Saturday. September 10.
Of all the scheduled tours, this was the one I was looking forward to the most. “Skip the Line Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms.” The tour would start at 2:15. I got there early and walked around St. Peter’s Square again. It was another hot day.
There were more people in Vatican City today. Shops selling religious souvenirs were doing brisk business. There were large statues available for shipping home.
Some of the Italian women have a rough edge. I had to kill some time before getting to the meeting point, and went into a gelato shop. A woman barked at me from behind the counter, ‘WHATDOYOUWANT?” She reminded me of the older, more irascible wait staff and bartenders of North Beach. I wasn’t in a rush, but I ordered quickly. While I was there she either ignored or chased out about five other customers. Guess she wasn’t the owner.
“Meet at steps near Cafe Vaticano. Corner of Via Tunisi and Viale Vaticano.” I joined a crowd waiting for tours. I had a USF baseball hat on. Two young women asked me if I had gone to the University of San Francisco. “No, but I go to the basketball games.” They had graduated from USF about ten years ago. I met their parents, and we talked about our travels while we waited.
Young people with clipboards met us and broke us into groups. There were about twenty of us in one group. There were larger groups. Our tour guide was Alisa. She’s another Art History teacher. It takes us a while to get into the Vatican museum, but the “Skip the Line” tour is still a great deal. We went in before hundreds who were waiting in line. We entered and went up a modern spiral ramp that seemed out of place.
The original entrance to the Vatican had been the Atrium of the Four Gates. Now it is called the Pine Cone Courtyard, the Cortile della Pigna. A large bronze pine cone is over a fountain. It had once stood in the Pantheon. The niche for the pine cone was added by Pirro Ligorio in 1562. It was a large entryway that was used by dignitaries visiting the Vatican.
We waited in the Belvedere Courtyard. Poster boards were set up with pictures of the art treasures we were about to see. Alisa told us some of the history of the buildings and the Vatican. It was exciting to realize that I’d be seeing the real works soon.
Alisa talked about Michelangelo, “The greatest artist of all time.” He was a true Bohemian. He wore paint splattered clothes that he rarely changed. Michelangelo was a workaholic. He painted standing up on scaffolding. I was getting impatient. Let’s see this stuff! I realized we were just waiting for our turn to enter.
Alisa told us some of the history of the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. Work had been started on the rooms and the Basilica by Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family. Julius II succeeded him. He hated his predecessor. Alisa describes the situation with a sense of humor. Julius II couldn’t possibly stay in rooms once occupied by the hated Alexander VI. Everything had to be started over.
His rooms not only had to be better, they had to erase any memory of Alexander VI’s rooms. Julius II gave the go ahead to erase all previous work and start over. Part of the Basilica had already been built when Julius II hired Michelangelo. A fortune had already been spent, but Julius II insisted Michelangelo start over.
Storm clouds were gathering. I could smell the rain. There was the rumble of thunder. Oh oh. He knows I’m here! Several large tour groups headed for the entrance of the museums. It started raining lightly, and it wasn’t looking good. People moved faster to get out of the rain. Once inside the Pio-Clementine Museum we saw the first big art piece. The Laocoon.
We enter Raphael’s Rooms, The “Stanze di Raffaelo.” Julius II had them built above the rooms of Alexander VI. The first room is the Sala di Costantino, the Hall of Constantine. The large frescoes here were probably done by students of the dying Raphael. The theme of the room is the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. The room wasn’t finished until 1525. By then Clement VII was Pope. There are four major frescoes on the life of Constantine. The Vision of the Cross. The Battle of Milvian Bridge. The Baptism of Constantine. The Donation of Constantine.
The “room” is mind blowing. The huge paintings cover most of the walls. Like so much of the Vatican, it defies description. Some of this may read like a list. It seems impossible to describe. The Vatican is an overwhelming experience. No cliches are big enough.
Outside the Sala di Constantino is a much smaller room. It’s almost looks like a closet compared to the grand rooms it’s near. The Cappella Niccolina (Chapel of Nicholas V) is totally frescoed by Fra Angelico. It’s almost lost here.
The next room is the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Room of Heliodorus. Here we see The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. Julius II is pictured in the fresco. The other frescoes are: The Mass at Bolsena. The Meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila. The Deliverance of St. Peter. There is an unearthly light above the angel who leads St. Peter from a dark dungeon.
It was pouring rain outside. We could see the storm out of the large windows of the Apostolic Palace. I’ve been used to California’s drought conditions. This was a real rain storm, but we were safe inside the Vatican.
The third room is the Stanza della Segnatura. The theme of this room is the harmony between classical culture and Christianity. The special counsel met here. On one side is the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament.
Across the room is The School of Athens. It’s a familiar painting. Alisa points out Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Dante and other giants of Western civilization. She says that the philosophers and other figures in the painting are people from Raphael’s time. Michelangelo and Bramante are in there. There are two more paintings in the room: The Parnassus and The Cardinal Virtues.
The last room is the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. The Room of the Fire in the Borgo. It was originally a dining room, but it became a music room. The big painting is The Fire in the Borgo. Alisa says that, “Bad restoration may have spoiled it.” In 847 a fire raged in the Borgo. Pope Leo IV appeared on his balcony and made the sign of the cross. The fire was extinguished by this miracle.
The other paintings are The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of Ostia. It’s hard to describe the effect of seeing such iconic works of art in quick succession. It’s more than overwhelming. The wonders never cease.
Alisa is a very skilled tour guide. Inside the Vatican Museum it is crowded. It’s a unique tourist scene. It was hard to keep the group together. People are tempted to stop for a longer look or to wander away from the group. She guided us along by planning certain meeting spots ahead to rendezvous at. She made it look easy.
We entered the Gallery of Maps. Large fresco maps of Italy cover the walls. The ceiling is ornate. The maps were painted between 1580 and 1585. Alisa pointed out a map of Venice from 1400. Most of the buildings on the map can still be recognized. They’re the same buildings. Venice hasn’t changed much since 1400. It was exciting to think I would soon be there.
The Gallery of Maps leads into the Gallery of Tapestries. These rooms could be a tourist destination on their own, but they get a little lost here. This is my first time around. In the back of my mind I know the biggest is yet to come. Maybe the biggest ever.
On the left are Flemish tapestries commissioned by Clement VII. (1523-34.) On the right are tapestries done in Rome by the Barberini workshop. They are scenes from the life of Barberini pope Urban VIII.
Alisa is knowledgeable. She makes sure that we see the Trompe d’oleil ceiling. Its an optical illusion. She also points out the “moving perspective” in a tapestry of The Resurrection. Christ’s eyes follow you walk across the room! Christ is always watching over us. It was a bit eerie. The effect is done with “special stitching.”
The Lapidary Gallery in the Chiaramonti Museum had been closed for security reasons. There are papal apartments overhead. Pope Frances doesn’t use them, so this area has been reopened to the public. Portraits of Roman Emperors line the walls. It’s The Room of Busts. We pass through the Room of Muses and see the storied Belvedere Torso.
How many pieces of great art can a brain handle? Alisa says that this is the point in the tour where most people get a “fish eye” look. Faces go blank. We rendezvous in an area with a small cafe, souvenir stand and some bathrooms.
We’ll have to wait to get into the Sistine Chapel. It’s a chance to collect one’s thoughts. We’re reminded that The Sistine Chapel is a church. It’s a sacred site. We should be quiet and not take pictures. There is a short wait and the excitement starts to build again. This is the big one.
We enter a large room. The room is full of people. People aren’t crushed together, but it is standing room only. Guards carefully monitor the traffic flow. I drifted away from the entrance and into the chapel. We have a half hour to soak it in.
The Sistine Chapel has been recently restored. Everyone looks up at the ceiling. Seeing The Last Judgement overhead was stunning. Much of it looks familiar from books and pictures, but this is the real thing! Is it the greatest work of art ever created?
As people enter, it’s hard for them to not react verbally. There are involuntary oohs and aahs as people enter. About once a minute someone blurts out an amazed comment as they enter. Guards constantly shush the crowd. It’s strange background noise. The guards have one of the weirdest jobs.
We can still hear Alisa on our radios. She calls our attention to the frescoes on the walls, “They are often overlooked.” There is: The Punishment of the Rebels by Botticelli. The Arch of Constantine is in the background of the painting. Perugino’s Handing Over the Keys to St. Peter. In another Boticelli work, the Temptation of Christ, there is a not so subtle dig. The devil is a Franciscan monk.
Alisa told a great story about The Fall of Man. A papal judge complained about the nudity of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Michelangelo put him in one of the frescoes. The judge was depicted as a sinister figure with devil ears. This was near the judge’s pew in the chapel. Michelangelo knew the judge would have to see it every day.
Most people complied with the photo ban. A young couple in the center of the crowd were sneakily taking photos. I couldn’t blame them. It was quite a temptation. The crowd slowly drifted to the exit door.
It had poured rain during the tour, but it had stopped and the sky was beginning to clear up. It was good timing. Maybe He’s not that pissed off at me.
This is the end of the tour with Alisa. We take a short break outside the Basilica. I have to say it again, she’s a great tour guide! We’ll be on our own inside the Basilica, but she does list some sights we won’t want to miss. There was a short wait and then I entered the largest church in the world.
It’s hard to describe such a large space that is inside stone. It was hard to believe there was a ceiling up there. There had to be a direct entrance to heaven in here somewhere.
On the right was Michelangelo’s Pieta. The crowd near the statue was respectful and seemed almost intimidated. This was the sculpture that “made” Michelangelo.
Nearby is the Porta Sancta, The Holy Door. It’s seldom opened. It’s open this year for the Jubieaum Miseracordia.
It’s amazing to walk around and see great art at every turn. There is a statue of Charlemagne. I cross to the other side of the Basilica to see Bernini’s sculpture of Constantine. Constantine stares up at the vision of the Cross.
The measurements of other cathedrals are shown on the floor of the nave: “Lengths of the greatest Christian churches.” It’s the best way to show how big St. Peter’s is. The other churches are dwarfed inside here. You could fit two Notre Dame cathedrals in here easy.
Groups of pilgrims slowly marched up the nave to the altar. At the front of the procession someone carried a cross. It’s been a long time since I’ve had an altar boy flashback. It’s easy to see the enthusiasm and fervor of the pilgrims. Being in the Vatican for the first time is the experience of a lifetime.
A mass was going on so the area that included the catacombs was closed and roped off. I still got a great look at Bernini’s altar canopy, The Baldacchino. The tomb of St. Peter is under the altar. I see the statue of St. Peter Enthroned. One foot has been worn away by years of pilgrims kissing it.
I thought they said no pictures. At least half the people wandering the Basilica were taking pictures on their cell phone. A guy had his buddy take a photo of him holding an angel’s butt on a statue. Even I thought that was daring. I was nervous and cautious at first, but eventually I took some pictures in the Basilica.
There are four colossal statues: St Longinus was the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side and later converted to Christianity. St. Helen brought the cross and nails to Rome. St. Veronica wiped His face during the Passion. St. Peter’s brother Andrew was crucified in Greece. Bernini did the first statue. His pupils did the other three.
Alisa had mentioned that the body of Pope John XXIII was on display in front of one of the altars. This was my pope. The pope who ran the church during my grammar school days. I had to at least say hello. I tried to step over a velvet rope to take a bit of a shortcut. A security guard gently busted me. “Please sir.” Oh. Go around. OK. There were some devout worshippers in pews around the altar. The recognizable face was in a casket with clear sides in front of the altar. Alisa had warned us, “He looks like he’s covered in wax.”
It was hard to leave the majesty of the Basilica, even for the Treasury Museum of the Vatican Basilica. There was a direct entry to the museum from the Basilica. A guard sat at a desk selling the radio guide: “This is a must!” I took his advice, and I was glad I did. The Treasury of St. Peter displays some of the Church’s treasures. Chalices, rings, relics, vestments and tiaras. Most of them are behind glass.
Just about everything is covered in silver and precious stones. There is a frame that once carried the “Veronica,” the veil that wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Golgotha. The Crux Vaticana carried a piece of the True Cross. Charlemagne’s Dalmatic may have been made after Charlemagne’s lifetime, but it’s still an impressive piece.
A bronze rooster stood out. It was a reminder of Peter’s three denials of Christ. There is a reliquary of the Holy Lance from Venice. It had held the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced Christ’s side when he was on the cross. There was a model of worshipping angels. Bernini had them cast in bronze for the Chapel of the Sacrament.
I found myself wondering. Is this the tip of the iceberg? What else do they have back there? And there aren’t any price tags. Is every piece in here priceless? The collection is stunning. It is a bit of overkill after the Apostolic Palace and the Basilica.
It had certainly been a memorable day. It’s hard to believe that this wealth and power existed. If someone threatened those holding this power what would happen? What would they do to keep it?
The guys at the laundry said to pick it up on Monday. I realized that I was taking the train to Florence on Sunday! There was a little bit of panic. What will I do? Money talks. I’ll go down there and with the help of some extra Euro get it done right now. I went in and handed the guy my ticket without explaining my problem. Oh, it’s right here. The laundry was done and ready to go. Just go with the flow. A crisis averted!
It’s my last night in Rome and I wander in the direction of the Termini Train Station. It was too late to enter the National Roman Museum. It features the baths of Diocletian.
I went into the train station and checked it out. People were hustling in and out. A large board displayed train schedules. I was glad I took a look. Maybe it would be less confusing in the morning.
I had seen the statue of Moses on the bus tour. It was in front of the Fontana del Mose. Something about it fascinated me. Maybe it was the wrathful, Old Testament figure. He’s surrounded by four lions. A statue like this would be a prominent monument in most parts of the world. Here it was just another part of the neighborhood. That was another reason it fascinated me.
After it was first unveiled the statue was despised by the people of Rome. They compared it to Michelangelo’s Moses. It’s certainly not the Trevi Fountain, but the figure of the stern patriarch, and its unassuming place in the city drew me to it.
Across the street was a cafe called Eataly. The building was modern. Eataly looked like it was part of a corporate chain, but the window display of small plates still looked appetizing. The price was certainly right. Eight Euro for the buffet and a drink. It wasn’t an “authentic” Roman restaurant, but it certainly worked for me.
Most of the plates were small pieces of pizza. Some had prosciutto. There were some tuna and anchovies. There weren’t that many customers left. When the waitress brought out some fried calamari she left the whole plate at my table!
At a table to my right four young Italian men were having a raging debate. I assumed they were college students. At first I thought they could only be this passionate about football, but then one of them held up a book and pointed at text as proof of some point. It was an animated discussion. Whatever they were talking about their blood pressure was jumping.
There are other, older civilizations and there are more ancient sites in the world, but there was something about Rome. It really felt like it all started here. LIke most of this trip, my stay in Rome had exceeded my expectations by far. I remember the cab driver from the airport congratulating me for finally making it to The Eternal City. Now I know why.