The Gallery of the Maps, also known as Galleria Delle Carte Geografice in Italian, may be the most stunning room inside the Vatican Museums. The Gallery consists of 40 beautiful fresco painted maps of Italy spanning the length of almost 600 feet (175 meters) showing Italian regions, the Italian peninsula, the neighboring Italian Islands and Papal territories. These intricately painted maps were created hundreds of years ago but they are said to be over 80 percent accurate to this day.
The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII between the years 1580-1583, although the idea for the gallery started even earlier in 1577. The painter and architect Ignazio Danti, who was also working on the new Gregorian calendar (which we still use to this day) was the artist who was finally commissioned to complete the work.
The Gallery is designed to be divided into two sides, separated by the Apennines mountains (these are the 840-mile/1,400 km long mountains that stretch up the center length of Italy). One side shows the regions of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the other of the regions of the Adriatic Sea.
At the top of each map, you can see the name of each region written in Latin and as you come to the end of the opulent room you will see two maps of Italy on your right and on your left. One map will say Italia Antiqua meaning Old Italy and the other Italia Nova meaning New Italy. Although these maps are identical you will notice the names of the regions are different. This is because the Italia Antiqua map names the regions as they were called in the Ancient Roman times and Italia Nova are the names of the regions as they were called when the maps were created in the late 16th century.
Without a doubt, the most interesting map for me is the map of Venice which can be seen at the very end of the Room on the back wall to the left. The reason this is so striking is that although this map was fresco painted in the 1580s you can still take a photo of it and use it as your map of Venice today. Almost all the streets and canals are still as they were back then as they are today.
It is also worth checking out the map of Sicily which is on the left as you enter into the gallery at the beginning of the room. Although it is very accurate you will notice that it is bizarrely upside down. It is believed it was painted this way as this would be how Sicily would have looked coming from the direction of Rome.
The ceiling is also stunning. The ceiling is so impressive that I have often overheard tourists mistaking this gallery for the Sistine Chapel itself. The ceiling itself tells the story of important historical events from each region of Italy as you walk down the Room. The ceiling was fresco painted by a number of mannerist artists (mannerism was considered late Renaissance art and pre Baroque art). The most famous of these artists who painted the ceiling were Cesare Nebbia and Girolamo Muziano, the artist who also supervised the whole ceiling. You will also notice as you enter into the Gallery that all the figures on the ceiling appear to be upside down. That is because today the Vatican Museums is a one-way system leading towards the Sistine Chapel but when this room was designed it was not originally part of any museum for the public.
If you are tall enough as you walk down this gallery, take a look out the windows on your right-hand side and you will be able to see a part of the beautiful Vatican gardens.
Visiting the Gallery of the Maps
Photos are allowed in this hall of maps but you must turn off your flash as the flash may damage the fresco paintings.
Take note that the only way you can visit the Gallery of the Maps is to first go through the Vatican museums. This gallery is one of the last rooms before entering into the Sistine Chapel unless you turn left at the sign to visit the Raphael Rooms and the modern art gallery.
The Vatican Museums bring in on average 6.5 million visitors a year so you may not have a whole lot of time in this room as you will be expected to keep walking during the busy months. But take in what you can and try not to be rushed by the groups pushing past.