Vatican Borgia Apartments ☆☆

Sala dei Santi (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Rome, Italy (Photo by Photo Scala, Florence)
Sala dei Santi (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio

The Vatican's Appartamento Borgia (Borgia Apartments) were the private chambers of Borgia Pope Alexander VI, frescoed by early Renaissance master Pinturicchio

The Borgia Apartments, downstairs from the Raphael Rooms, were painted by Pinturicchio and occupied by the infamous Spanish Borgia pope Alexander VI (you know: that devilish guy played by Jeremy Irons in the Borgias TV series).

This apartment suite was closed off by Julius II—who refused to live in rooms sullied by his venal predecessor—and its frescoes covered with black crepe.

Things remained that way for 386 years, until the apartments were reopened in 1889 to serve as display rooms for the Vatican's collection of (frankly bland, for the most part) modern religious art.

More importantly, when they reopened in 1889, the Vatican also finally uncovered the walls and ceilings to unveil the rich frescoes, painted by Pinturicchio with wacky early-Renaissance Umbrian fantasy.

Pinturicchio's frescoes in the Borgia apartments

A co-pupil of Raphael’s under master Perugino, Pinturicchio had a penchant for embedding fake jewels and things like metal saddle studs in his frescoes rather than painting these details in for an intriguing effect—call it Renassiance 3D.

While Pinturrichio's art is not necessarily at its top form in these rooms, they're worth a run-through.

A major moment in world history captured in fresco—then lost for 519 years

The frescoes have been (finally) getting restored over the past several years, and the cleaning revealed something amazing: the first European depiction of Native Americans.

In the scene of The Risen Christ (a.k.a. The Ressurection)—just above the casket and to the left of the head of the long-haired man in red robes gazing up at Jesus—is a tiny scene of naked men in feathered headresses dancing around a pole. One even appears to be styling a mohawk hairdo.

What makes this even more remarkable is that these frescoes were finished by 1494—just two years after Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean and a mere 18 months or so after he returned from that voyage and handed over his journals to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

More intriguing: While this scene was being painted, the crowned heads of Europe were still desperately trying to keep discovery of the New World a secret while they divvied up the rights to any future discoveries.

So while Columbus' discovery was something of a state secret at the time, Alexander VI apparently just couldn't resist a little bragging via fresco.He must have shared Columbus' description of the natives with Pinturicchio so he could slip them in there.

And that balding, pius-looking fellow kneeling in rich gold robes on the left side of the scene? It's Rodrigo Borgia himself: Pope Alexander VI.

Aside: Alexander VI had something to do with why they speak Portuguese in Brazil

Alexander VI spent the 1480s and early 90s issuing papal bulls attempting to control how the new discoveries being made by Spain and Portugal be divided up.

Eventually, all the powers involved sat at the table to negotiate the "Treaty of Tordesillas."

The goal of this treaty was to demarcate a north-south meridian that sliced the globe halfway between the Cape Verde islands (then held by Portugal) and the new "West Indies" that Columbus had discovered for Spain (modern-day Cuba and Hispanola—a.k.a. Haiti & the Dominican Republic).

The new rule: Spain could lay claim to any new lands discovered west of that line; Portugal to anything east of it.

Map showing the various lines, first the one established by Alexander VI's 1493 papal bull (in dotted purple) and the final one from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas (in solid purple). The green line denotes a similar dividing from the 1529 Treaty of Sargasso.
Map showing the various lines, first the one established by Alexander VI's 1493 papal bull (in dotted purple) and the final one from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas (in solid purple). The green line denotes a similar dividing from the 1529 Treaty of Sargasso.

Keep in mind that, at the time, only those few Caribbean islands had been discovered—and, if the monarchs truly bought Columbus' (wrong) theory, everyone still thought these were merely offshore islands of Asia. No one had any idea that there were two giant continents just beyond.

However, a case has been made the Portuguese already knew at least a bit about the eastern coast of South America—but had kept it a secret. This would explain why they kept insisting on nudging the Tordesillas line farther and farther to the west into what was widely thought to be simply empty Atlantic.

This conspiracy theory holds that their goal was to make sure the line would pass right through the eastern bulge of South America, presumably already discovered by earlier intrepid Portuguese explorers.

Why?

So that in 1500, en route to India, Captain Pedro Álvarez Cabral could just sort of casually swing by—through supposedly unknown seas, mind you, and way, way out of the way from his original sailing plans—"stumble" across South America, and immediately claim this land for Portugal.

Whatever the case, this Tordesillas line is why, to this day, they speak Portguese in Brazil but Spanish just about everywhere else in the Americas.

Moving on in the Vatican Museums

Once you are done with the Borgia Apartments, you can climb back up and head straight to the Sistine Chapel, or continue downstairs to visit more (slightly better) Modern Art first.

Photo gallery
  • Sala dei Santi (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo by Photo Scala, Florence)
  • The Resurrection (1492–94) by Pinturicchio, with Pope Alexander VI kneeling at the lower left, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Pentecost (1492–94) by Pinturicchio in the Sala dei Misteri, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • St. Catherine
  • The Sala dei Misteri (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Music (1492–94) by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Arithmetic (1492–94) by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Sala dei Misteri (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo by Photo Scala, Florence)
  • Sala delle Sibille, Vatican Borgia Apartments, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Map showing the various lines, first the one established by Alexander VI
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Tips

How long does Vatican Borgia Apartments take?

The Borgia Apartments take about 15–20 minutes—but expect to spend all day at the Vatican.

How long do the Vatican Museums take?

Spend all day at the Vatican. Two days if you can swing it.

  • Even on a tight schedule, expect to spend at least 2–3 hours in the museums themselves, plus another hour St. Peter's around the corner. They're worth it.

Warning: The ticket office closes 2 hours before the museum, with the last entry at 4pm.

Book ahead

You can book Vatican entry tickets ahead of time to help avoid the lines, which can last for up to an hour or so in the summer. However, this adds a €4 fee to the already steep admission of €17. Or you can do it online via one of our partners:

Dress code?

Recently, the Vatican (or at least some guards) seems to have decided that you must dress "appropriately" to visit any part of Vatican City—including the museums—and not just St. Peter's, where a dress code has long applied.

Err on the side of caution and make sure you arrive with no bare shoulders, knees or midriffs.

That means: no shorts, no miniskirts, no sleeveless shirts or blouses, no tank-tops. Also, no hats.

(If it's hot and you want to wear a tank top around town that day, just bring a light shawl to cover your shoulders while inside.)

Also, you cannot bring into the museum any bag or backpack larger than 40cm x 35cm x 15cm (roughly 16" x 14" x 6")—there is a cloackroom where you can leave it.

» more on packing the right items for an Italy trip

Admission quirks: When the Vatican is free, closed, crowded, open late, etc.

Vatican Museum free days

The Vatican Museums are free on the last Sunday of each month, when they stay open until 2pm (last entry: 12:30pm). This, however, is no secret, so they are also intensely crowded.

On any other Sunday, however, the Vatican Museum are closed—and if that final Sunday of the month happens falls on a church holiday (see below), they also remain closed.

The Vatican is also free on Sept. 27 (World Tourism Day).

Vatican most crowded on Sun and Wed

The Vatican Museums are most crowded on Sundays (because they're free) and many Wednesdays (because in the morning St. Peter's itself is often closed for the papal audience in the piazza, so everyone who doesn't have tickets walks around the walls to kill time inside the museums, and by afternoon all the audience-goers join them).

Open late on summer Fridays

The Vatican has been experimenting with reopening the museums on Friday evenings spring through fall allowing a limited number of visitors—upon advance booking only—to wander the mooonlit galleries without the crowds.

To book: Viator.com

Vatican closed on church holidays

The Vatican Museums are closed on all church holidays: Jan. 1, Jan. 6, Feb. 11, Mar. 19, Easter Sunday and Monday, May 1, June 29 (Feast of St. Peter and Paul—major Roman holiday), Aug. 14–15 (everything is closed in Rome on Aug. 15; head to Santa Maria Maggiore for mass with a "snowfall" of rose petals), Nov. 1, Dec. 25 (Merry Christmas!), and Dec. 26 (Santo Stefano—huge in Italy).

Last entry: 4pm

Note that the Vatican Museums close surprisingly early (last entry at 4pm, doors close 6pm).

So see the Museums first, then walk around the walls to visit St. Peter's.

How to get to the Vatican Museums

Cipro-Musei Vaticani is the closest Metro stop (on the A line, about 5 blocks northwest of the entrance; just follow the crowds).

Otherwise, bus 49 stops right in front of the museum entrance (you can catch it from Piazza Cavour, or anywhere along Via Cescenzio, which starts at the northwestern tip of the piazza, near Castel Sant'Angelo).

You can also take bus 490 or 492 to Via Candia (two blocks north of the entrance), or one of many bus lines to Piazza del Risorgimento, tucked into a inside corner of the Vatican walls a short walk east of the musuems entrance: 23, 32, 81,Tram 19, 81, 492, 590, 982, and 990.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).