting the Vatican Museums, think again. It’s an excellent opportunity to explore the other areas of one of the finest museums in the world. Plus, if my experience in 2005 is anything to go by, the place will be all but deserted.

On this occasion, one of the sections of the Museums which is often overlooked by visitors for reasons of time and stamina should be your first port of call. The Vatican picture gallery (Pinacoteca) is a prime candidate for the best smallish (15 main rooms) gallery in the world. Arranged in chronological order it’s a roller-coaster zipping you through the history of western art from Giotto to Pompeo Batoni, taking in Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Raphael (a roomful), Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and Caravaggio along the way. Oh, and did I forget to mention there’s an unfinished Leonardo too? It’s that sort of place.

Angel. Detail, apse fresco (fragmentary). Melozzo da Forlì- c.1480. Pinacoteca Vaticana

Angel. Detail, apse fresco (fragmentary). Melozzo da Forlì c.1480. Pinacoteca Vaticana

Among my absolute favourites in the Pinacoteca are several sections of fresco by Melozzo da Forlì. Commissioned for the apse of the church of the Santi Apostoli near piazza Venezia by Cardinal Bessarion (for whom Melozzo also painted this funerary chapel in the same church), they were part of the scene of the Ascension of Christ.

Originally the fragments we see here were focused on the central figure of Christ (now in the Quirinal Palace). In the heavens angels play musical instruments, and below the apostles gaze upwards. All of these figures were designed to be seen high in the apse, the angels and Christ above the apostles, and all of them above the earth-bound viewer anchored by gravity to the cold marble floor of the church.

Melozzo’s technique of sotto in su (from below, looking up) is exquisite, and whilst the cherubic angel above is a sort of poster boy for this room, I find it is in the features of the apostles that an almost heart-breaking beauty can be found.

Apostle. Detail, apse frescoes (fragmentary) c.1480. Melozzo da Forlì.

Apostle. Detail, apse frescoes (fragmentary). Melozzo da Forlì c.1480. Pinacoteca Vaticana.

A visit to the Pinacoteca plus the Raphael rooms should sate even the most vigorous thirst for painting. And you’ll be able to explore these masterpieces knowing that but a stone’s throw away 115 cardinals are engaged in the election of the next pope, and history is being made.

Vatican Museums,

viale Vaticano

16 euros (20 euros with online reservations)