I was surprised my wife had no interest in the Vatican Museums but after a look at St Peter's in 2007, duly impressed by the vastness of the Pope's personal synagogue she moved on. Me, I am hung up on the art and history inside the walls of the Vatican City State.
The Vatican has been collecting art for as long as there have been popes, which is a long long time and the collection in the display rooms, miles of them, is a tiny part of what's preserved inside the city away from prying eyes. That said the modern papacies have made vast leaps forward in promoting their collection to the people, Urbis et Orbis, as the Pope says in his traditional blessing, To the City and to the World.
I of course wanted to see the profane art, meaning pre-Christian but it was closed. Never mind there was plenty more stuff, with thousands of complete strangers vying for the same privilege.
At €15 a head my profane thought was they must have taken in a cool quarter million in devalued US dollars if there were ten thousand of us parading through the halls. It felt like ten thousand.
Conditions weren't conducive to pausing much and enjoying the art, it all rather got away from me but by by all means check out the official museum website to see really good reproductions without my commentary! http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html though www.Vatican.va will get you to the multi lingual portal of the Vatican website. The official language of the Vatican is Latin but they are pretty hand with a variety of modern vulgar idioms
My favorite Hall is the Sala Carte Geografiche, the map room which lays out in a series of frescoes the possessions and neighboring kingdoms of the 16th century Papal States, including southern Umbria which remained under papal rule until 1861.
Corsica was shown upside down for some reason:
But the map room is just one of hundreds of corridors through the Vatican Palace...
...leading all the thousands of us...
...inexorably to the one true goal of all visitors to the Vatican City:
The Sistine Chapel painted over the course of years by many of the great names of 15th century Italian art at the behest of pope Sixtus who got the Great Chapel renamed for himself. The chapel got the finishing touches from Michelangelo and they took him a few noted years to complete...so this was not something done in a hurry. Nothing is when it comes to Popes. They tout this chamber as a sacred place and I suppose it is but we were standing in there shoulder to shoulder staring up at the fingers almost touching on that famous ceiling (bring a mirror for proper comfort) and the guards were squeezing through the press admonishing people not to take pictures "No Foto!" was the cry reverberating round the sacred space in a multi- lingual order everyone ignored.
Suddenly the desire for space overcame me and I got out and found an open window away from the flood of humanity and pulled myself out of the stream to enjoy some open space. Above the Vatican Radio, below a Vatican visitor:
It was a tremendous 90 minute shuffle through the corridors forcing everyone to at least get a chance to see everything on their way to the goal. In some respects it seemed rather old fashioned and paternal to force everyone to shuffle through in these long lines (bathrooms are available just before the entry to the Great Chapel to help improve the mood, no doubt), but the perverse in me liked the stodgy antiquated requirement. It gave one time to pause and step out of line and admire a face perhaps,
Or enjoy some of the more surprising modern pieces on display. In a world where we take less and less time to allow serendipity into our lives I appreciate the Vatican's old fashioned mulishness.
I also enjoyed the opportunity to peek out into the back yard of the most exclusive micro state in the world. 900 residents and an elected Pontiff for head of state. How weird. But the Pontifex Maximus, to use the Roman title adopted by the descendants of St Peter have a nation to run and a business to operate, and they do that very well too.
Selling dust catchers is a universal preoccupation in a world driven by tourism. I grew up a Catholic, as one only could if one was Italian, but the rites and mystery dropped away as the mulishness reappeared in the form of devotion to idiotic social restrictions that hurt people and keep them apart, and the contradictions drove me away.
I maintain a certain fondness for the nuttiness of the institution but in a world that seems increasingly uncertain I suppose the certainties sold behind the Vatican walls get more irresistible to people who demand certainty from a life that is by definition uncertain.
The human paradox made bearable by the immutable nature of Christ's representative on Earth. My wife's people are still waiting for their overdue redeemer to show up, on Key West time perhaps and recently we had the nutty promise of imminent Armageddon and then future promises of Mayan (of all people!) destruction next year so these walls better be strong. While shuffling through the endless corridors I overheard a young American woman, in that babel of different languages, explain to her equally Protestant friend, apparently, that "they" believe that "he" speaks with the authority of God Himself. Only in matters of Faith and Morals I wanted to correct her, but upon mature reflection I think she's right. Too bad really because like any walled city, the Vatican cuts the Pope off as much as it protects him, and his ideas on any subject to my jaundiced eye seems based on blind hope. Rather in the way they made us all shuffle every step of the way to the divine chapel I wonder what they expected us to get out of that forced march? Divine revelation? I'd like to hope the shock and awe of all that art will make us all think more about the reality of our lives but my pragmatic self thinks that likely for just a few of the thousands there Wednesday; for the rest of us it was a hot sweaty walk- but good!
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