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The Vatican Museums: Five Centuries of History | Brief Introduction

The Vatican Museums in 2006 celebrated its fifth centenary of history, being originated as a private group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and stored in what today is the “Octagonal Courtyard”. It is quite significant that their very first piece of Art, the Laocont Group, entered on purpose officially on the Valentine Day of 1506, the birth date of the Vatican Museum. Since the beginning, the Vatican "Spouse" has always been Art.

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The popes did not open their magnificent palaces to the ordinary public that until after February 11th 1929, the foundation date of the Vatican City State. Until then, the Vatican Museum was only reserved to dignitaries, nobles and kings. As of today, inside the Vatican there are a complex of several pontifical galleries that began essentially through two popes, Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799) who created the enchanting Pio-Clementine Museum, named after these two popes. Later on, Pius VII (1800-1823) extended the collections of antiquities, once so many sculptures came back from the Louvre after the Congress of Vienna (1815), by the addition of the Lapidary Gallery, the Chiaramonti Museum (1809) and the incredible “Braccio NuovoMuseum (1822).

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Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) founded not only the Etruscan Museum (1837) with its archaeological treasures found in the outskirts of Rome (Etruscan Necropolis of Cerveteri & Tarquinia) and the Egyptian Museum (1839) , but also the Lateran Profane Museum (1844). This museum was then enlarged thanks to Pius IX (1846-1878), who created also  the Pio Christian Museum in 1854. This unique museum has the world largest collection of engravings expressing the stories of the Holy Bible (particularly in the sarcophagi) and inscriptions with Early Christian context. St. Pius X (1903-1914) founded here the Hebrew Lapidary with hundreds of inscriptions from the ancient Jewish cemeteries in Rome ( particularly from via Portuense & Trastevere Area ). These last collections (Gregorian Profane Museum, Pio Christian Museum and the Jewish Lapidary) were moved in 1970, under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), from the Lateran Palace to their present building within the Vatican City State.

The Vatican Museums today also include the Borgia Apartments, where the Spanish Pope Alexander VI lived (1492-1503); the Vatican Painting Gallery, created by Pius XI (1922-1932), the only building created once the Vatican Museum was open to the visitors; the enchanting Chapel of Nicholas V (1447-1455), painted by Fra' Angelico; of course the Sistine Chapel, named after its re-founder, Pope Sixtus IV, who created also the Vatican Apostolic Library (1471).

The Upper Galleries known as the Gallery of Tapestries, dating from the 15th and 17th centuries & the Gallery of Maps, decorated during the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-1585) and embellished by Urban VIII (1623-1644). The Lower Galleries as the Sistine Room, the old reading room of the Apostolic Library created by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590); The Sobieski Room and the Room of the Immaculate Conception; the magnificient Raphael Rooms and the Raphael Loggias, which were decorated by order of both Julius II and Leo X (1513-1521); The Renaissance Casina of Pius IV (1560-1565), today visible in the Vatican Gardens; the Missionary-Ethnological Museum, founded by Pius XI in 1926 and later moved under Pope John XXIII ( the Good Pope ) to the Vatican Museums. In 1973 the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Religious Art was added and inaugurated by Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) in the Borgia Apartments. The Vatican Historical Museum, founded in 1973 and transferred in the Lateran Palace, holds several Popes' portraits along with stupendous Tapestries ( best ones ) plus several objects of the previous Pontifical Military Corps and of the Papal ceremonies. Last, the Carriage and Automobile Museum (Carriage Pavilion) is the last Museum added in the Vatican City State.

In the year 2000, the Vatican Museums opened a new large and modern entrance thanks to the unforgotten John Paul II (1978-2005) which serves better the standard of a modern Museum.

Have a good visit !

Cristiano Pellegrini


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