Day 14: The Vatican Museums, Part One- Ancient History

Now, if one truly wants to see the treasures of the world, one has many options on places to go. Famous museums and sites around the world- in NYC, London, Paris, Beijing, Cairo, Athens. But surely, no one has amassed the sheer quantity and quality of the Vatican Museums. I mean, being the ruling body of a good part of the “civilized” world for over a thousand years has its perks, right? Just thinking off all the brilliance that is NOT currently on display at the Vatican is mind-boggling. Granted, many of the Vatican’s current masterpieces were gotten through less-than-stellar channels, that does not diminish the awe-inspiring nature of the overall collection. Because of its reputation of being one of the better museums in the world with one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork, the Vatican Museums were, of course, a must see on our trip.

To make the most of our day in Vatican City, we purchased a timed entry into the Vatican Museums for their opening hour of 9 am. That actually worked out pretty well since we did not have to wait around in the line that had wrapped around the block by the time we arrived at the museum. It only took about 5 minutes to get in, exchange our internet voucher for actual tickets, and then proceed through security. Of course, even at this early hour, we were amongst a mass of human flesh that was hurrying into the museums. We opted not to do a tour, instead relying on one of our guidebooks to give us an overview of which rooms we’d be visiting. Personally, I found the sheer number of tour groups there obnoxious. But in fairness, I really dislike the idea of tour groups in museums anyway. I always think the best way to experience a museum is to wander at your leisure and soak up the information as you reach it. But I digress.

I did also find it somewhat sad that so many people were only interested in making a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, which is towards the back of the museums, a good 15 minute walk if you’re just marching on through the rest of the building. These visitors did not savor any of the works on the display or even pause to notice the world-renowned masterpieces that stood less than two feet away. Sad. On the positive note, being that so many people were only interested in the direct path to the Sistine, this left many of the exhibition wings nearly empty. There were several handfuls of people in the Egyptian wing, but almost no one in the Etruscan wing, the pagan arts wing, and the Roman portraiture wing. We often found ourselves alone with great works of art, able to just soak up the glory of the moment.

However even though both the Husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the museums, there was so much that we didn’t see that we’ve both already said, we’d love to go back! It’s simply hard to digest so many different pieces in such a short time. And we did only have about 3 hours to tour the entire museum because we had a scavi tour at St. Peter’s scheduled for a specific time slot (more on that in a bit).  This is my only regret, as we probably rushed a little too much in the very beginning, not enjoying the courtyards and the first sets of sculpture we encountered. It was just hard to judge our time and what all we wanted to see. But we did at least get a cursory glance at many areas.

We began our tour with the Greek and Roman sculpture area. This was one of the areas that, looking back, I wish we’d spent more time. But there’s always next time! I was most excited to see the Prima Porta Augustus, a very famous life-sized sculpture of Emperor Augustus that I had studied in several art history courses. It really is an exquisite piece of art. Here are a few pictures from that hall.

the Prima Porta Augustus

the detail on his breast plate

It’s a pig!


Pig! (or warthog… maybe a wild boar… but they’re practically the same thing, right?)

!!! Another one! I should have been Roman.

the Belvedere torso

After finishing up in this wing, we realized that we had missed the entrance to the Egyptian wing and had to backtrack a little bit to find the “exit” of that area and walked through the Egyptian collection in reverse order. It ended up working out alright, and we got to see some really interesting pieces, including mummies, sarcophagi, and pieces of artwork thousands of years older than Rome.

a 3,000 year old woman, er, mummy


figurine dating from 6000 BCE (if memory serves)

After visiting the antiquities of Ancient Egypt and the Middle East, we headed up a short staircase to the Etruscan wing. The Etruscans were the tribe of people living in Italy when the early Greeks began to colonize. They would eventually become absorbed into the fold of Ancient Rome. Many of their arts and traditions were carried over into Roman culture. Considering that these people pretty much gave birth to Roman civilization, and therefore, much of Western civilization, it was sad to see that this wing was practically a ghost town. I believe the entire time the Husband and I were touring it, we saw all of maybe 4 other people, which is truly a shame!


The amount of painted amphorae, vases, bowls, and plates was staggering. This is just one case of one room, but there were entire rooms filled wall to wall with both red-figure and black-figure ancient pottery.



some Etruscan jewels

an assortment of golden leaf head wreaths


top of a sarcophagus- He’s known for his pot belly.

the bronze warrior


armor and shield

remains of an Etruscan chariot

Stay tuned for Part Two of the Vatican Museums visit, the Renaissance!


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