Art History Major or Not: Vatican “Walk” & Sistine Chapel is a MUST!

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Raphael Room Vatican

I listened to man in the suit in front of me and really tried to concentrate on what he was saying. I took notes rapidly about dates, religious timelines, leaders, and wars. He authoritatively stated the names and periods as if he had given this lecture a thousands times. My mind started to wonder how to spell Raphael – is it an ‘f’ or a ‘ph’? I really wish he would write this stuff on a board I thought to myself. I suddenly had a wave of panic roll over me wondering if we would be quizzed on any of this and I rapidly started writing notes again.

Today in Rome I felt like I was transported back to my old college lecture hall, trying to stay focused on looking at a big screen with slides being flashed in front of me in my Art History class. However instead of slides and a professor lecturing, I was seeing the works of art first-hand, only a couple feet away from me.  And my ‘professor’ was actually a tour guide; an extremely knowledgeable tour guide named Gregory.

map room vatican

I still remember getting the glossy, well designed tour pamphlet at the travel conference 2 years ago and tucking it away to be used at a time when I really needed it. When I asked Bethany what she wanted to see in Rome, she surprised me and said that she’d like to see the Vatican. She’s not particularly religious, or artistic so I wondered what her goal was. Then again who was I to judge, after 4 previous trips to Rome I had never gone to the Vatican; it always seemed too crowded, too religious, and too artsy. Truthfully, I was intimated by it since I’m not very knowledgeable in religion or art.

Context is a niche tour company, which staffs their tours with experts, docents, and professors. With a tag line of “tours for the intellectually curious”, they’ve set themselves apart from the average tour. The Vatican seemed like a perfect place to utilize this expert knowledge and really try to make the most out of it. After all, I had waited this long to experience the Vatican, I might as well make it completely worth it for both of us.

Our guide, Gregory, led us through the entrance gates and lines as if he were Napoléon and us mignons were just riding his coattails. Before I knew it, the process that I had most dreaded, getting through the horrible lines at the Vatican Museum, was complete and it didn’t hurt at all! Context has reserved tickets which allows you to avoid a lot of the hassle of simply getting into the museum.

Once inside Gregory approached the next four hours like a lecture. It had a point and purpose. He introduced characters and theories throughout, but they all tied together perfectly and he made it easy to follow a very complex historical time. He first introduced us to 3 sculptures of different time periods, which served as models for everything we were about to see in the next 4 hours. Instead of slides we were looking at the real things and like any great college professor Gregory infused humorous yet informative elements into what I was afraid may be dull information.

The three sculptures used as models for future artistic periods



I had been worried that Bethany may be bored with the tour as it might have resembled her college classes too much and she was on Spring Break after all. Instead she was completely into every tidbit of information Gregory dished out. He had a great way of speaking beyond the paintings and sculptures and infusing the everyday cultural happenings of the time into the works of art. He put these cultural tidbits in terms of modern day in the same way we speak of the paparazzi and ‘celebrities’ and egos. He took Art History and religion and made it as entertaining as Access Hollywood.

Bethany marveled at ceiling frescoes and refused to believe Gregory when he told us that they weren’t 3 dimensional. I enjoyed seeing her process the complexity and beauty of what she was seeing. Like any good teacher, I think it was equally exciting for Gregory as he bantered back and forth with her amused by her disbelief. As Gregory explained the walled frescoes in the Raphael rooms as well as the Sistine Chapel you knew that we weren’t even scratching the surface of what this man knew. He pointed out elements, characters, and motivations that I never would have known had I been walking through these rooms self guided.  After 30 minutes in the Sistine Chapel I had a whole new appreciation for Michelangelo and the personal, political, and religious undertones of every stroke.

vatican ceiling

We next entered St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Christian church in the world. Upon entering you were dwarfed by the building as if you were an ant scurrying out of your anthill into the big world for the first time.

Gregory walked us through the various chapels and threw out a host of architectural facts that turned out to be Bethany’s favorite part of the whole tour – or at least the most memorable as she gasped in disbelief when Gregory told us the dimensional optical illusions in the architecture.

St. peters basilica

st peters

st peters

After 4 hours we had barely scratched the surface of what there was to see in the museums. Gregory however deftly led us through the important things and luckily there was no quiz at the end. Gregory bid us goodbye and I felt as if it were a complete semester college course coming to an end and I was saying goodbye to my respected professor.

I can finally tick the Vatican off my list now in Rome; I was happy I waited so long to do it the right way. Bethany and I walked out to the piazza and took a last look at the mammoth structures having a whole new respect for everything inside those holy walls.

The Good:

• Context only does small groups on their tours. On our tour there were only 5 of us.
• The guides are extremely knowledgeable and that’s really what makes Context stand out. It allows you to really delve into a subject.
• Context provided a pre-reading guide which was useful to sort of orient yourself before showing up at the Vatican. The overall quality of the information on the tour was top notch.
• You just follow your guide through the very crowed Vatican museum and don’t have to wonder where to go next or how to get around!
• Skip the lines with reserved entry tickets to the Vatican Museum.

The Could Be Better:

• 4 hours is a long time, so be sure to bring a snack as you are on your feet the entire time
• Could have used a scheduled bathroom break, but honestly Gregory was so into his ‘teaching’ that he forgot.
• There wasn’t a ton of time to take photos, but this type of tour isn’t necessarily for taking photos, it’s about seeing, learning, and being present.

Would I recommend it:

If you didn’t study art history then I believe this is the best way to see the Vatican. There’s so much to see there that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not really get much out of it but saying that you saw the Sistine Chapel. With a tour like this, you walk away knowledgeable…and you saw the Sistine Chapel.

More information:
Website: Context Arte Vaticana Tour (includes St. Peters and Sistine Chapel)
Cost: €85 per person + Vatican Museum Full Price Ticket – €19.00 (mandatory)
Other Context tours:

See all photos from the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s:

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