Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums

What we leave behind – Famous battles of Hannibal Barcas in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

On a  trip to Europe in 2013 I was not only able to visit the battlefield of Lake Trasimene, but also had  a chance to look for some traces of Hannibal in French and Italian Museums (Louvre, Capitoline Museums and Vatican Museums).

This three-part guide points out some interesting objects connected to Hannibal’s history, focusing on his influence on later generations, especially artists in the Renaissance and Baroque. The objects are not obscure, but might not be the focus of a standard visit of these institutions and you might be inclined to integrate them in your itinerary.

We start out with the Vatican Museums and its Gallery of Maps, featuring depictions of some of Hannibal’s most famous battles.

The Gallery of Maps – Historical Introduction

The Gallery of Maps is the largest cycle of geographical images in Europe and features 40 panels, each of them depicting a specific geographical area in Italy. It was created under Pope Gregory XIII between 1578 and 1581.

Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums.
Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums. Photo: Author.

Looking at the sheer size of the gallery it becomes clear that it is not the work of one artist alone, but rather an armada of artists, each tasked with executing elements of the gallery, sometimes with multiple artists working on different aspects of a map, for instance the depictions of landscapes or the execution of elaborate frames. However, Egnazio Danti was responsible for the overall design. In a letter he explained the reasoning behind the arrangement of the maps along the gallery walls:

Your eminence, and the profit I have derived from your distinguished labors place me in a position of great debt and warm regard toward you, and as a small token of my esteem I send you these few lines together with a plan …, as I have done for most of the Papal States, at the order of the Pope, who summoned me to Rome to decorate a Gallery His Holiness has had built with a description of Italy. So, having divided the country in two at the Apennines, I placed the half that is washed by the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas on one side and that bound by the Adriatic and the Alps on the other. I then further divided it into forty separate parts, according to the various States and Prefectures, for the Gallery is divided into forty large panels, each so large that sixty-four sheets of paper royal were needed for the cartoons. I am now preparing scaled-down versions of the maps for a book, in which forty-eight separate regions will be represented together with eighty episodes depicted on the ceiling above the panels, each showing a miracle known to have occurred in that province (Bertolini 1908, as cited in Gambi 1997).

The interesting part for the Hannibal enthusiast or wargamer in general are the well executed and often quaint depictions of famous battles in Italian history scattered throughout the maps. Not only classical battles are shown, but also significant medieval clashes, both at land and sea.  This makes perusing the maps especially delightful and it really is worthwhile to dedicate a bit more time to each to take in all of the details.

Where to find the Gallery and the battle scenes

You should encounter the Gallery of Maps on any of the usual guided tours of the museums, but you won’t have much time to look at anything as you might share the space with quite a number of tourists and the gallery is merely looked at in passing.  So the best idea to have a closer look is to go during off-season, not take a tour and wait until a tour group has left. This should give you some room to breath.

The amount of maps in the 120 meter long gallery might be overwhelming at first, but you are looking for the maps depicting Apulia (Northern Puglia), featuring Cannae, Urbini Ducatus (The Dutchy of Urbino), featuring the battle of Metaurus, Placentiae et Parmae Ducatus (The Dutchy of Parma and Piacenza), featuring the battle of the Trebia and Perusinus ac Tifernas (The Territories of Perugia and Citta di Castello), featuring the Battle of Lake Trasimene.

At the time of visit the maps featuring Cannae and Metaurus were under restoration, but they should be open to the public again now.

Battle of the Trebbia (218 BCE)

The battle scenes are often based on the classical authors, but surely show some creative interpretation on side of the artist. The battle of the Trebbia is a good example for this: While one can spot some cavalry movement (potentially Numidians) and elephants with turrets charging the Romans, the battle line looks rather confused.

Battle of the Trebbia Gallery of Maps a the Vatican Museum
Battle of the Trebbia. Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums. Photo: Author.

The camps on each side show colourful tents, but resemble more medieval types. Both the Carthaginian and Roman infantry blocks look more like Pikemen. Still, the detailed camp scenes and overall beautiful execution really adds some interest to the scene and one can lose oneself for minutes looking at all the rich detailing.

Gallery of Maps Vatican Museum Battle of the Trebbia
Battle of the Trebbia. Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums. Photo: Author.

Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BCE)

The map featuring the ambush at Lake Trasimene is one of the most beautiful of the cycle. The style is very similar to the Battle of the Trebbia. It might be that the artist wanted to depict the attack of the Carthaginian cavalry on the confused Romans, but it is hard to make out.

Battle of Lake Trasimene. Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museum.
Battle of Lake Trasimene. Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums. Photo: Author.

Again we have a beautifully rendered camp that even features a campfire with a pot. As you can see the maps also have short explanations close to historical events, summarising succinctly the outcome. You may ask why the battle is depicted as happening on the southern shore of the lake, but one has to take into account that this map is not oriented with North on its top, but rather at its bottom.

Battle of Lake Trasimene. Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museum.
Battle of Lake Trasimene. Gallery of Maps. Vatican Museums. Photo: Author.

I hope you found this brief introduction to the Gallery of Maps interesting. Maybe you incorporate it into your next visit to Rome or maybe you already saw it. If so, share your experience below.

St. Peter’s Square. Rome. Photo: Author.

Further reading:

Gambi, Lucio (1997). The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican (P. Tucker, Trans.). New York: George Braziller.

This book features high quality full-colour photographs of the maps with historical information accompanying each. If you are not able to go to Rome anytime soon, this is a good alternative.


10 thoughts on “What we leave behind – Famous battles of Hannibal Barcas in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums”

  1. Thanks for the fascinating look at the Gallery of Maps. I had not heard of it, until now. Those beautiful battle depictions from the maps, are certainly products of their time, and are interesting, as such.

    I need to get to Rome in the next few years.


  2. You couldn’t have timed this post better! I’m currently in Rome and will be visiting the Vatican tomorrow! Thanks for the post! I’ll be sure to check it out! 😀


    1. Excellent timing indeed. If you go to the Capitoline Museums there is a Hannibal room with a nice wall fresco depicting him in orientalising fashion on an elephant. If you have the time check it out. They also have the dying Gaul and the She-wolf (however that one might be medieval).


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