It’s too big and too crowded… and you must go. Of course, this is The Vatican, the seat of the predominant religion and government of the western world for centuries, Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the skyline and, well, it houses some of the greatest art ever created.
To skip the lines that wind for at least half a mile around the massive western and northern walls (and this is in mid-March… imagine summer!), your best bet is to sign up for a small tour. With some 5,000 official guides registered with the Vatican Museums, we felt fortunate to have randomly chosen Christiana Tittarelli, a charming Italian art historian with a good command of English and years of experience. Her insightful narrative was transmitted into our earbuds wirelessly, so even when slightly separated from the group of seven, we could hear her clearly.
Once fitted with headphones and tickets, the tour begins in the lemon garden and winds through room after room of magnificent architecture and art – collected, donated or stolen – to its end in the Sistine Chapel, where photos are not allowed and “Silencio!” is repeated to the crowd who cannot help whispering and talking about what they’re noticing in the 12 wall frescoes (by Botticelli, Ghirlandalo, etc., including Michelangelo’s creepy “Last Judgment”) and the 33 ceiling panels.
Even three exhausting hours of moving through the galleries (with throngs of others) does not begin to scratch the surface of the buildings and treasures of Vatican City.
This ancient Greek torso is said to be Michelangelo’s inspiration for God’s body as he reaches out to Adam in the Sistine Chapel’s center ceiling panel. God also has his entourage and arm around a young girl, while Adam reclines seemingly indifferent to God’s extended reach.
Gold and more gold, this in the ceiling of the Gallery of the Candelabras… I think, but there were so many rooms, so much to take in.
And then there was a long hall of enormous and stunning tapestries.
There were the Rafael rooms, with his prolific big-scale paintings of life as he imagined it in the time of Christ; himself only living to age 39. The story goes that his funeral was attended by more women than men and most were presumed to have known him in the “Biblical sense.” We passed through the Borges’ opulent apartment; a pope so depraved that no future pope would inhabit his chambers. And finally, (although I am skipping many amazing bits), an area of a modern art collection that was started in the 1990s and seems like filler for empty rooms before heading through passageways to the grand finale of the Sistine Chapel.
The tour ended at St. Peter’s Square. The Basilica, open to the public, proved too much for aching feet and minds reeling with art and history overload, so I peeked inside and vowed, “Another day.”