As we slipped our tickets for the Vatican Museums through the turnstiles at the entrance, Tatiana directed us to a corner of the entrance lobby in which stood a colourful reproduction of Augustus of Prima Porta.
Tatiana was our tour guide from Through Eternity Tours, and until she pointed it out it had never occurred to me that the ancient statues of Rome I’d witnessed since arriving at The Beehive Ho[s]tel would once have been brightly painted works of art.
The original Augustus of Prima Porta is a marble statue of Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome, that stands just over two metres and is like all ancient statues, bare of colour. Yet polychromy, a.k.a. the art of painting with many colours, is believed to have been a common embellishment of the time that has long been lost to history.
This is just one of the many things that Tatiana pointed out on our walk through the Vatican Museums that made me realised how little I know of Ancient History and how lucky I was to have my Through Eternity tour guide!
My Top 5 Favourite Figures in The Vatican Museums
As someone who really does have limited knowledge about Ancient History and art, I was a little surprised when a member of my small tour group asked at the end if I was an art student!
But I soon realised why he must have thought so. I walked out of the 3.5 hour tour with 205 pictures and an iPhone notes section full of as many dates and names as I could jot down between taking photographs.
But of course, I can’t show you everything! So here are my top 5 favourite figures in the Vatican Museums! As explained by the fabulous Tatiana…
1. Laocoön and his Sons
Widely believed to have originated during the Hellenistic era (between 323 and 30 BC), the iconic Greek statue of the priest Laocoön and his sons being attacked by sea serpents is every bit as agonising to witness in real life as in photographs.
And all I can do when staring at the face of the priest is to wonder what emotions the sculptor must have shared with the statue when carving such suffering out of marble.
One account I enjoyed the most on the tour, was of how a period of exactly 400 years passed between the discovery of the scene in 1506, and the discovery of the right arm in 1906. During this time various attempts were made to restore the statue and Laocoön was most often depicted with an outstretched arm.
Apparently this was more heroic than the one he has now.
But one of the biggest supporters for the theory that Laocoön’s arm was in fact bent back (as it was proved to be when the arm fragment was finally unearthed) was Michelangelo. Yet no one listened to him!
2. Hercules of the Theatre of Pompey
So we’ve all seen the marble statues of Ancient Greece and Rome, but until Tatiana pointed out this formidable statue of Hercules in the Sala Rotonda room at the Vatican Museums I had never known that the ancient Greeks also worked with bronze.
The statue depicts the first of Hercules’ Twelve Labours: the slaying of the Nemean Lion. He has the hide of the lion draped across his left arm whilst his right hand clutches the club that he used to beat the lion to death.
It sounds brutal, but the man was desperate. He’d been put under a spell that had caused him to murder his wife and children → Click here to read more about that sad story.
But the most startling thing about this statue is its material. As I said, bronze was used alongside marble for Ancient Greek statues, but over the years much of it was melted down for other uses. Which is a shame because there’s something about this statue of Hercules that is so much more lifelike than the marble creations.
Just look at his eyes…
3. Claudius Caesar as Jupiter
The fourth Emperor of Rome, Claudius ruled for thirteen years until he was apparently murdered by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, who was more concerned that her son Nero become Emperor than her husband live.
I heard that one along the grapevine, not from Tatiana, but what I did learn from the Through Eternity tour guide was to pay attention to the inconsistency portrayed in this statue between the face and torso of Claudius…
Now Claudius didn’t become Emperor until he was 50 years old, which is an age represented in the face of this sculpture. But I have to say I don’t expect many 50 year olds still carry a six pack stomach.
For someone who knows so little about Ancient art, it definitely gave me pause for thought. If you know why it was so important to the Romans to portray their figures so realistically in the face and yet with the strength of a young man, feel free to let me know in the comments!
Or perhaps Claudius was just a really fit 50 year old…
4. The Triumph of Christianity by Tommaso Laureti
Moving on from sculpted figures to painted ones…
The Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums are an incredibly intense experience of art after art after art. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life. At least I hadn’t until Tatiana led us to the Sistine Chapel.
And it’s in one of the Raphael Rooms that one particular painting grabbed my attention. Titled The Triumph of Christianity the painting below by Tommaso Laureti not only portrays his talent in painting perspective (a skill you see time and again in the Vatican Museums!) but it is also startling because the Triumph depicts the Cross towering over a smashed pagan statue.
The smashed statue is just like the hundreds you encounter in the rest of the Vatican. So in a world where religion and art seem to have stood side by side for centuries, here is documentation of the destruction of the pagan world ordered by Emperor Constantine The Great.
And whilst this may have been a triumph for the previously persecuted and victimised Christian communities in the Roman Empire, it’s also a real shame to think of so much Ancient history destroyed.
5. Raphael in The School of Athens
One thing that stuck in my mind whilst walking the Raphael Rooms with Through Eternity Tours was the way in which the commissioned artists would represent themselves in their own artwork.
The School of Athens (the painting in the photo above) is by far one of my favourite frescoes within the walls of the Vatican. But I can’t cover all the incredible knowledge Tatiana gave us about the painting in one post so I want to focus on my favourite figure in the bottom left corner…
See the guy in the black hat staring directly out of the painting?
That would be Raphael himself.
Apparently the Renaissance artists had a thing about painting notable figures into their works and the way Tatiana explained who was who amazed me, especially as the reasons behind the identification seemed pretty ambiguous to me!
But the fact that Raphael also painted himself in to the fresco, amongst some of the most inspirational thinkers in history, gives me an idea that he thought highly enough of his work to be deserving of this spot.
And then he just looks out at you, daring you to tell him he’s wrong. What a badass.
The Sistine Chapel with Through Eternity Tours
I’ve always been a bit of a good girl. And so as there is no photography allowed in the Sistine Chapel (in order to protect the incredible artwork of Michelangelo) and I was too nervous to try and be sneaky and break the rules, I have little to share with you on this part of the tour in terms of photography.
But I also don’t think I could accurately represent the breadth of information that Tatiana shared with us before entering. In a short segment of the tour, she stopped us at an information board and brought to life two of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling and The Last Judgement.
Without her intricate explanations, I would have been lost!
3 Reasons You Should Visit the Vatican Museums with Through Eternity Tours
- The Vatican Museums seem never-ending, and I’ve already given an indication as to the incredible amount of art and history that exists within its walls. Without Tatiana, and her incredible wealth of knowledge, I could never have appreciated the beauty and philosophy behind these works of art.
- We didn’t have to queue – at all! I’ve heard horror stories of the queues to enter the Vatican Museums, and perhaps we arrived on a quiet day, but Through Eternity organise all the entrance tickets (which is included in the price!) and getting in seemed like a breeze.
- It was fun! In this article I’ve mostly tried to get across my favourite parts of the tour and the things I learnt, but I have to also point out that Tatiana had the driest sense of humour, and when you hear a funny anecdote about a figure or painter it really brings the past to life in a way that you just don’t get from audio tours.
Final Tips: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica Essential Experience with Through Eternity Tours
- I took part in The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica: Essential Experience tour which is 3.5 hours long and has a maximum group size of thirteen.
- The information I gained during the tour was overwhelming, but for those who are passionate to learn more (which will be me on my next trip to Rome!) Through Eternity Tours also offers an extended tour of 5 hours: The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica: In-Depth Experience (5 hr).
- On very rare occasions for various religious reasons, access to St. Peter’s Basilica is restricted. I visited the day they had Padre Pio on display and therefore there was little room for tourists amongst the pilgrims who flocked to Rome to pay their respects. As I said, this is rare and I didn’t mind too much, but if you are desperate to experience everything you can in The Vatican, just contact the office and ask for their advice on the best days to take the tour. The staff at Through Eternity Tours are fantastic and will do all they can to make sure you get the experience you’re looking for.
- Make sure to take a bottle of water and have a big lunch before you go as you will be on your feet the whole time.
- Through Eternity gives tours on more than just The Vatican.
- Due to my work schedule whilst in Rome I missed out on taking one of their underground tours which is such a shame because they look incredible! I’d also love to take their Twilight Piazza & Fountain tour as Rome is just stunning in the evenings, as well as their Caravaggio tour as he is one of my friend’s favourite painters. Basically, there is a tour suited for everyone so make sure to check their website for a full list.
- The Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica: Essential Experience Tour costs just 56 EUR (or 42 EUR for students) and includes the skip-the-line entrance tickets, reservation fees and headsets – making it one of the best value tours I think I’ve ever taken.
The Vatican Museums Gallery
(Click the photos to enlarge)
I’d like to thank to Through Eternity Tours for having me as a guest on their Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica: Essential Experience tour, and to The Beehive Ho[s]tel for helping arrange the experience, but of course all opinions are honest and my own.
I’d also like to give a personal thank you to Tatiana for inspiring a very new interest in Ancient history and art!
Lots of love,
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