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10 Astonishing Discoveries to Be Made at the Vatican Museums


The Vatican Museums stand as one of the most illustrious and awe-inspiring repositories of art and history in the world, nestled within the heart of the Vatican City.

Established by Pope Julius II in the 16th century, this expansive complex of galleries, chapels, and apartments unfolds a spectacular narrative of human creativity and divine inspiration across millennia.

From the unparalleled frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to the intricate maps adorning the Gallery of Maps, the museums offer an unparalleled exploration of culture, religion, and artistry.

Each room, corridor, and courtyard within the Vatican Museums is imbued with stories, waiting to be discovered by those who walk their hallowed grounds. In this guide, we’ll unveil ten astonishing discoveries that await visitors, each promising to leave an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of those who witness them.

Vatican Museums St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican

Hidden Maps

Lose yourself in the Gallery of Maps, a geographically authentic testament to ancient cartography. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the late 16th century, the 40 topographic depictions painted on the walls allow an ethereal walk through Italy’s geography and its communal divisions over time.

What’s most surprising is the map’s orientation—with the north at the bottom—that disorients visitors, until they learn that it was designed to be viewed from the top down. This was a standard in classical map-making, and its persistent use illustrates the museum’s dedication to historic authenticity and illustrative tradition.

The Spiral Staircase Illusion

Vatican Museums Momo Staircase, Spiral Staircase, Canva
The Bramante Staircase

The Bramante Staircase is a testament to Renaissance engineering and artistry. Designed by Donato Bramante in 1512, the double helix layout means visitors entering the staircase never meet those descending, and this feature served a functional purpose in regulating the flow of traffic within the Vatican.

Its mathematical precision and grace embody the intellectual pursuits of its time, and its architectural design has long fascinated the artistic and scientific communities alike.

A Pinecone of Monumental Proportions

Located in the heart of the Vatican, the Pinecone Courtyard presents a colossal bronze pinecone that once served as a Roman fountain. This ancient artifact symbolizes the peace and abundance of the earth while also representing the eternal cycle of life.

At a height of four meters, the pinecone and its courtyard are often recognized for the scale and grandiosity of their historical contents, emphasizing the Vatican’s role as a preserver of ancient wisdom.

The Oldest Public Museum in the World

Contrary to common belief, the Vatican Museums were the first public museums around the world, opening their doors in the early 16th century.

Founded by Pope Julius II, the same papal visionary who commissioned Michelangelo and Raphael, these museums offered citizens and international visitors unprecedented access to the Vatican’s immense collection.

This progressive step marked a departure from the private collections typically held by religious and secular leaders, standing as it did for an enlightened sharing and celebration of history and culture.

A Hidden Bathroom Masterpiece

One of the most peculiar and often overlooked pieces in the Vatican Museums is not a grand painting or ancient statue, but rather a bathroom adorned by Raphael.

Known as the Stufetta del Bibbiena, this small bathroom was decorated for Cardinal Bibbiena with erotic art inspired by classical mythology, showcasing Raphael’s versatility and the unexpected places where Renaissance art can be found within the Vatican’s walls.

This hidden gem contrasts starkly with the more solemn religious artworks throughout the museums, offering a glimpse into the personal tastes and humor of the period.

The Sistine Chapel’s Unique Acoustics

While the eyes feast on the divine ceiling and the renowned frescoes, the Sistine Chapel offers an aural experience that greatly enriches the visual. The dimensions of the chapel create a natural reverberation that amplifies sound, a peculiarity embraced and optimized by the Vatican choir.

When filled with the choir’s sonorous chants during papal ceremonies, the chapel’s acoustics serve to transport the audience back in time, offering a direct link to the historical liturgies that have resonated within the Vatican for centuries.

Last Judgment Controversies

A subject of awe and intrigue, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment adorning the Sistine Chapel is not without its share of controversy. The masterful depiction of Christian eschatology led to disputes during its creation and was later censored with draperies painted over the nude forms by Daniele da Volterra.

This ‘Fig-Leaf Campaign’, also called the “Pants of Pius”, was an iconic example of artistic censorship imposed during the Catholic Counter-Reformation period. The removal of these coverings during the famous restoration by Gianluigi Colalucci in the 1980s symbolized not just the liberation of the artwork, but a new artistic and spiritual freedom.

Anubis in the Vatican

Vatican Museums Anubis in the Vatican
Anubis in the Vatican

A curious testament to ancient diplomacy and cultural exchange can be found in the Vatican’s collection. Among the museum’s pieces stands a statue of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, adorned in Roman military garb.

This fusion is a poignant reminder of the syncretism between ancient cultures, a reflection of the Roman Empire’s expansive reach and its willingness to incorporate the iconography and beliefs of the lands it conquered.

Modern Art Collection

Shedding its reputation as a bastion of antiquated art, the Vatican Museums also house a significant collection of modern religious art, including works by the likes of Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso. This integration of contemporary expressions in a historical religious setting underlines the Catholic Church’s willingness to engage with evolving artistic sensibilities and spiritual interpretations, serving both as a testimonium fidei and a cultural legacy.

The Secret of the Niccoline Chapel

Tucked away within the Apostolic Palace, the Niccoline Chapel is a lesser-known gem of the Vatican, often overshadowed by the Sistine Chapel. Decorated by Fra Angelico, one of the early Renaissance’s most revered painters, the chapel served as a private place of worship for Pope Nicholas V.

The frescoes inside depict scenes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence and are considered some of the finest examples of Fra Angelico’s work, characterized by their vivid colors and spiritual depth.

What makes the Niccoline Chapel particularly fascinating is its relative obscurity and restricted access, preserving its sanctity and the freshness of its art away from the bustling crowds that frequent the Vatican Museums.


The Vatican Museums showcase the rich history of human culture, combining religious, historical, and artistic importance. They celebrate human creativity and its lasting impact, inviting visitors to explore this creativity, in person or through texts. Offering a unique view on history, these museums encourage visitors to feel a deep connection with humanity’s story. It’s a place for exploration, reflection, and inspiration from our collective achievements over time.