Although the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican is just one of three official residences of the Pope, it is the one which most pilgrims to Rome are familiar with. Adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, it is one of Europe’s most magnificent residences, on par with Buckingham Palace in London or the Royal Palace of Madrid. It is also the world’s single greatest repository of Christian artwork. Many of the most famous painters and artisans of the Renaissance were employed to endow the Papal residence with some of the finest artwork in history. The highlight is the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the Pope, and possibly the world’s most beautiful room. Millions of tourists pack the Sistine Chapel annually to gawk at Michaelangelo’s two masterpieces, The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement. The Apostolic Palace is part of the Vatican City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the years following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, the newly won over emperor made lavish donations to the Church, both in money and properties. This was the beginning of the Church’s history as a major economic and political institution. Among his gifts was the Lateran Palace in Rome, which he bequeathed to the Bishop of Rome as a private residence. This was the first palatial residence ever occupied by a major Church Patriarch, and it may be that this act unofficially marked the beginning of the dominance of the Roman bishops. It would be the first of a series of Papal residences that would culminate in the most magnificent of them all, the Apostolic Palace.
The Lateran Palace, the residence of the powerful Laterani family, had already been around for several centuries when it was turned over to the Church. The earliest known use of the palace was to host a synod of bishops in 313 AD. It remained the official residence of the Popes for the better part of the next thousand years. However, the Lateran Palace was badly damaged by neglect and fire during the Babylonian Captivity period in Avignon in the 14th century. When the Papacy returned to Rome, the Popes took up residence in a series of other locations. With the dawn of the Renaissance, it was decided that a new home was required for the Popes, a building of such splendour and magnificence that it would have no rival in Europe; a residence befitting the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the 15th century, work began on the new Apostolic Palace on the Vatican Hill. Throughout Europe, vast sums of wealth were collected for the construction of the palace and the other buildings. The Vatican Hill district literally became a city-within-a-city under the direct jurisdiction of the Pope. Many of the greatest Renaissance masters of the period contributed to the palace, adorning it with some of the finest architecture and artwork in the world. The artist Rafael designed the palace’s reception rooms. Pinturicchio worked on the Borgia Apartments. Donato Bramante laid out the Belvedere Courtyard. And of course, the Sistine Chapel, the holy of holies of Christian art, was created by Michaelangelo.
In the ensuing centuries, the Apostolic Palace was further adorned by one of the most fantastic collections of Christian art ever assembled. So great was this collection, which was unrivaled by anything else anywhere in Europe, that much of the Apostolic Palace has since been transformed into a museum for the purpose of displaying the Papal treasures. This process began in the 16th century, when the Sistine Chapel opened to the public. The Vatican has since added more than half a dozen new museums and countless galleries, including a number of sculpture museums, a museum of modern religious art, and the famous gallery of maps. Among the palace’s contributing artists were Carravaggio, DaVinci, Giotto, Michaelangelo, Rafael and Titian. Today the Apostolic Palace is counted among Europe’s greatest art museums, beloved of Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, as well as art lovers around the world.
There are a total of thirteen museums and fourteen palace sites that are part of the Vatican Museums at the Apostolic Palace. Many of these consist of only one or two galleries or rooms. Most of the museums and galleries are interconnected in sequential series that make them easier to tour. Among the highlights of the collection are the Gregorian Egyptian and Etruscan Museums, which house important antiquities; the Pinacoteca Art Gallery, with paintings and pictures from the 12th through 19th centuries; and the Ethnological Missionary Museum, home to a large collection of curiosities donated by Catholic missionaries from around the world. Other museums include Classical Antiquities, Tapestries, Ceramics, Miniature Mosaics, Modern Religious Art, the Museo Sacro, the Gregorian Profane Museum, the Pio Christian Museum and the Vatican Historical Museum.
Of the fourteen palace sites, the majority are located in the Apostolic Palace itself, while a few are located in the Belvedere Palace. These include Apartment of St. Pius V, the Borgia Apartment, the Chapel of Nicholas V, the Chapel of Urban VIII, the Room of the Immaculate Conception, the Room of the Chiaroscuri, the Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding, the Sala delle Dame, the Salone Sistino, the Rafael Stanze, the Lower Galleries and the Upper Galleries, which includes the famous map room. The highlight of the palace is the Sistine Chapel. According to tradition, the dimensions of the chapel apparently measure the same size as the Temple of Solomon. Every inch of space on the walls and ceiling is covered with paintings and frescoes, the greatest roomful of Christian artwork on Earth. Among the highlights are Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, Scenes of the Life of Moses, the Punishment of Korah and the Temptation of Christ. However, even these pale besides the two great masterpieces of the Renaissance: the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgement, both by Michelangelo. It is in this contemplative setting that conclaves are held to elect new Popes.
The Apostolic Palace and Vatican Museums are located within the Vatican enclave on the eastern side of Rome. The public entrance is on the north side of the complex, not through St. Peter’s Square. The palace and museums are open Mondays through Saturdays (except Church holidays) from 9:00am-6:00pm. They are also open free to the public on the last Sunday of each month from 9:00am-2:00pm. Regular admission for the rest of the month is E14.00. Web: www.vatican.va (official website)
The Apostolic Palace is just one of many current and former Papal residences that still grace Rome’s historic districts. The ancient Lateran Palace, the home of the Popes for more than a thousand years, now houses the Museo Storico Vaticano as well as the office of the Diocese of Rome. The Quirinal Palace is now the official residence of the President of Italy. The Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome is still officially used as the Pope’s Summer Palace.