We’re up, on the bus, then on the metro, then at our stop on time. (I know it’s hard to believe, but we did it.) She’s assembling the group as people arrive so she directs us to a coffee shop for a snack and then to her office so we can pay. I’m happy to report that the cash card is unaffected by the stolen wallet event so we can get money to pay for breakfast and the tour.
Around 10:30am, the group begins the short walk to the Vatican complex. The Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world with its own TV and radio stations. This morning we are part of a massive influx of visitors to this country - what a crowd. Being in a tour group assures that we skip the long line, go right inside and begin this 3-hour tour. Our group totals about 30 people, but Elaine’s no rookie, she has a plan. Despite her petite stature, she holds up her water bottle and we follow it up the stairs to the headset station where we each receive headphones. She patiently tests each set to be sure everyone can hear her through the microphone, then we head through hallways and up more stairs to an outside courtyard.
Elaine is nothing if not considerate so we head toward the far wall for shade, and she turns these giant storyboards of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel toward us to narrate them. Strict silence is enforced in the chapel, therefore Elaine begins telling us about Michelangelo the artist. He and the artist Raphael had a bit of a rivalry since they were both great talents of their day. When Pope Julius II hired Raphael to paint the walls of his personal residence in 1508, he asked Raphael for a recommendation on who should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael knew that Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor not a painter (and considered painting an inferior form of art) so he recommended Michelangelo to the Pope, in hopes that his rival would be disgraced because he could not complete the task.
Michelangelo took the job and hired six painters from Florence to assist him. While the assistants worked on the ceiling, Michelangelo studied their techniques for a few weeks. Then after lunch one day, he locked them out of the chapel, refused to pay them and waited for them go home. Eventually they left, and he scraped all their work off the ceiling. He then imagined the panels from Biblical text that we see today.
After discussing the Sistine Chapel, we walk into the sun to observe the giant bronze Sphere Within a Sphere
sculpture at the center of the courtyard. It’s a modern piece from 1990 where the outer sphere symbolizes the harmony and perfection of God and nature. The inner sphere, smashing through the outer one, represents the desires of humans and the inherent flaw of original sin.
Before we go inside, we pass a giant bronze pine cone which was once housed in the Constantinian Basilica, the predecessor to Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Next we walk through a series of hallways while Elaine points out that this building was never designed to be a museum but rather these rooms were the private residences and working areas of popes and cardinals. We see Roman and Greek statues and mosaics on the walls.
We enter the octagonal Belvedere Courtyard which holds many important marble sculptures, including the Belvedere Apollo
which dates to the 15th century. It’s a replica of the 4th century bronze Apollo and was one of the first statues that Julius II selected to begin the Vatican Museum collection. The second statue from 100 B.C. is the Laocoon
, a figure from Virgil’s Aeneid
. Laocoon is the lone voice of dissent in Troy who says the Trojans should not bring the large wooden gift horse from the Greeks into the city. The gods silence Laocoon by sending sea serpents to strangle him and his sons. The work has a chilling effect when you see it in person.
We step into the Muses Room which houses statues of all seven Muses. In the center of this room we find an important statue fragment - a torso and legs only - seated on a lion skin. Historians believe this is Hercules as done by the artist Apollonius, who signed his work. Great talents such as Raphael and Michelangelo admired this work, dated from the 1st century B.C., because of its exceptional portrayal of human anatomy. Additionally, Rodin's The Thinker
was inspired by this statue.
Next is the Round Room with large statues placed around the perimeter of the room, including the bronze Hercules (a fig leave covers this nakedness) holding a club and lion skin. The center of the room, though, showcases a giant 4-meter-diameter bathtub, made of Egyptian porphyry stone. The emperor Nero used it in his personal residence. The crowd moves in a counter-clockwise direction around the tub and I find it difficult to notice anything else in the room.
Also done in Egyptian porphyry (kind of an eggplant colored stone) is a very large sarcophagus, with war scenes carved around the exterior, for Constantine's mother, St. Helen. Across the room is a second sarcophagus for Constantine's daughter, Constantina, with carvings of cherubs picking grapes, a reference to Bacchus, the god of drunkenness and partying. An odd choice, for sure.
Now we walk through two long hallways of more statues, which are overwhelming. All the works are extremely well done yet there are so many of them... one that stands out is a piece where the statue still has its glass eyes. Elaine says we're used to seeing all statues without eyeballs but at one time nearly every statue had glass or painted eyes. Most marble statues had colors painted on them to enhance the work as well, but time and the elements have worn these features away.
We walk through a tapestry room, filled with floor-to-ceiling, giant tapestries. One three piece set depicts the Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod had all male children under the age of two killed to try and circumvent the prophesies of the Messiah. The artists based these scenes on their own experience when the Visigoths ran wildly through the streets of Rome in 1527 killing anyone in their path. This was the first time artists of the day saw the toll of war in person and they were hugely affected. Then we enter the map room where every painting depicts Italy from a different angle yet keeps with the theme "Rome is the Center of the World."
Finally we're ready to see the four Raphael Rooms and they are spectacular. Raphael was commissioned to paint the residence of Pope Julius II, resulting in these magnificent pieces. The first room is the hall of Constantine and the conversion of Rome to Christianity. This room was completed by Raphael's students after his death. You read the paintings from left to right as you enter and walk around the room - one painting per wall, including the ceiling. Every inch of space is part of the perpetual mural.
The next room, the Room of Heliodorus, holds a special painting inside. The fourth and last scene in the room is the Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison
. Raphael's mastery of light and dark techniques gives the work an otherworldly, mesmerizing effect. The angel tending to St. Peter seems to be back lit. I stopped listening to our guide Elaine and really, simply could not take my eyes off of the painting.
The Room of the Segnatura was the meeting place of the ecclesiastical court so Raphael blends heavenly subjects with human virtues to celebrate human thought and knowledge. The best-known work in this room is the School of Athens
. Here Raphael assembles the most learned scholars from Ancient Greece and replaces each face with one of his contemporaries. Plato (with Da Vinci's face) talks with Aristotle. Socrates, Pythagoras, Archimedes (with Bramante's face) and many others also interact. Raphael puts himself in the painting looking out into the audience. Our guide tells us that's because he wanted to observe others admiring his work. After this painting was completed, Raphael saw his first glimpse of Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel. He was so moved that he added Michelangelo (as himself) in the center of the School of Athens
, wearing contemporary clothing, as a tribute to Michelangelo's true genius.
At last we get to see the Sistine Chapel, or the "Sixteen Chapel" as the kids call it, which was built from 1475 to 1483 under Pope Sixtus IV. As mentioned before, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the chapel in 1508 and it took four years to complete the task. Michelangelo created nine main panels - the first three depict creation with separation of light from dark, creation of the sun, moon and plants, and the separation of earth and water. The second three panels show creation of Adam, creation of Eve and original sin. The last three panels are about Noah's sacrifice, Noah's flood and the drunkenness of Noah. In the spaces between, we see pictures of five prophets and five sybils, all of whom foretold the coming of Christ.
His great work on the back wall, The Last Judgment
, depicts Jesus sentencing souls to heaven or hell. From 1535 to 1541, Michelangelo worked on this piece and was influenced by the sacking of Rome in 1527, which he had witnessed. The painting shows the dead rising for judgment. In the center, Christ accepts some into heaven and condemns others into hell. Since Michelangelo was a cynical old man by this time, he places himself in the painting as the martyr Saint Bartholomew (who was skinned alive) to show his displeasure with how he was being treated.
Our tour complete, we thank Elaine and stop into the Vatican cafeteria for a late lunch. Then we leave the museum, walk around the corner and get in line to view St. Peter's cathedral. The courtyard is surrounded on both sides by Bernini's Colonnade. In the center is a large, pink granite obelisk made in Egypt during ancient Roman times, flanked by two large fountains.
We wait in an extremely long line to get through security and into the basilica. The line moves quickly though and we set foot inside this breathtaking, immense building. Highlights of our two hours inside include Michelangelo's Pieta, a statue showing the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus. We find a 12th century bronze status of St. Peter. Legend says you will receive a blessing if you rub his right foot, so we get in line to do so.
Each of the four main pillars supporting the massive dome have an impressive statue that relates to a relic located inside the pillar. The first pillar has a statue of St. Longinus and contains his lance used to pierce the chest of Jesus to deliver the final blow of mercy. The second pillar shows St. Helen (Constantine's mother) and contains the cross of Jesus, which she diligently searched out. The third pillar shows Veronica and the relic is a linen cloth she used to wipe Jesus' face - it retains his image. The final pillar shows St. Andrew and the relic is his head.
Surrounded by these pillars and in the center of the cathedral - directly under the dome - is a large brass baldachin by Bernini. This canopy covers the papal altar. Below the papal altar is the confessional which descends to the tomb of St. Peter. The very front of the basilica in the apse is dominated by St. Peter's throne, as conceived by the artist Bernini.
High above is a stained glass window of the holy spirit in the form of a dove.
We follow other stairs down into the Vatican Grottoes and along the walls are the tombs of many popes, saints, cardinals, bishops, kings and queens. We see the tomb of Pope John Paul II. The grottoes also provides the best view of the tomb of St. Peter, although no pictures are allowed.
Our last stop of the day is a climb to the top of Michelangelo's amazing dome. We take the elevator up to the terrace. From there we take many stairs up the rest of the way up the dome. Because of the curvature of the dome toward the peak, the last few steps force your body to bend a bit because you can't stand upright on the step. At the top, we are rewarded with 360 degree views of Rome from the outside terrace. We see papal gardens and the Colonnade where we stood in line to enter the basilica. You can see all of Rome right here.
We head back down all those steps to the terrace and stop in the gift shop. Once we're all the way down inside the basilica, we see the late afternoon sun streaming inside the dome, adding to the beauty of this holy place.
On our way out of the basilica, the kids see the Swiss Guards who keep watch over the Pope's private residence. Their colorful uniforms belie the seriousness of their duty.
Back onto the metro, then the bus and we're back to the hotel. Because it's Friday night, the hotel hosts a soccer match on its enclosed field so we watch for a bit. Dinner in the hotel restaurant is delicious again - no complaints at all. Kurt and I talk about extending our stay in Rome because there's more to see and we need a day to relax. We could stay put here two more days.... Having more time in Rome means we cross Lisbon, Portugal and Vienna, Austria off the itinerary. I know that Kurt is disappointed to miss those destinations. Yet slowing down a bit has signifiant appeal.
We can’t be too depressed about the stolen wallet on the metro last night because today we have a date with Elaine, the blonde Canadian tour guide from yesterday. She’s nice, narrates the sites well and answers every question the kids have, like, "Is that statue made of real gold?!?" She’s going to show us around the Vatican Museum today and we have to be on time to meet her at a metro station near her downtown office at 9:30am.