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Secrets and tips from 7 of the world's greatest museums

Getty Images via Condé Nast Traveler

The Simonetti staircase at the Vatican in Rome.

We tapped the most in-the-know tour guides and experts to tease out little-known facts behind the works at our greatest museums.


Throughout the Met, you might be able to spot the face of Audrey Munson — several times. Seth Kamil, president of Big Onion Walking Tours, which offers a new tour of the Met, explains: "She is the face and body of approximately 15 public sculptures in New York City, including the statue atop the Municipal Building, the Strauss Memorial at 106th and Broadway, and many others — plus the Mercury Dime. She was also the first woman to appear nude in a feature-length film." Munson lived to be 104 — though she spent most of her life in an insane asylum.

2. Uffizi Gallery

A hidden treasure in the newly opened galleries of the Uffizi are the twin portraits of Lucrezia and Bartolomeo Panciatichi by Agnolo Bronzino (1541). According to Monica Shenouda, an art historian who leads walking seminars for Context Travel in Florence, the paintings are rife with geopolitical symbolism of the 16th century. "Originally from a Pistoiese family, Bartolomeo had grown up in Lyon and came to Florence in 1540 as an ambassador to Cosimo I de Medici," Shenouda says. "His wife, Lucrezia Pucci, was a Florentine noblewoman. Their Florentine-ness is suggested by the background of pietra serena architecture and Bartolomeo's posing like one of the Medici statues by Michelangelo. Hints of France remain, notably on Lucrezia's necklace with the individual words "sans fin amour dure" on plaques. The portrait of Lucrezia inspired both Henry James, who sojourned in Florence, as a central symbol in the novel "Wings of the Dove," and Vernon Lee, James's friend and long-time resident of Florence, for her story "Amour Dure." 

3. The British Museum

"The Rosetta Stone — arguably the most significant archaeological discovery ever made — is only in the museum because of the undignified wrangling between French and British forces in 1801, and ended up being transferred to the British in the streets of Cairo on a cart," says archaeologist Lawrence Owens, who leads walking seminars for Context in London. "The Brits were so pleased that they even carved some graffiti on the side of it. Some of the early exhibits were pure theater, and typical of the Enlightenment curiosity cabinet. These notably included a dried thumb dug up from basement of St. James coffeehouse in 1766, a pair of glasses made from the beard of a shellfish found off Sicily in 1764, and a 1762 gift of a piece of lace made from the hair of Elizabeth the First."

4. The National Air and Space Museum
Washington, D.C.

Moon boots may have been popular in the '70s, but real ones are extremely rare. The National Air and Space Museum has the only two pairs of moon boots on Earth — those worn by Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt on Apollo 17. The overshoes worn on all the other missions were left on the lunar surface because of weight considerations.

5. The National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.

Art historian and curator Liz Tunick, who leads walking seminars for Context in Washington, D.C., tells us that the West Building of the National Gallery originally housed a gymnasium for museum staff until it was converted into gallery space. The locker rooms for showering, however, still remain.

6. The Getty Museum
Los Angeles

Take a close look at two works: Jan Brueghel the Elder's "The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark" and Peter Paul Rubens's "The Calydonian Boar Hunt." No, they don't bear much outward resemblance, but it turns out that the panels they were painted on were cut from the same tree, which the Getty discovered by matching up the tree rings. The two panels were reunited after 400 years. "Rubens and Brueghel were the most renowned painters in 17th-century Antwerp, and they were also neighbors, close friends and shared a dealer," says Julie Jaskol, the museum's assistant director of media relations. "And they clearly bought their panels from the same provider!"

7. The Vatican

Context Travel's Jessica Stewart reveals in our "Secrets of the Vatican" story that the Simonetti staircase is open to the Greek Cross in the morning. Visitors who go first thing could walk down the spiral and straight to the Sistine Chapel to view it nearly empty — if they arrive early enough.

Another tip from our Secrets of the Vatican story: Visitors to the Gregoriano Profano Museum should look just to the left of the Tomb of Constantia on the back wall. There's a small statue of a woman there, and though the head has been added to the torso, it is believed to be one of the few portraits of Cleopatra.

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