The Vatican is planning a series of exhibits, conferences and guided visits to a newly discovered necropolis to mark the 500th anniversary of the Vatican Museums, one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world.
The centerpiece of the celebrations is a show surrounding the 1506 discovery near the Colosseum of the Laocoon _ a marble statue dating from 30-40 B.C. of the Trojan priest who was killed along with his two sons by a sea serpent for having warned his people about the Trojan horse.
When the statue was unearthed, Pope Julius II bought it and transferred it to the Vatican, forming the origins of the Holy See's vast collection of art and antiquities on display in a handful of Vatican museums around Rome.
The other highlight of the anniversary is the public opening of an unusually well-preserved necropolis that was discovered in 2003 during excavations inside Vatican City for a new parking lot. The site contains some 30 burial chambers, 60 individual tombs and funeral alters dating from the first century A.D. that were decorated with frescos and mosaics. The Vatican says the importance of the necropolis is second only to that containing what are believed to be the relics of St. Peter, underneath St. Peter's Basilica.
"True fragments of history have re-emerged intact from the oblivion of time and the Earth," museum director Francesco Buranelli said Tuesday in outlining the anniversary plans.
The other events planned for 2006 include the reopening of renovated parts of two museums _ the Christian Museum and the Ethnological Missionary Museum. The Vatican will also open the newly restored Room of Mysteries in the Borgia Apartments of the Apostolic Palace, which are attributed to Pinturicchio. And a conference of major museum directors from around the world is scheduled for December on the role of museums in history and today.
Nearly 4 million people a year visit the Vatican Museums, drawn by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the Raphael rooms and Borgia apartments, as well as the Holy See's collections of Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities and Renaissance paintings.
The institution alone provides $23.8 million in revenue a year to the Vatican, said Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, who runs the Vatican City state.
Only Rome's Capitoline Museum is believed to be older, Buranelli said.
Museum crowds are a perennial problem, though, and even with a new entrance hall and an entrance rate Buranelli said could average about 39 visitors a minute, hours-long lines snake around the walls of Vatican City during peak tourist season. But he said there was little the museum could do for now since it was constrained by the physical layout of the historic buildings and necessary security measures.
Rome city authorities are considering a new, underground entrance hall and the museum itself is considering offering reservations for selected times, he said. Lengthening the museum's hours _ which at peak times can stretch from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. _ would cut into cleaning and climate control maintenance necessary for the museum's upkeep.