Love art? For hundreds of years, the Catholic church has been commissioning and collecting the world’s greatest works of art. A wealthy nation-state, Vatican City has untold riches within its walls—quite a bit of it that can be visited. Outside the papal state, visitors can enjoy the luxurious, fashion-forward area that runs from Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps. Window shop, enjoy a glass of Prosecco, stroll through the Borghese Gallery, and wander down by the Tiber River. Art connoisseurs can purchase treasures in the many galleries, but all can enjoy the Renaissance and Baroque splendors on display throughout the Eternal City. If you enjoy art, you will find many things to do in Rome.
Catholic or not, religious or not, to see the finest works of art in Rome you should visit a lot of churches. Thanks to the patronage of church elders, Roman houses of worship hold the works of great masters such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini. One of the biggest and the best is St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. If you can, step over the border to the separate nation-state of Vatican City and explore the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Piazza San Pietro. When you’re finished step back over to Italy and walk down to the papal safe-house, Castel Sant’ Angelo, and see its elaborate, angelic bridge, Ponte Sant’Angelo.
I highly recommend starting the day at the Vatican Museum. You will need to be fresh for this behemoth of a museum complex. Either reserve your Vatican tickets online well in advance of your trip or book a tour (the latter may provide extra benefits like privileged entrance, read about my tour here). The lines are beastly and a little bit of planning can save you a lot wasted time and stress. Once you enter, you will find yourself in a museum housing one of the world’s finest collections of art and antiquities. The Catholic church was and is very wealthy and very powerful; consequently, they have purchased, confiscated, and been beneficiaries of the greatest paintings, statues, pottery, tapestries, precious metals/stones, religious relics, jewelry, archaeological treasures, historical objects, and archival goods the world has ever known.
Stroll through pre-Christian Roman, Greek, and Egyptian exhibits. Walk down the fabulous frescoed Hall of Maps. Pass through the Hall of Tapestries and be slightly unnerved by the tapestry where it feels as if Jesus’ eyes are following you. Chuckle a little as you pass by male statues whose “manhood” are covered by fig leaves—thanks to prudish popes condemning nudity in artwork. Don’t miss the rooms painted by the great Renaissance artist Raphael. My personal favorite is his famed School of Athens fresco that characterizes the Italian Renaissance. There is much to see at the Vatican Museum, so I recommend picking a few major pieces and “can’t miss” areas of the complex and then making plans to come back. It’s easier to cram too much in if you know that you will return.
One “can’t miss” area is the Sistine Chapel—Michelangelo’s masterpiece. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the world’s greatest works of art. Sorry readers—no pictures—photography is prohibited. We were lucky to have a privileged tour with The Roman Guy, so the chapel was devoid of crowds. Even if you see the frescoed ceiling and walls with hordes of people it will take your breath away. In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to work on a decoration for the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to replace its starry sky painting (not very motivational). Michelangelo painted Biblical stories sure to inspire piety in the priests worships below (the demons might cause fear of God). Too bad the corrupt Borgia pope, Alexander VI, was already out of the papal seat by this time. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel looks three dimensional with some of the characters seeming as if they are coming out of the ceiling. It took four years to complete and the resulting work can only be described as breathtaking.
Leaving the Sistine Chapel, you can take a shortcut to St. Peter’s Basilica saving a long walk back through the museum. This massive church (over 600 feet long) covers six acres, can hold thousands of worshippers, and has marks on the floor to show where the world’s other big churches would fit inside. St. Peter’s Basilica stands atop the spot where St. Peter was crucified upside down (so as not to be killed in the same manner as his lord). His tomb is beneath the church. Bernini created a monumental bronze canopy to mark the burial place of St. Peter and a dome designed by Michelangelo soars above the gigantic canopy. The interior of the dome is inscribed: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… . The actual inscription is in Latin, of course. Everywhere one looks there is art, but no paintings—they are all mosaics, which makes them even more fabulous. Paintings would have been destroyed by all the candles. The Vatican has its own mosaic workshop in operation, which you can buy a souvenir from for a princely sum. One of Michelangelo’s most famous statues is also on display, the Pieta. Carved when he was young, Michelangelo depicts Mary holding her son, Jesus, after he has been crucified. It was made from a single block of marble. Bernini makes other contributions throughout the church and outside with statues atop the roof’s railing and his colonnade on Piazza San Pietro. To get a spectacular view of the statues, take the elevator up the dome. From there you can wander around the interior of the dome and get a close-up view of its mosaics or step outside and walk along the roof where you can see the backs of the statues and get a snack at the cafe. For those ready to exercise, you can climb several hundred stairs to the top of the dome for a great view of the city.
As you leave St. Peter’s Basilica, you may want to try to spot the Swiss Guard. When you walk out the church doors, turn right. There is a guard booth down the stairs on the right if you are facing the piazza. I love their colorful uniforms that date to the Renaissance. You will exit (along with throngs of people) onto Piazza San Pietro, which was once a Roman race track (you can tell by its oval shape). Its obelisk is one of many found throughout Rome.
Although not part of Vatican City, to stick with the papal theme you may want to head over to Castel Sant’ Angelo like the pope did during the Sack of 1527. In 1527, there was a bloody standoff in Rome. A good portion of the pope’s defenders, the Swiss Guard, were massacred. But the pope, Clement VII, escaped via a passageway “Passetto” and stayed safe during the six-month siege. Eventually, he paid a ransom for his life. Castel Sant’ Angelo was completed in 139 as an imperial tomb for the Emperor Hadrian. It came to be Castel Sant’ Angelo in 590 when it was dedicated to the archangel Michael, as is the nearby bridge, Ponte Sant’ Angelo. In 1535, Pope Clement VII had statues of St. Peter and St. Paul placed there. In 1669, Bernini was commissioned to add ten angels. Let those angels guide your path as you walk along the bridge contemplating how grand Hadrian’s Mausoleum was. Talk about making a statement in the afterlife!
The Vatican commissioned a lot of art from great Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael and Baroque artists like Bernini and Caravaggio. Those pieces can be found all over Rome. If you’re an art enthusiast, you will want to visit the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo next to the northern entrance to the city by the Popolo Gate (Porta del Popolo). It was originally built in 1099 allegedly to stop Nero’s ghost from haunting the site. Over the centuries many great artists reconstructed and restored the church. Raphael built and decorated the Chigi Chapel (fans of Daniel Brown’s Angels and Demons will remember this chapel’s importance in the book and movie). Donato Bramante designed the apse of the church. You will not want to miss Caravaggio’s two canvases in the Cerasi Chapel—Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul (patron saints of Rome). Gian Lorenzo Bernini built the façade of the church and created a statue, Habakkuk and the Angel, for the Chigi Chapel. It is a very active church with worship and prayer services constantly going on so travelers will want to pay careful attention to the schedule. My husband and I were admiring the Cerasi Chapel when all of a sudden a bell chimed and a group of worshippers who had been quietly praying burst into song. They were so harmonious that I stayed a moment too long and almost got shut in for the entire service. Thankfully, the woman who tended the giant doors let me squeeze out.
In front of the church is Piazza del Popolo, which can be found at the trident of three streets: via del Babuino, via Condotti, and via di Ripetta. The square is large and charming with an obelisk transferred from Circus Maximus (the racetrack of ancient times), a lion fountain, numerous statues, and great outdoor cafes. You will often find artists selling prints, men trying to sell roses (be careful they do it under the guise of “giving” you the rose), and Romans sitting around people watching. Piazza del Popolo is one of Rome’s larger piazzas to while away a few hours.
From Piazza del Popolo, you can climb stairs and reach the outskirts of the Borghese Gardens. This vast park is truly stunning. Your calves will probably burn a little bit, since there is a fair bit of hill climbing but the gardens are worth the stroll. At the top of the entrance from Piazza del Popolo there is a piazzale which provides a fabulous view of the city. The park has a lake, museums, fountains, statues, manicured gardens, and theaters (including one that looks like Shakespeare’s Globe). You can rent bikes and paddle boats.
We went to the Gardens with the purpose of visiting the Borghese Gallery (a sumptuous villa filled with art), which we found a little hard to find. The locals we stopped to ask didn’t know where it was, so I would suggest bringing a good map (the one we had didn’t cover the gardens). We were also not feeling adventurous—we had just flown nine hours cross Atlantic, taken a taxi to our hotel and dropped off our bags, and walked 2.4 kilometers (much up hill).
When visiting the Borghese Gallery, you should reserve your tickets in advance, because there are only so many spots per entry time. You are allowed two hours and that is it. Our entry time was for 1:00 p.m. and we had to pick up our tickets by 12:30 p.m. When you enter the Borghese Gallery, I recommend breaking away from the pack really fast and seeing a few first-floor rooms and then second-floor rooms while everyone else is still in the first room. The villa is set up so that people progress to the right through the rooms starting in the first room (massive) after security. My husband and I ignored that room and came back to it last and consequently got to be by ourselves in almost every room. What an awesome way to see such spectacular architecture and decoration! The 17th century Borghese Gallery is filled with art by Canova, Raphael, Bernini (lots of statues!), Caravaggio (lots of Caravaggio), and other artists. I found the ancient pieces to be quite special, too. There was a little map showing the layout (I had to ask for it) and descriptive cards. I wish they provided a brochure describing the building and family though. Hey people at the Borghese Gallery, if you’re reading this…
As an avid art lover, I like to collect it too. Going to places like the Borghese are marvelous, but it’s nice to pick up souvenirs from local artisans to remind you of your holiday while making your beautiful. A stylish shopping area of Rome is located in the area between Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. One of my favorite streets in all of Rome is via Margutta. Golden colored buildings with jewel-colored doors and flowers in little window boxes or climbing the wall make walking the street a delight. Charming little courtyards beckon along the way. This little lane has attracted the likes of Debussy, Picasso, Fellini, and Capote. It is the street where Mr. Bradley had his apartment in the Audrey Hepburn movie, Roman Holiday. Although the galleries and restaurants behind the ivy-covered walls charge quite a bit higher than starving-artist prices, there is still one great deal to be had. The Bottego del Marmoraro at #53b is a marble shop where one can pick an inscribed slab of marble for 15 euro. Marble plaques cover almost every square inch of the shop and are piled to the ceiling. Select one that speaks to you. The owner will translate the sayings for you if needed.
More shopping is nearby on via del Babuino and via del Corso, as well as the streets that radiate off these two big ones (via Margutta runs parallel to via del Babuino). Romans are known for their style and the boutiques in this area are all about high fashion—Gucci, Prada, and Versace, oh my! Don’t miss via Condotti for high-end fashion. While in the area, you might want to stop by the Spanish Steps. These frequently-photographed steps are often crowded by throngs of people who sit on the steps eating gelato and people watching. The Spanish Steps are popular among lovers so don’t be surprised if you catch some people kissing. At the top of the Spanish Steps is a beautiful late Renaissance church, Trinita dei Monti. At the base of the steps is the Piazza di Spagna, which features a charming fountain by Pietro Bernini—father of the famous Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Rome is beautiful chaos. With its madcap drivers constantly honking their horns and the throngs of tourists, it’s easy to get swept away by the fast-paced life. It’s equally important to slow down and enjoy la dolce vita (the sweet life). One way to do this is to take an evening stroll like Italians do—called la passeggiata. This is an event in and of itself. Stroll down the ancient walk ways of the city as the sun sets and the city lights come on. Hopefully, you have someone’s hand to hold. If you don’t, make a friend. Seriously, it is that romantic. Height restrictions mean that light floods the city and the setting sun casts a glow on buildings that were already kissed by golden hues. Lovers stumble against one another seemingly drunk on the overwhelming beauty of the city that surrounds them. Or they are drunk on love—one of the two. Grab a gelato to stave off hunger until dinner (a lot of restaurants don’t open until 7:30). Each neighborhood has its own route, but this one is excellent for travelers. Start your passeggiata at Piazza del Popolo and progress down via del Corso. Walk over to the Spanish Steps and then stop by the Trevi Fountain. Toss a coin so that you’ll return before heading over the Pantheon to see this ancient structure. End your stroll at Piazza Navona.
Although Rome’s ancient sites are some of the world’s great treasures, it also offers incomparable Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. I hope you’re able to visit the Eternal City soon and experience all that it has to offer. Please make sure to check out my other articles in this series where I write about Rome’s historic center, the area around the Colosseum, and less-explored sites. Ciao!
P.S. The Rome Tourism site has nice guides listing artwork in the city for several major artists including Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, and Caravaggio.
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