Rome: Secrets of the Vatican Museums

Currently airing on Canadian television, Museum Secrets reveals the surprising stories behind six of the world’s greatest museums. We asked Amanda Connon-Unda, a blogger for the show’s producer, Kensington Communications Inc., to share a few of the secrets uncovered at the Vatican Museums by directors Robert Lang and Rebecca Snow.

For travelers eager to sightsee in Rome, a city awash with history, many surprises await inside the walls of one of its greatest attractions: Vatican City and its museums.

Some 1,400 rooms of treasures make the Vatican Museums complex the largest in the world. But, of course, most visitors come for one thing: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508.

One little-known fact about this grand Michelangelo work, populated by more than 300 figures and, most famously, recreating The Last Judgment, is that it was painted over an earlier painting of a starry sky.

Although most crane their necks to look up at the detailed frescoes from the center of the room, the ceiling was actually meant to be viewed from a different perspective. If you stand in front of the closed door opposite the main tourist entrance door used today, you’ll get the eyeful that Michelangelo intended.

Photos courtesy of Museum Secrets

Another secret about the ceiling is how Michelangelo maintained depth on the curved surfaces of the chapel’s ceiling and walls. Many believe that his genius as a sculptor actually aided him as he sought to master a new medium, that of painting on plaster.

To see the brush strokes and detail of the resulting frescoes at the Sistine Chapel, consider toting a good pair of binoculars to get a more intimate impression of the works. If you look really hard, you might notice what two John Hopkins neurosurgeons did when they studied a portion ceiling known as “Separation of Light From Darkness.”

They thought that the neck of God appeared to contain a depiction of the human brainstem. Did they just see something they wanted to see? Or did the artist really plant a hidden message?

Those binoculars will also serve you well as you move beyond the Sistine Chapel and into the four Raphael stanze (rooms), where you can view the precision masterworks of Raphael and Botticelli.

Star-gazers should make a stop at the Pinacoteca gallery, which houses more than 400 gems of Italian art by Bernini, Caravaggio, Giotto, and Leonardo da Vinci, some of which depict the heavens. Several paintings by Donato Creti, for example, were commissioned to convince the Pope in the early 18th Century to support the creation of an astronomical observatory at the Vatican. It seemed to work, because the first Vatican Observatory (another great site of interest) was built soon after.

The endless rooms of the Vatican Museum hide many more secrets, of course. They involve, for a start, a canoe, a mummy, and a whole lot of fig leaves . . .

  • Lucy

    Beautiful!!! Wish to be there again!!