The Vatican Museums

Anyone who visits Rome wants to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Many are not aware, until they arrive, that the famous chapel is not part of St Peter’s but part of the Vatican Museums–and a very small part of them at that. The Vatican Museums are one of the most popular museums in the world, with over 4 million visitors a year and more than 17,000 a day.

The Vatican Museums are huge but their enjoyment can be seriously curtailed by the number of organized groups that fly through them to get to their exclusive goal: the Sistine Chapel. The first time we were there, three years ago, we estimated that, in the four hours we were there, at least 25,000 people went through, most of them in groups of 20 or 30 people with a guide ushering them on (“Come on, come on, people, we only have xx minutes to do this…”). People would take pictures while walking, not even stopping to enjoy or admire. We were herded like cattle–there were rope corridors and the museum guards were exactly that: guards with guns who blankly refused to let you backtrack to see again something that you liked . In the Sistine Chapel, the noise was deafening. It was impossible to feel any kind of reverence for this place where new popes are elected. Guards would scream “Silence!” every now and then and the noise would abate, but it would start again a few minutes later.

It was hell.

Nevertheless, I had seen so many incredible things that I wanted to go back. I started doing research while in Canada about the best time to go and found out that during September and October 2010 the Vatican would open the Museums every Friday night. One had to buy tickets in advance and choose a time. I reasoned that there would be a lot fewer people, and I was right. There were maybe three thousand in the museum. The atmosphere was really relaxed, the guards were, if not jovial, at least tolerant, and we could roam from one room to the other and backtrack if we wanted.

Not all of the rooms were opened but we wouldn’t have time to do them all anyway. The atmosphere is completely different. Not only is it not frantic, but since no light comes from the windows, the lights from the room bring on a warmth and an intimacy that didn’t exist during the day. Some corners are very dark, and it’s easy to imagine that it was the way the rooms were seen in the 16th century, under candlelight.

We started with the Egyptian and Etruscan museums, founded in 1839 by Gregory XVI in order to continue the research of the great Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion. They display painted mummy cases, canopic jars, a 2,000 year old mummy; in the Hemicycle, there are larger than life sculptures, including the sandstone head of Mentuhotep (2010 BC), the oldest portrait in the museums. There are also intriguing tablets with cuneiform writing from Mesopotamia.

We made are way to one of the most delightful experiences of the visit: the open octagonal courtyard inside the Pio-Clementino Museum. The courtyard was illuminated by candlelight, although the recesses were lighted with electricity. In the center, a fountain with greenery surrounding it. Marble benches dot the octagon and it’s pleasant to sit and look around. Each of the four recesses has a famous sculpture. In the first one, a 2nd-century marble of Apollo Belvedere; in the second, the group of Laocoön and his two sons in the coils of the serpent  (shown at right). It is dated 50BC and was found on the Esquiline Hill in 1506.

The rest of the Pio-Clementino museum is a series of rooms with mainly statuary. The circular hall, copied from the Pantheon, contains colossal statues dating from 4BC to 5AD.

We then walked along the Gallery of the Candelabra. It was very dark and difficult to see the sculptures there, but the stunning ceiling was well illuminated, and we could still see enough of the marble floor, which came from the warehouses of ancient Rome.

Next we went through the Galleria degli Arazzi (Gallery of the Tapestries). The walls along the long corridor are covered with immence tapestries woven in Brussels in the 16th century. This leads into the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Gallery of the Maps) with wall maps of Italy during the late 16th century (including one, for comparison purposes, of Italy today) and were extremely precise for the time. This 144 meter-long gallery has an ornately painted ceiling illuminated in this luminous golden light. It has stuccoes and frescoes that illustrate the importance of history and geography to the Church.

After going through the Gallery of Pius V, with its beautiful Bruges tapestries, we arrive at the first of the three Stanze di Rafaello (Raphael’s Rooms). The rooms, meant to be used as papal audience chambers, were originally decorated by such greats as Perugino, Signorelli, Bramantino, Baldassare Peruzzi, and Lorenzo Lotto. But when Julius II saw what what Raphael could do, he ordered all the work destroyed and commissioned the young painter to redo the rooms. (I nearly cried when I thought of all that wonderful art lost forever).

Photo by Alison Avery

I was astounded at learning the process of painting a fresco. Fresco means fresh in Italian. A layer of plaster is applied (to a wall or a ceiling) and while it’s still wet (or fresh), the painter applies the paint to it.  Everything must be done before the plaster is dry so the artist has to work extremely fast and with small sections at a time.

When you see the scale of the paintings, it’s simply awe-inspiring to think that the artist had all this designed and was able to translate it, inch-by-inch, into those rooms. We spent nearly an hour in these rooms, craning our necks and whipping around. Not one inch of the rooms had been neglected.

Another aspect of the museum ceilings that impressed us–although we do find some in other palazzos and galleries–is the trompe l’oeil painting, especially that called chiaroscuro. They use black and white to create incredibly realistic pictures that you could swear are plaster. With the lower lighting, they made a great impression on us.

One of the museums that most people are unaware of exists in the Vatican is the museum of religious modern art, which is one of the largest in the world. Among other treasures are three Salvador Dali.

We arrived next at the Sistine Chapel, which was, in a way, disappointing again for me. The art is beautiful and, now armed with an audioguide (well worth the 7 euros each), we saw and noticed much more. But it was still as noisy, even with fewer people (still, we couldn’t sit anywhere it was too full) and I never got this sense of reverence I had at other churches. Surely, I kept thinking, there are alternative ways of showing the chapel that would respect it as a sacred place and as one of the most admired work of art in the world.

There are other works of art to see after the Sistine Chapel but, at that point, your brain and your eyes have had their fill. We left the museum stanchi morti (dead tired) but well pleased with our visit.

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