The Vatican

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Vatican City, “headquarters” for more than a billion Catholics worldwide.

Vatican Museum, a treasure trove of sculptures, paintings and tapestries.

The Vatican Museums, Musei Vaticani in Italian, are a series of art museums in the Vatican City, housing over 9 miles of the most extensive collection of art in the world, and are open to the public.

The museums originated with Pope Julius II in the 16th century, with a small number of sculptures. The Popes were among the first to open their art collections to the public to encourage cultural interest, and the number of museums and collections has grown over the centuries.

There are now at least 24 museums and collections housed in the Vatican, including a number of masterpieces by Caravaggio, da Vinci, Giotto, Raphael, Poussin,Titian and, of course, Michelangelo’s heroic Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. Since early 2000, there is a new welcome visitors entrance, offering services like a coat check, visitor information, guided tours, nursery, first aid station and the inevitable gift shop, as well as some new works of art.

More than 4 million people visit each year.

Sistine Chapel, where the Pope is elected and home to Michelangelo’s famed fresco ceiling.

The Sistine Chapel was built, and the decoration of the walls complete, by 1483. But it was Michelangelo's ceiling frescos, painted a quarter century later, that brought true immortality.

Commissioned by the Pope in 1508 to decorate the chapel, Michelangelo used a  network of scaffolding to reach the high vaulted ceilings. He divided the ceiling into nine panels, each showing a scene from Genesis. Contrary to legend, although he did do much of the work himself, Michelangelo also had assistants to help with the paintings.

Scholarly evidence suggests, too, that he painted mostly while standing. Nevertheless, it was an arduous task, and remains a compelling story.

The Chapel Ceiling has been cleaned, and the frescos restored to their original brilliance.