Jaza's World Trip

Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel

One of the main reasons that I came back here to Rome — apart from the necessity of having to collect my large backpack, which I left before going to Sicily — was to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. When I was here three weeks ago, I managed to see the Vatican Church and St. Peter's Basilica; but my efforts at seeing the rest were thwarted. Last night's horrendous theft on the train has obviously left me traumatised — and to tell the truth, I didn't feel like doing anything today — but I decided that I shouldn't let that completely spoil the rest of the day; so I gave the outstanding Vatican sights one more shot. And this time, I finally got in.

After I was done with the Railway Police this morning, I still had a few more urgent things to do, before I could go and unwind. The most critical thing that I needed to do was to make some phone calls. Two calls, in particular: firstly, to the bank (which bank?), asking them to immediately cancel my ATM card, and to send a new one to my home address in Sydney; and secondly, to my mum, telling her to immediately cancel her credit card (of which I didn't have a physical card myself, but of which I had all the details necessary for a transaction written down inside my money belt), and of course just to tell her what had happened. I also needed to go online — mainly to find out the addresses and opening hours (and phone numbers) of both the Amex office in Rome, and of the Aussie Embassy in Rome; but also to send a few e-mails.

After that, the other critical task was to get myself some cash, since all I had was a mere €20 in my pocket — not even enough to pay for one night's stay in a hostel here in Rome. I hopped on the metro over to Piazza di Spagna, and I visited the Amex office just near the Spanish Steps. At the office, I managed to cash a fairly large quantity of traveller's cheques, which should be enough to get me by for at least a week. Thankfully, they accepted my driver's license as adequate ID — had they rejected it, I would have been really broke, and I don't know what I would have done.

I now had all my cards cancelled, all my family informed of the situation, and enough cash in my pocket to get by for the immediate future. Time to relax, and calm those anxious nerves a bit. Coincidentally, it was also time for the morning coffee break (just because I've finished the Great Sicilian Ride, doesn't mean that this Great Sicilian Tradition should die :P) — perfect combination. Most of the cafes around Piazza di Spagna are ridiculously upmarket and expensive, though: so instead of visiting one of those, I instead popped in to the McDonald's across the street — which, incidentally, has a plaque outside saying that it was the first Maccas to open in Italy. They actually do quite a reasonable cappuccino and cupcake at the McCafe there — and it's much more reasonably-priced than anywhere else in that area.

As with my previous attempt three weeks ago, today's queue to enter the Vatican Museum was really, really long. But this time, I was not deterred by the 5 blocks or so around which it snaked: I was determined that at least something good would happen on this day, and that I'd manage to get inside. Although the day did continue to treat me roughly: while I was in the queue, two policemen randomly pulled me out of the line (literally, quite physically), and started harassing me (they wanted to know where I was staying, what I was doing in Rome, and other things); it was quite bizarre, and completely uncalled for, not to mention the icing on the cake for the day — anyway, they soon left me alone, and I managed to reclaim my spot in the queue upon returning. Not only that, but the queue moved quite rapidly: and within less than 30 minutes, I was inside.

First stop in the Vatican Museum was the outdoor central courtyard, and the statue hall that greets you immediately upon crossing this courtyard. The yard itself is flanked by looming columns and friezes, and has various sculptures and busts displayed around its lawns and wide stone walkways. But it's the statue hall inside that has all the really impressive sculpture: the hall is over 100m long, and is literally lined wall-to-wall with an endless display of heads, carved groups of people, carved angels and holy spirits, and various mythical animals. Also, as I'd heard previously, there is indeed not a single penis on any of the numerous male statues here: the story is that several centuries ago, one of the popes had hundreds of these statues (most of which date back to "human body balls-and-all is a temple" Roman times) "castrated", and had the offending genitalia instead replaced with stone leaves to serve as coverings. And of course, that leaves the amusing question: what did they do with all those chopped-off stone penises? Is there a box full of them, somewhere in the vast basements of the Vatican complex? We may never know.

Hall of statues that introduces you to the Vatican Museum.

Busts of Roman blokes.

Roman statues with various bits ‘n’ bobs missing. Notice the leaves?

There then followed a series of stately halls and rooms, that basically form the lead-up to the Sistine Chapel. These rooms were simply gorgeous: the amount of artistic talent and workmanship that went into each one alone boggles the mind. I found the roofs and floors of these rooms particularly impressive; but the paintings on the walls, and the numerous sculptures housed on tables and pedestals, were also dazzling. There's one particularly big sculpture around here, which was apparently one of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance era, and which is supposed to make sense and to look pleasing from any angle in a 360° radius.

Sculptures of Romulus and Remus.

Dazzling concentration of sculptures, paintings, and floor artwork packed into one room.

Masterpiece work of sculpture that apparently (before it was damaged) looked very pleasing from any angle.

It’s the roof art that really does it for me, in this place.

Coming closer to the big Chapel herself, I soon arrived in the "Hall of Maps", one of the most stunning rooms in the whole Vatican complex, and containing a brightly-lit and ridiculously dense concentration of roof, floor, and wall artwork. As its name suggests, this room is devoted principally to the display of maps: there are centuries old, hand-painted maps of every region in Italy; as well as maps of the rest of Europe, and even of the rest of the world. I was particularly enamoured with the map of ancient Sicily, which is testament to the fact that the names and locations of cities there have changed amazingly little, over the centuries. It was also very amusing to observe that while the maps of Italy are almost perfect in their scale and their accuracy, the maps of the rest of Europe are a little bit off (e.g. coastlines too straight or too indented, cities marked off from their real location); and the maps of the rest of the world are shockingly incorrect and lacking in detail.

Hall of Maps: a sight for sore eyes.

Map of ancient Sicily (for some reason, hung upside-down — south coast is at the top, east coast on the left, etc).

All of ancient Italy, now in one comprehensive map.

Now that’s a bloody nice ceiling.

While I was wandering through these grand and opulent halls, I had no difficulty in employing that most-important of skills that I've picked up during this year's trip: the art of tailing a tourguide. Why pay for a guided tour, when you can just eavesdrop on someone else's? I had no shortage of tourguides to choose from today: they were going round by the dozen (amidst the ridiculously thick crowd), in any one of at least 10 different languages (with the English-speaking ones fortunately being most common). I found one loud American guide to be a particularly good target for tailing: he was very informative regarding the more important artworks and halls; and he had plenty of interesting ancillary stories as well, to add some colour to his lecturing. Tailing was easy as pie around here: with such thick crowds inside the museum, you could stand right next to a tour group for up to 10 minutes, without them even noticing (let alone asking you to move on).

Finally, I entered the star attraction of the visit: the Sistine Chapel itself. And boy, is this place something else: it's in entirely another league from anything else inside the whole Vatican complex — let alone from anything else in the world — in terms of its sheer ability to blow you away. I've never seen anything so lavish, so over-the-top, or so grandiose in all my life. I doubt that it would be physically possible to have any larger a quantity of stunning masterpiece artwork, stuffed into any smaller a single space than what they've got there.

The roof of the Sistine Chapel is considered to be one of the best and the most extensive works of art ever created (the entire roof is one big painting of various religious stories and imagery), by one of the most talented artists of all time (Michelangelo), in one of the most artistically productive and significant periods in all human history (the High Renaissance). That's a pretty big claim. But when you actually go there, only then can you actually appreciate that even though such a claim as that is ridiculously big and impossible, it doesn't even come close to being as ridiculously big or as impossible as the masterpiece with which it is associated. Basically, the roof may as well have been painted by G-d himself — because I can't see how the hell else it could have come to be.

Sistine Chapel, roof and all: art doesn’t get any bigger or any better than this.

The rest of the Vatican Museum may have seemed very crowded and very noisy; but it was nothing compared to the inside of the Sistine Chapel. I could barely move, so thick were the crowds — and worst of all, more people were walking in all the time, but not that many seemed to be leaving. I guess we were all finding it a struggle to tear ourselves away from the place, and to continue with the tour. There was also a very comical (and utterly futile) constant shouting out of: "no photo" (you're not supposed to take photos at all, flash or no, inside the Chapel — yeah, right!), and of "quiet please" (all in numerous languages). Despite this, everyone was snapping away like crazy, and the noise level was high enough to rival your average all-night rave disco.

The Sistine Chapel was the ultimate climax to what has been my overall impression of the Vatican: utterly lavish; utterly over-the-top; and a ridiculous density of artwork and manpower and talent and effort, all absorbed into one building. It's quite sickening, really: once again, I couldn't help but wonder at how much monetary value the Catholic Church has been sitting on, for all these centuries; and I couldn't help but feel skeptical about how much of a right the church really has to keep all this, rather than to use its wealth for more charitable purposes. Anyway, after the Sistine Chapel, there were just a few more halls to pass through — most of them less lavish than the earlier halls, and mere hovels compared to the Chapel — before I was through the whole complex.

Towards the end of the Vatican Museum tour.

I picked a good time to go and visit the museum: the weather was OK while I queued up on the street; but while I was in the complex, there was quite a fierce thunderstorm raging outside. By the time I'd completed the tour, the storm had finished, and all I had to contend with outside was some wet pavement. Plus, all that walking around and looking at art masterpieces was making me hungry! So I walked a few blocks from the Vatican, tucked in to a delicious big mushroom pizza (fresh-baked), and enjoyed a grand cone of gelato for dessert. Not such a bad day after all.

Filed in: RomeStunningChristianityMuseumsChurches