An Italian Visit: Rome – The Vatican

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There’s no more art in the world than what is beheld here in this tiny country.

From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome…He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe. – Mark Twain

St. Peter’s Basilica with the Tiber River and Bridge of Angels in the foreground.

As mentioned in my post on Rome, the Vatican wasn’t at the top of my list of places to visit but of course, you cannot go to Rome and NOT visit the Vatican. I had heard of its treasures and art collections and as a museum, it must rank as one of the world’s best in terms of art and historical artifacts. In this regard, it did not disappoint. In fact, it was overwhelming.

Thank you to Paola Lauro for taking this picture of us…she insisted!

Accessing the Vatican requires more than a stroll to the front door. When I went online to figure out the best way to visit I found a myriad list of groups and organizations promoting themselves as the best way to visit. In the end, I chose to go with a private guide and boy am I glad I did. Paola Lauro was our guide and we couldn’t have found a more knowledgeable and enjoyable person to assist us. We arrived at about 8:30 as the Vatican opens to the public at 9:00 AM. We met Paola and we simply walked past the hundreds, if not thousands, of people waiting in line as groups of 20-30 with guides. Paola took us to the front of the line, through a separate door and to the ticket window where she showed our passes. We then walked into the museum without a single other group. It was amazing to be in the space and feel like we had it to ourselves. One of the first places we stopped was the famous spiral “Snail Staircase” and the only person around was the man at the bottom sweeping the floor.

The Snail Staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932

Our tour lasted roughly 3 hours and it was amazing to hear “behind the scenes” stories around some of the artwork in the museum that only an art historian such as Paola would know. She spoke of the friction between the Emperors and the Church and the Artists and petty squabbles that could occur. She spoke of the favorite and least favorite Pope’s and why their names were so important. The entire tour was a learning experience that involved everything that wasn’t simply available in the guidebook. Virtually every single piece of art in the Museum has a story and she knew them all.

It was actually somewhat overwhelming to walk the halls and rooms as you were never quite certain where to look. The floors have amazing mosaics on them, the ceilings are either architectural or painterly wonders (sometimes both), and the walls are lined with sculptures. The style was also quite varied from room to room as different Popes throughout history have applied their own personal design elements. It was odd that, after a while, we were barely glancing at beautiful sculptures that were created hundreds or even a thousand years ago because what was in the room ahead was somehow more meaningful.

In one area they had blocked off some of the walls and ceilings in preparation for cleaning and it was amazing to see the difference between walls still coated with several centuries of candle soot and dirt side by side with areas where they had been restored to their original color tones and brightness. What a gorgeous place it must have been when all was new.

Geometric, architectural and artistic beauty.

One of the most memorable sections in the Museum for me was the Borgia Apartments. The story behind the rule of Pope Alexander VI is quite interesting and it’s amazing to me that these beautiful rooms fell from housing the Pope to serve as storage rooms for the kitchen. The influence of the Spanish heritage of the Pope is quite visible in the space even today. The paintings tell stories and speak to the view the Borgia had of their value to Christianity.

Vestibule of St. Peter’s Basilica

As we left the Vatican to enter St. Peter’s we stopped by a small gift shop so Chris could buy a couple of rosary gifts for friends and family. We were on a bit of a tight schedule but I feel we could have spent an hour just admiring the beautiful gifts on display. It was time then, to enter the largest church in the world and I have to admit, it’s an awe-inspiring experience. The main doors are closed so we entered through the door alongside it and the view down the Nave was breathtaking. I think the only words I could come up with were “OH WOW”. The height is incredible and the far end feels like it’s on the horizon. The altar with its baldachin is roughly 150 meters away but appears even further. Along the center of the Nave are medallions representing the lengths of the Nave in other large churches around the world.

It’s hard to describe how ornate the interior of St. Peter’s is. I suppose it’s worth remembering it was designed by and construction overseen by artists such as Raphael, Bernini & Michelangelo. The building exists more as a work of art rather than merely a church, perhaps even if it’s considered the grandest church in the world.

The tomb of Leo The Great nestles in an obscure corner of the giant church. Note the stacks of chairs by the tomb for scale.

The statuary is representative of the absolute best works from the best sculptures and artists of all ages. Massive figures that must be measured in tonnage are mounted in alcoves or above tombs. I hope to go back some day and spend several hours just inside the Basilica as we wound up with only an hour or so to try and take in the gigantic space.

Modern pews…

St. Peter’s Square, located just outside the Basilica, was FILLED with black plastic chairs that had seen much better days. There must have been several thousand of them. Most were very weathered but likely served their function well.

As I mentioned at the start, Vatican City wasn’t a primary objective of mine but it certainly was worth the time and money spent to see it. In truth, I think we only scratched the surface. I feel in a return visit I will do what it takes to spend an entire day there if possible. It’s always difficult as a photographer when accompanied by a non-photographer. As a photographer, I can spend hours in a place that another person gets quickly bored with. For a beautiful sculpture, there are dozens of ways to “see” it, and if you wait an hour, assuming there’s natural light available, dozens more. For more images of Vatican City & St. Peter’s, check out my gallery here.

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