Monthly Archives: March 2015

Pisa, Italy

We’d only planned a few days in Florence, and one of the main reasons for breaking up our journey through Italy en-route to Switzerland was the easy day-trip to Pisa, the local trains are frequent and take about an hour from the central Firenze SMN station to Pisa Centrale.

Us with the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

Us with the famous leaning tower of Pisa!

Situated at the mouth of the River Arno – the same river that flows through Florence – Pisa has a long history of education and is still a very prestigious place to study. It’s also the birthplace of the famous physicist, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher Galileo Galilei.

Arriving in Pisa, we headed straight for the wonderfully named Piazza dei Miracoli – literally Square or Plaza of Miracles – the location of the town’s cathedral, baptistry, cemetery and of course, the world famous leaning bell tower of Pisa.

Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy

The view as we entered the Piazza dei Miracoli – wow! We’re here and there it is.. a monument that we’ve heard of so many times and seen in so many movies and photographs. Most vividly for me is the movie Superman III where evil Superman straightens it!) – it’s almost unbelievable

Climbing the tower is by allocated time slot, and thankfully we only had to wait 10 minutes. The tour started with a seat in the main central atrium where we were given a quick but comprehensive history of the tower (in English and Italian) before we were shown the stairs to start our ascent.

Plumbline inside the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The floor of the central room is obviously sloped. This plumbline is hung from the centre of the 7th floor and almost touches the wall at head height on the ground floor! The lean of the tower has been reduced at various times over the years from 5.5° to ~4° today and is now structurally sound

Us and the stairs of the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

Unlike the staircase in St Peter’s Basilica that just leaned more and more to the right, the stairs in Pisa lean more and then less to the same way – it’s a very strange feeling! The wear on the steps moves from the middle to the left too

Us at the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The Plaza of Miracles, from the 6th floor of the leaning tower of Pisa. There’s a 7th floor but it was closed because of the really high winds that had damaged roofs, felled trees, delayed a lot of mainline trains and caused one fatality in Tuscany

View of from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, Itlay

The view from the top of the Piazza and Pisa was well worth the climb. The strong, cold winds reminded us of the first bell tower we climbed in Riga at the start of our trip almost two years ago!

After a quick spot of lunch we did the second thing that you have to do when visiting Pisa..

Propping up the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy

The obligatory, unashamedly touristy photo of Pisa ;o)

Pisa Baptistry, Italy

Just like the layout in Florence, Pisa’s Baptistry faces the main doors and is circular. It’s the largest in Italy and it’s also just a few centimetres taller than the leaning tower!

Next up we headed to the other end of the Duomo to visit the Baptistry. We really liked its half-Roman, half-ornate-Gothic exterior, and we were surprised we were able to go up into the 1st floor gallery inside. It has wonderful acoustics – the guard closes the door every half hour, stands in the middle of the room and sings a few notes that resonate for so long that he could create chords with his own voice!

Inside the Pisa Baptistry, Italy

The Baptistry contains a central octagonal font where the guard stands to demonstrate the acoustics

Pisa Cathedral, Italy

The Duomo or Cathedral of Pisa with the leaning tower peeping over its shoulder, as viewed from the gallery of the Baptistry

The central building of the Plaza of Miracles is the Pisa Cathedral. Started in 1064, inside it’s bright and airy and reminded us of Cefalù in Sicily, not least because the apse is filled with a similar Christ Pantocrator in beautiful gold mosaic. It also contains a pulpit that was sculpted between 1255-1260 by Giovanni Pisano – the classical style of the carving and sculpture is considered to be start of the Italian Renaissance (1260).

The nave of Pisa Cathedral, Italy

Pisa’s Duomo is much more impressive inside than Florence’s, the Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the nave reminded us of Cefalù in Sicily

Camposanto Monumentale, Pisa, Italy

The spacious and empty Camposanto Monumentale. The huge frescos are slowly being restored from the original drawings

The last building of the Square of Miracles we visited was the Camposanto Monumentale, or Monumental Cemetery. It’s a massive Gothic cloister full of tombs. The floor is covered in worn out gravestones, sarcophagi line up along the lower walls and above them are the remains of giant frescos that were largely lost due to a fire in World War II. It was very peaceful with few visitors and we loved the long corridors.

Tuttomondo by Keith Haring (1989), Pisa, Italy

“Tuttomondo” by Keith Haring painted in 1989 still looks bold and modern to this day and brightened up our visit to Pisa

Just a block away from the train station is the last mural by Keith Haring called “Tuttomondo” (All world), painted on the side of the S. Antonio Church buildings in 1989. We instantly recognised his simple stylised characters though we didn’t know the artist or that this was his last public work.

Pisa is a great little city. We were really surprised how ornate the leaning tower is, and that because it started leaning early in its construction, subsequent levels where built smaller on one side to try and correct the lean which means it could be more accurately described as the leaning banana tower of Pisa!

Florence, Italy

Florence is only a 1.5 hour train ride north of Rome but it feels very different to the capital, or any other Italian city we’ve visited for that matter. It’s very chic with lots of designer shops and the souvenir of choice appears to be leather goods – shoes, jackets and bags. The narrow streets and old buildings remind me a lot of my hometown of York – not to mention that it is also dominated by a monumental cathedral, albeit very different in style from York Minster.

Florence from Piazzale MichelangeloThere’s a beautiful view over the city from Piazzale Michelangelo

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flowers) is commonly known, as many cathedrals in Italy are, as the Duomo, the Dome. And you can see why. Construction of the church was begun in the 13th century but it was left incomplete with a big space at the end of the roof to accommodate a dome that they didn’t have the technology to build! In the early 15th century Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up to the task after studying the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. His design has been an influence for many others including Michelangelo’s dome on St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Capitol in Washington DC.

Florence DuomoThe magnificent orange dome above the green, pink and white marble-clad walls of the cathedral

Unfortunately the interior doesn’t live up to the glory of the exterior being for the most part a large, plainly decorated and empty space. Beside the cathedral stands the campanile, or bell tower, and opposite the main doors is the Baptistry, separate structures but in the same style as the main church so that they form a cohesive whole. We didn’t go into either of these but we spent some time admiring the relief scenes on the Baptistry’s bronze doors which are heralded as examples of early Renaissance art for their detail and perspective depth.

Campanile and BaptistryClockwise from left: the campanile; campanile wall decoration detail; bronze Baptistry doors known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’

On our first afternoon we did a walking tour of some highlights of the historic centre. From the Duomo we walked down the old main street Via Calzaiuoli to the Church of Orsanmichele. The unusual square structure of the church with no tower or dome is due to the fact that it was once a grain market whose arches were filled in to create a church in the 14th century.

Church of OrsanmicheleThe Church of Orsanmichele has two naves, I liked the right-hand side altar with its intricate tabernacle and painting of Madonna della Grazia

Evidence of the church’s former life are visible in the ceiling hooks which were used for pulleys and the former grain chutes in the wall columns which were used to move grain from the upper to lower floors. Around the church’s outer walls statues are displayed in niches, and upstairs is a museum with the originals of the statues, including one of ‘St Mark’ by Donatello.

Museum of OrsanmicheleAdmiring the original statues in the museum on the upper floor of the Church of Orsanmichele, open only on Mondays so we were lucky with our visit day

Just along the street from the Church of Orsanmichele is Piazza Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s former city hall and later home to the super-rich Medici family who by funding vast quantities of art were responsible for kickstarting the Italian Renaissance. It’s possible to go into the entrance courtyard without paying for a ticket and we’d highly recommend it for a look at the ornate decoration.

Palazzo VecchioPalazzo Vecchio

Beside Palazzo Vecchio is the famous Uffizi Gallery (which we didn’t visit having had a bit of an art overload just the week before in the Vatican Museums). We did however walk through its courtyard to the River Arno. Ponte Vecchio is the oldest of the bridges over the river dating to 1345. Its buildings were originally occupied by butchers and tanners who emptied their waste directly into the river but nowadays they contain the very fancy shops of goldsmiths and jewellers.

Ponte VecchioPonte Vecchio’s buildings overhang the River Arno

On our second day in Florence we were able to fulfil a hankering that we’ve had since our arrival in Sicily – to finally sit in, and even drive, one of the classic Fiat 500s, or Cinquecentos in Italian. As no one else had booked for the Classic Tour on that day we got a private tour with our guide Niccolo in the lead car, Giacomo, followed by us in bright blue, 54 year old Fernando. Of course the cars have names, how else would you be able to encourage them up the hills?

Jacopo and FernandoGiacomo and Fernando

Before we set off Niccolo showed us Fernando’s controls as well as giving us a lesson on the horn – one toot is angry, two to say hi, three or more if you wish to show your appreciation as you pass a beautiful lady – yep, this is Italy… We took turns at the driving and soon got used to the double clutch gear changes as we zipped (OK, trundled) through the beautiful Tuscan countryside surrounded on all sides by olive trees and vineyards which produce the famous Chianti wines.

Driving on the Fiat 500 tourDriving Fernando, our trusty Cinquecento, for the morning

Tuscan countrysideThe Tuscan countryside is dominated by vineyards

It was a lot of fun even if the brakes were quite terrifying – if you’re going downhill, even standing on the brake doesn’t seem to have much effect!

On the Fiat 500 tourUs with Fernando

That evening we had a very enjoyable dinner with our host Francesco and a couple of his friends. However, sitting down at the very Italian hour of 10pm resulted in our going to bed at 1am and wasn’t conducive to getting up for morning sightseeing. By the time we ventured out it was almost lunchtime so we went to the covered Central Market for a traditional Florentine sandwich of lampredotto, or tripe, specifically the cow’s fourth stomach… Somehow we seem to be eating more adventurously in Europe than we did in Asia. Not sure how that’s come about, but anyway with the parsley sauce and the top half of the bread bun dipped in the cooking broth the lampredotto was quite tasty.

Lampredotto sandwichLampredotto sandwich for lunch outside Florence’s Central Market

Afterwards we wandered through the aisles of the market hall enjoying the butchers, fishmongers and mounds of sun-dried tomatoes and fragrant porcini mushrooms. On the second floor under the roof were lots of quality looking eateries and a cookery school with a glass wall where we watched the students at work.

Central Market, FlorenceCentral Market (clockwise from top left): the market is housed in this impressive two floor building; lettuces; Florentine butcher; rays for sale at a fishmonger

As the stalls began to pack up for the afternoon we made our way to the Accademia Gallery. There’s really only one reason to visit this small art gallery, the statue of ‘David’ by Michelangelo. We’d already seen a couple of replicas of the famous statue, one outside Palazzo Vecchio and a bronze cast at the viewpoint of Piazzale Michelangelo, but we still wanted to see the original.

Versions of David in FlorenceVersions of ‘David’ outside Palazzo Vecchio and at Piazzale Michelangelo

The other rooms of this former convent contain various pieces of religious art, as well as a small museum of musical instruments, and then we rounded the corner to a sight we’d seen many times in pictures, the gallery leading to ‘David’.

Accademia GalleryThe gallery leading to the room containing ‘David’

Lining the sides of this gallery are some unfinished pieces by Michelangelo which are interesting as an insight into how he worked. Unlike most sculptors who make a plaster version first so that they can measure up the points on the marble, Michelangelo worked directly on the marble block from front to back believing that God guided him to reveal the figure which was already contained within.

Michelangelo's prisoners‘Prisoner’ sculptures in various states of completion

Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture depicts the biblical hero David as he prepares to fight the giant Goliath. It’s much bigger than I expected, standing 4.34m high, and dominates the room containing it.

Michelangelo's David‘David’ by Michelangelo

Details of Michelangelo's David‘David’ details (clockwise from left): the realistically bulging veins of his right hand; David gazes off into the distance; in 1991 a visitor attacked the statue with a hammer damaging the toes of the left foot

We were surprised by how much there is to do in Florence considering its small size. We’d definitely consider a second visit if only to have another plate of the local specialty T-bone steak which we had for dinner right before we caught the train further north…

Florentine steak

Rome Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Rome?

Watching the Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Us in awe of the Colosseum of Rome

The architectural symbol at the centre of Rome, the Colosseum.

Summarise Rome in three words.

  • Graffiti – it’s all over Italy, but we noticed it especially in the capital where most of what we saw was of a very high quality.
  • Empire – at its height it reached from Iran in the east to Portugal to the west, the Roman Empire’s legacy lives on over 2,000 years later.
  • Selfie – officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary 1½ years ago, Italy’s tourist sights, and Rome’s in particular are awash with street vendors offering selfie sticks. Every time they held out a telescopic aid and said “Selfie?”, the irony of it made us smile. Rome was also the first place we saw signs specifically banning their use too!

You really know you’re in Rome when…

.. you’re standing at the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, with St. Peter’s Square below and Rome spread out in front of you.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Rome?

A vivid imagination to recreate the grandeur when you’re standing in the centre of Ancient Rome. The remains of the buildings hint at their scale but we loved piecing it all back together – the Senate where laws were debated is still the model of democratic governance to this day, the Open Forum where grievances could be aired and decided on much like our modern court systems, and the circular Temple of the Vestal Virgins tending the eternal flame. Imagining the bustle really brought Rome to life.

Hidden corners of Rome

There are some headline sights in Rome but staying for a month meant we were able to sniff out a few of the city’s less well known corners as well.

Mussolini’s bunker

Where: Villa Torlonia, eastern Rome
Good for: A little WWII history

Mussolini's bunkerClockwise from left: Andrew next to one of the sealing doors of an air raid shelter; air filtration system; gas masks displayed in the bunker

It’s impossible not to notice the ancient history in Rome, but it is also possible to find reminders of its 20th century history here and there as well. We booked a tour of the bunkers at Villa Torlonia where Mussolini lived with his family from 1929 until his arrest in 1943. The tour took us through two air raid shelters and a bunker which was still under construction when Mussolini was arrested. Each was built with three exits in case debris from bombing blocked the others, and some original features still remain, for example, one of the air filtration systems and some gas masks. We were surprised to see how small the shelters are, but of course they were only designed to accommodate one family with their servants, unlike the huge Soviet bunker that we visited in Latvia or the air raid shelters in Malta and Naples.

Quartiere Coppedè

Where: Around Piazza Mincio, north-east Rome
Good for: Art Nouveau architecture

Fairy Cottage, Quartiere CoppedèThe magnificent ‘Fairy Cottage’ on Piazza Mincio

About a 15 minute walk from the Villa Torlonia we found a whole neighbourhood of elaborate Art Nouveau architecture. Designed by Gino Coppedè and bearing his name it was a bit of a surprise in Rome, and reminded us of the Art Nouveau walking tour that we did in Riga. The most elaborate buildings line Piazza Mincio with its central ‘Fountain of Frogs’, but we found others tucked away in the surrounding streets.

Quartiere Coppedè detailsQuartiere Coppedè details (clockwise from top left): Entrance arch complete with iron chandelier on Via Dora; Frog on the fountain; Romulus and Remus decoration on the ‘Fairy Cottage’; the Palace of the Spider gets its name from the decoration over its door

Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità)

Where: In the porch of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Central Rome
Good for: A fun photo

Mouth of TruthClearly Andrew tells more fibs than Julie…

OK this corner isn’t remotely hidden (there was even a 20 minute queue in the middle of February) but it’s a fun photo opportunity if you’re passing. The huge stone circle carved with the face of an ancient god originally dates to the 2nd century BC. In the Middle Ages it gained a reputation for biting off the hands of liars (possibly assisted by someone with a sword hidden behind it!), hence why everyone wants their photo taken with their hand in its mouth. You might also recognise its image from fortune telling machines at fairs, and if you haven’t seen the 1953 film Roman Holiday I highly recommend watching this clip of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visiting it.

Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

Where: Central Rome
Good for: Looking at more Caravaggio paintings

Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

Just a block away from the Pantheon, this small church has no less than three paintings by Caravaggio (the same number as the whole city of Naples!). The paintings here depict various episodes from the life of St Matthew and are housed in a side chapel, called the Contarelli Chapel, which is to the left of the main altar. The church itself is the seat of the Cardinal of Paris in Rome and, as with most of Italy’s churches, there’s no admission fee although they have cunningly left the chapel containing the Caravaggios in shadowy darkness so that if you want to see them you need to feed a nearby meter with a few coins to turn on the lights!


Where: Central Rome
Good for: Political dissent


This rather battered and unassuming looking statue fragment has played a fascinating part in Rome’s political history. The statue itself dates to Roman times and was erected in the current spot after being unearthed while the piazza was undergoing renovation in the early 1500s. Shortly afterwards anonymous verses began appearing on its base criticising the Pope (who ruled Rome at that time) and his government. These were quickly copied and distributed, much faster than they could be suppressed. It’s unclear how the statue got the name Pasquino, but along with five others they became known as the “Talking Statues”. The tradition carries on to this day, indeed when we visited it had a rhyming verse stuck to its base. Posted on 17th February, the anniversary of the death of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for heresy, it read:

Children, use less judgement and more faith because the Holy Office (the Vatican) is boss,
Contain your thought and don’t reason too much because against reason is fire,
Keep your tongue in your head, as the Pope enjoys barbecue.

[with thanks to Francesco, our host in Florence, for the translation]

Centrale Montemartini

Where: South-west Rome
Good for: Classical statues and industrial architecture

Centrale Montemartini

This museum is a little way out of the centre of Rome though it’s easy enough to reach by metro. Basically it is a gallery of Roman sculptures but with a twist. When the main Capitoline Museum was renovating some of its galleries in the late 1990s, it moved the statues to a temporary home in this former power plant. The result was so successful that it is now a permanent museum. We loved the juxtaposition of the white marble figures against the dark industrial machinery as well as trying to work out the function of the various engines and boilers.

Muse statue, Centrale MontemartiniMy favourite statue was this ‘Statue of a Muse’

Hop Corner

Where: Pigneto area, eastern Rome
Good for: Craft beers

Stout and snacks at Hop Corner

This one is truly off the beaten path. Hop Corner is a tiny pub specialising in craft beers and is less than 10 minutes walk from the apartment where we stayed. We expected a range of good quality lagers and were bowled over on our first visit when we found five cask beers on tap including an excellent bitter and a stout, not to mention fridges packed with bottled options. Needless to say, we were back for more. We also liked that with each round of drinks the snacks served with them levelled up (1. tortilla chops and olives, 2. beef jerky and olives, 3. a plate of porchetta, Italian roast pork!). They also do a range of different Spritzes but we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the beers to try those!

Stadio dei Marmi

Where: Northern Rome
Good for: Fascist era statues

Stadio dei Marmi

The Stadio dei Marmi, or Stadium of Marbles, was inaugurated in 1932 and is part of the Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini, a large sports complex containing swimming pools, tennis courts, a football stadium and the offices of the Italian Olympic Committee as well as this running track and sports field. The “marbles” of its name are 60 statues of male athletes in Italian Fascist style, each donated by one of the Italian provinces. The statues were interesting but we really enjoyed sitting in the sun in this quiet spot and it was good to see how many people were out on a Saturday morning exercising or playing football with their kids.

Statues, Stadio dei MarmiStatues around the Stadio dei Marmi. If anyone knows what sport is being depicted in the top right picture please leave a comment below!

Video Game Museum of Rome

Where: Northern Rome
Good for: Playing retro computer games

Video Game Museum of RomeVIGAMUS (clockwise from left): looking at the exhibition; Julie playing a Pac-man arcade; Andrew in the Oculus Rift headset

And now for something completely different… In stark contrast to all the art and history, we discovered that Rome has a Video Game Museum (VIGAMUS). The entry fee not only covered a surprisingly interesting exhibit telling the story of the birth of computer games but also as much time as we wanted playing the various free games that they had set up on all kinds of consoles as well as arcade machines. Playing on the games reminded us of the afternoon we spent in the arcades of the Akihabara district in Tokyo. The ticket also entitled us to a go on one of their Oculus Rift demo sets, this is an immersive type of gaming with a headset consisting of goggles displaying a picture which moves as your head does, it is touted as the future of video games.

Highlights of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel

Say “Vatican City” and the first thing that pops into your head is likely to be St. Peter’s Basilica or the Sistine Chapel. Together with the basilica and St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel make up the rest of the Vatican City State that are open to visitors.

Sculpture above the Vatican Museums exit, Rome, Italy

The ornate gate of the Vatican Museum is round the corner from St. Peter’s Square, and it’s quite a walk. This is actually above the exit – though the entrance is just to the left

The Musei Vaticani was founded by Pope Julius II at the start of the 16th century to house and display the many priceless works of art owned by the Catholic Church. That’s the same Pope Julius II who ordered the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica and is known for his patronage of the arts as well as allowing King Henry VIII of England to marry Catherine of Aragon because she was the widow of his brother Arthur, (coincidentally Arthur and Catherine were married at the Old St. Peter’s Basilica).

Vatican Museum queue, Rome, Italy

Queueing for the Vatican Museums. Our advice? Book online direct with the Vatican Museums to skip the queues – even in February!

The Vatican Museums are huge. They’re also the 5th most visited art museum in the world and we’d thought about booking our tickets in advance for an extra €4 so we could skip the queue, but decided against it. We don’t mind a bit of queueing.. we got there about 20 minutes before it opened and had to wait an hour and a half. Next time we’d pre-book and skip the queue so we’d have more time inside.

Pinacoteca gallery, Vatican Museums, Italy

The Vatican Museums are made up of separate galleries, former Papal residences or apartments and of course, the Sistine Chapel. The first gallery we went to was the Pinacoteca which means Picture Gallery. This is a triptych of the Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bonsi from 1371

Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Italy

The Pinacoteca contains art of the 12th to 18th centuries, and as with most of the art on display in the Vatican Museums, it’s Christian. Julie checking out the detail on the icons in the first room, “Madonna and Child with St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Alexandria” by Beato Angelico, and “The Martydom of St. Bartholomew” from Scuola Renana (School of Renana)

Rescued frescos from SS. Apostoli in Rome, Vatican Museums, Italy

We liked these frescos depicting the Ascension that were rescued from the apse of the Basilica SS. Aposotli in Rome before it was redecorated. Attributed to Forli

Close up of a rescued fresco from SS. Apostoli in Rome, Vatican Museums, Italy

Close up of one of the rescued frescos

Transfiguration by Raffaello Sanzio (aka Raphael), Vatican Museums, Italy

Transfiguration – the last painting by the Italian master painter and sculptor Raphael which he was still working on when he died in 1520. It was later taken by Napoleon and displayed in the Louvre before being returned to Rome

St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo d Vinci, Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Italy

Another famous and unfinished work of art is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo d Vinci – the audioguide told us that it had been cut up, and that the head was found on a stool! We saw the tour group kneel down in front of it and didn’t know why – until we tried it ourselves and from that angle we could see how it has been put back together!

The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio, Vatican Museums, Italy

As you might have noticed we’ve found a love for the works of Caravaggio since we saw our first one at St. John’s Co Cathedral in Malta. The Pinacoteca gallery has his 1603-4 work entitled “The Entombment of Christ”

The Fontana della Pigna, Vatican Museums, Italy

After the Pinacoteca we went to the Cortile della Pigna or the The Courtyard of the pinecone, named after the giant Roman bronze pinecone that used to be the centrepiece of a fountain. We liked the large outdoor apse shape behind it too that reminded us of the giant tiled entrances of the medressas in Uzbekistan

Me with an Nectanebo Egyptian Lion, Vatican Museums, Italy

The giant Roman bronze pinecone is flanked by a pair of gorgeous matching Egyptian marble lions, that are believed to have been made for a sanctuary in Northern Egypt around 360 B.C., and also once stood outside the Pantheon

Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums, Italy

Down one side of the Courtyard of the Pinecone is the Museo Chiaramonti which houses most of the Vatican’s collection of Roman statues

Colossal head of Athena, Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums, Italy

Among the collection is this colossal head of Athena which is notable for two reasons – firstly, it’s from the time of Hadrian (117 to 138 A.D.) who rebuilt the Pantheon and also built Hadrian’s Wall near our home in the UK which, at the time, marked the northern limit of Roman Britain, and secondly it still has its eyes – yes, they’re original!

Closed section of the Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums, Italy

The second section of the Museo Chiaramonti was closed, and contains a collection of Christian and Pagan tombstone inscriptions. The Pagan ones are on the left

Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Italy

Next up is the Museo Pio Clementino, a smaller musuem home to the collection of Greek and Roman antiquities..

Laocoön statue, Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Italy

.. such as the famous Laocoön statue, said to be of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons who warned against bringing in the wooden horse left outside the gates by the Greek soldiers. The story goes that the gods favoured the Greeks and sent two giant serpents to silence them. The Romans see the death of these innocents as crucial to the decision by Aeneas who heeded Laocoön’s warning and fled Troy, leading to the eventual founding of Rome

The Belvedere Torso, Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Italy

Together with the Laocoön statue, the Belvedere Torso was a major influence on the Renaissance artists – and especially Michelangelo – you might recognise the contorted torso a little later on in this post..

Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Italy

Although the Museo Pio Clementino is one of the smallest, it contains some of the largest art in the entire collection – most of which are displayed in this wonderful circular room with a 5m (16ft) monolithic porphyry basin from the Domus Aurea in the centre

Etruscan artefacts, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican Museums, Italy

The next gallery on the complete itinerary of the museum is the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco or Museum of Greek and Etruscan artefacts. The Etruscans pre-date the Romans and the vases in the museum are the best record of their daily lives and rituals. While we can only take so much pottery, it would have been nicer to have a bit longer in this gallery as we were just getting to the good stuff when we were asked to leave because it was closing at 13:30. Left is one of said vases, the jug to the right is styled on a chariot and has two separate spouts for different liquids

The Mars of Todi, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican Museums, Italy

This life-size bronze statue of a warrior holding a spear in one hand and pouring himself a drink before battle is called The Mars of Todi, and dates to the 5th century B.C.!

Galleria degli Arazzi, Vatican Museums, Italy

Now begins the long corridor of galleries towards the Sistine Chapel (and I bet you thought we were almost there!) The Galleria degli Arazzi showcases some of the tapestries from the Vatican collection. We’re even less keen on tapestries than we are on pottery so we only stopped briefly to look at them

Galleria della Carte Geografiche, Vatican Museums, Italy

However, the Galleria della Carte Geografiche or Gallery of Geographic Maps was much more to our liking! Painted by friar and geographer Ignazio Danti in 1580, it took him 3 years to cover the walls in 40 frescos mapping out the entirety of Italy. Check out the ceiling too! It was done by a group of artists in the late Renaissance Mannerism style

Closeup maps in Galleria della Carte Geografiche, Vatican Museums, Italy

A selection of the map frescos painted in the 16th century. Mainland Italy, Rome was still quite small, while Venice looks completely populated, and Valletta on Malta doesn’t yet include St. John’s Co Cathedral which would have only just been finished

Baptism of Constantine, Room of Constantine, Vatican Museums, Italy

At the end of the long galleries we could have headed into the Sistine Chapel, but we continued the complete itinerary for one main reason.. Stanze di Raffaello or The Raphael Rooms. Painted by Raphael and members of his workshop at the same time Michelangelo was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they were in competition to out-do each other. These rooms were the previous Pope’s private apartments. As if to whet the appetite for the Sistine Chapel later on they’re all lavishly decorated with frescos – this is the Baptism of Constantine in the Constantine Room by Gianfrancesco Penni

Ceiling fresco of the Room of Constantine, Vatican Museums, Italy

It was a highlight for us because of the ceiling fresco that depicts a statue of the crucifixion atop a pedestal, having displaced a Pagan statue now lying in pieces on the floor

Stanze di Raffaello, Vatican Museums, Italy

This, one of Raphael’s most famous frescos is called the School of Athens and depicts Philosophy, the pursuit of Knowledge, and Science. The 2 central characters are Plato and his student Aristotle deep in conversation

Selection of Contemporary Art, Vatican Museums, Italy

After the Raphael rooms and the old Pope’s apartments, there was a series of galleries of contemporary art which we kind of had to rush through as it was almost 3:30pm – the museums start closing at 5:30pm! Clockwise from top-left: “Piazza San Pietro” by Franco Gentilini (1948); “Pieta” by Vincent van Gogh (1889); Unknown; “L’ Annuncio” (The Trinity) by Salavador Dali (1960); “Paesaggio angelico” by Salvador Dali (1977); “La Vierge à l’Enfant” (Madonna and Child) by Henri Matisse (1949)

After descending a couple of floors through a plain-white, square-spiral staircase decorated with the scuff-marks from the passage of 5.5 million tourists and umpteen signs requesting silence and no photography, we arrive at the Sistine Chapel. Wow. It’s busy with tourists and it’s busy with decoration..

The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, Italy

We’re here – the world famous Sistine Chapel! From the bottom, large painted drapes sit underneath biblical scenes of the life of Moses down one side (left) and Jesus on the other (right), Popes in between the windows, then Michelangelo’s ceiling starts with the Ancestors of Christ, separating the Prophets and finally the central rectangle of 9 scenes from the Book of Genesis. Photo source: Professor M Whalen

It took a little understanding of the compositional elements, and obviously some Christian bible history to fully appreciate the genius of Michelangelo’s reluctant masterpiece. I say reluctant because he took some persuading, not least because he considered himself a sculptor. The offer of free reign to decide the biblical stories instead of the initial 12 apostles he was originally asked to complete and the Pope’s insistence got his agreement.

The central frescos of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican Museums, Italy

Michelangelo’s stunning central frescos of the Sistine Chapel. Starting at the altar end (top-right), it starts with God dividing light and dark, and shows us looking up at God. It’s believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo painting the very ceiling we’re looking at – like a 16th century selfie! #MyNeckHurts. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Initially asked for 12 apostles, Michelangelo sought a much grander plan to repaint the entire ceiling which was dark blue with gold stars. He got his way, and spent 3 years from 1508 to 1512 standing upright and bending backwards on scaffold of his own invention to create this iconic masterpiece of over 300 figures.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican Museums, Italy

Having created Adam, God reaches out his strong, pointed finger to touch that of Adam’s limp one to bring his creation to life. And at the same time Michelangelo creates probably the most iconic image of all time. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Pope loved it. 23 years later Michelangelo was commissioned to return to the Sistine Chapel to repaint the alter with the theme of The Last Judgement, the story of the end of the world where Christ returns and final judgement about heaven and hell is made.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican Museums, Italy

The Last Judgement by a much older and more accomplished Michelangelo breaks with the established representations in many ways. The central figure is a buff, determined Christ dismissing his mother’s pleas for mercy – he’s on a mission. Notice his body is twisted like the Laocoön or the Belvedere Torso we saw earlier in the museum. Michelangelo again works himself into the composition in the form of the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (centre-right just below Christ) perhaps in acknowledgement of his own mortality. Photo credit: Wikipedia

This one however, caused a lot of controversy for a lot of reasons. I have to say that initially it seems very different in its bolder use of colour – the blue-sky background contrasts strikingly with the rest of the room, and Michelangelo painted over a scene from the life of Christ, another from the life of Moses and two of his own lunettes to entirely cover the alter wall. At first I didn’t like this un-cohesive jarring effect, but as we listened to the Vatican audioguide and Rick Steve’s excellent Sistine Chapel excerpt about the meaning, symbolism and the ruckus it caused I started to love it.. it’s the work of a reflecting, contemplative genius with a subtly wry sense of humour. We spent a good hour in the Sistine Chapel, and we could easily have stayed longer just contemplating the events these frescos have witnessed, and of course the frescos themselves.

Museo Cristiano, Vatican Museums, Italy

On leaving the Sistine Chapel we walked through the Sala dei Papiri (Rooms of Paper) and the Museo Cristiano which were kind of like libraries with bookcases, papyrus and globes on display. These rooms were a little sparse and well, what tops the Sistine Chapel?!

Papal Transport, Padiglione della Carrozze, Vatican Museums, Italy

Possibly Pope Mobiles? Across the courtyard and underground is the Padiglione della Carrozze or Pavillion of Carriages – the evolution of the Pope Mobiles from elaborate sedan chairs, through horse and carriages to the latest 4×4 bullet-proof go-anywhere-bless-anything off-roaders, and other vehicles donated to the Pope

Bramante Staircase, Vatican Museums, Italy

The exit of the Vatican Museum is down either side of Bramante’s double helix staircase which leaves you almost right where you started having walked through 7km of the finest Italian art ever created

We absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed the Vatican Museums. Sure, it’s a full day but the exhibitions are varied and because the Sistine Chapel is near the end (if you do the complete itinerary as we did) it felt like we were always working up to it. The anticipation carried us through, and what a finale. Wow.

Tips for visiting the Vatican Museums

Here are a couple of tips from our experience of having just been..

  1. Buy the admission ticket a day or more in advance to skip the queue, even in the off-season, you’ll need the extra time inside.
  2. The audioguide is excellent and well worth the extra €7 per unit. Bring your own headphones as there’s an extra charge of €1.50 for a single-earpiece. There are sockets for two sets of headphones so you could also share a single unit.