Credit to Gregorio Borgia

A brief History of the Vatican Museums

For over 500 years, the Vatican Museums have been a treasure trove of art and culture, capturing the imagination of millions of visitors from around the world. From its humble origins as a collection of sculptures, over the centuries the museums have grown into a vast complex of galleries, chapels and courtyards where some of the world's most renowned masterpieces are on display.

The Vatican Museums has a history of over five centuries, having celebrated their 500th anniversary in 2006. While they were officially established by Pope Julius II in the early 1500s, the pontifical collection had begun far earlier. Specifically, it was during the reign of Pope Nicholas V, in the mid-15th century, when the first steps were made towards establishing a museum in the Vatican.

In 1447, Fra Angelico was tasked to decorate the Pope’s private chapel, later to be known as the Niccoline Chapel, in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The frescoes of Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence, were followed up with the decoration of the so-called Borgia Apartment with paintings by Bernardino di Betto that were commissioned by Pope Alexander VI.

The first exhibit

By the early 16th century, the Catholic Church’s collection of antiquities had grown significantly, Pope Julius II decided to publicly display some of the Vatican’s most prized pieces. The exhibits in the Cortile delle Statue included the ancient marble sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons and the Belvedere Apollo. With this first public exhibition in 1506, the story of the Vatican Museums officially begins.

A couple years later, Julius II set forward his ambitious plans for the decoration of the old Great Chapel, which had been renamed the Sistine Chapel in honor of Pope Sixtus IV. Many well-known artists of the era, such as Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Cosimo Rosselli, worked on the side panels, lunettes and other details. The iconic ceiling portraying scenes from Genesis and the Last Judgment on the altar wall, however, were famously painted by Michelangelo. You can read more about the Sistine Chapel frescoes in our blog post.

Beyond the Sistine Chapel

During the same period, the upcoming and revolutionary Raphael painted four rooms that were to serve as the private quarters of Pope Julius II. Depicting scenes from classical mythology, as well as religious and historical events, the Raphael Rooms, reflected the pope’s power and patronage of the arts.

The next major addition to the Vatican Museums, during the papacy of Pope Gregory XIII, was the Gallery of Maps – a collection of 40 large maps of Italy and its islands. The topographical maps were based on designs by mathematician and astronomer Ignazio Danti and painted by artists such as Girolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia.

The late 18th century was a pivotal era for the Vatican Museums, with Pope Clement XIV and Pope Pius VI developing the Corile delle Statue into the Octagonal Court. During this period many archeological excavations took place in Rome, so the pontifical collection expanded greatly. As a result, the Pio-Clementine Museum was established to safeguard and study the ancient Greek and Roman antiquities.

From crisis, to rebirth

Following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the Papal States signed a peace treaty with France in 1797 and were forced to hand over many of the paintings from the Vatican Museums. Pope Pius VII, however, founded the Chiaramonti Museum in 1806 with a mission to restore and develop the pontifical collection. After the fall of Napoleon, many of the seized masterpieces were returned to the Vatican, so the Pope decided to create a New Wing in 1822 to rearrange and exhibit the expanded collection.

Further additions to the Vatican Museums came soon after, when Gregory XVI established the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in 1837 and the Gregorian Egyptian Museum in 1839. These two new museums were dedicated to excavation findings from ancient Egypt and Etruria. A few years later, in 1844, Gregory XVI also created the Profane Gregorian Museum which showcased statues, mosaics and other artifacts from ancient Rome. The extra space allowed for many of these pagan antiquities to be exhibited for the very first time.

In the late 19th century Pope Pius IX founded the Pius-Christian Museum in the Lateran Palace to house archeological findings, such as sculptures, reliefs and inscriptions, from the early Christian communities. He later commissioned Francesco Podesti to decorate the Room of the Immaculate Conception, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

An intersection of art and religion

Over the centuries, the Vatican’s collection of paintings had grown significantly, but there was not enough space available to display everything. This all changed in 1932, when Pope Pius XI created the Pinacoteca in the north end of the Vatican, above the Square Garden. The art gallery comprises 18 rooms that are conveniently split into different eras, spanning from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. There, visitors can find masterpieces by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Caravaggio, Giotto, Raphael, Tiziano, Melozzo da Forlì and many more.

Under Pope John XXIII it was decided to reorganize the collections of the Lateran Palace in a new building, but it was his successor, Pope Paul VI, who completed the ambitious project and created the Ethnological Museum in 1973. The same year saw the foundation of the Collection of Contemporary Art, which focuses on art from the late 19th century onwards. At present, there are over 8,000 works on display by artists as varied as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Vincent van Gogh and Francis Bacon.

The Vatican Museums today

In 1984, UNESCO listed the Vatican Museums as a World Heritage Site to celebrate their unique artistic, religious and architectural masterpieces. Major restoration works were carried out in the Vatican Museums during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, including the Sistine Chapel and the visitor entrance area. The renovations continued in the new century by Pope Benedict XVI, including the Room of the Immaculate Conception and the Pauline Chapel. In 2016, under Pope Francis, the Vatican Museums set a new record of 6 million visitors in a year and are one of the most visited destinations worldwide.

With over 70,000 works of art in its galleries, courtyards and chapels, spanning from ancient Egypt and Rome to the Renaissance and contemporary times, the Vatican Museums offer a unique glimpse into the development of culture and spirituality in the West. The Vatican Museums, however, are far more than just a collection of artworks - they are a reflection of humanity itself.