Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Raphael and Michelangelo

Vatican City was beckoning on our last day in Rome and we went into the city mid morning. The shuttle advertises that it goes ‘to’ Vatican City but it doesn’t, and while we had seen the dome peeking up above the rest of the skyline, and had seen the city walls, we hadn’t seen a way to get in. When we figured out we had to climb several flights of stairs to get up to the road the museum entrance was on, we knew why we hadn’t seen it before – there’s no way we would have climbed those stair voluntarily!

The entrance to the Vatican Museums is through a door in the wall of the city, well before you go anywhere near St Peters. The line was massive and we almost left it till later but while walking past it we realized it was moving, and decided to give it a shot. Not only was the line moving, but it was fast enough that we were able to basically walk straight up to the door, just behind all those other people.

I don’t Courts was at all sure what lay ahead and I just knew that the museums were full of things given to, commissioned by, or acquired by the church. They turned out to be one of the best art museums we’ve been to. We paid 7 Euro for an audio guide to share and decided to follow the long route as opposed to the signs for the short route. We had been told all the tour groups follow the short route but we found out that plenty take the long one as well.

On a trip like ours, you can become saturated with amazing art so much so that you see another 500, 1000 or 2000 year old sculpture and glaze over it in search of something more interesting. If you stop for long enough and take it all in, you realize just how incredible the artist was, to have seen this figure inside a slab of marble and have drawn out every fold of cloth, every string of muscle, every emotion in his face. Often though, it’s just as good as the last one and the one before that so you forget to see these things.

We passed courtyards, long halls, marble staircases, and domed rooms with open ceilings, all filled with incredible sculptures. Amongst the naked or cloaked men and women sculpted in the same way as each other, there were also countless statues that stood out on their own. Some were bizarre or creepy, some just different – a goddess several times taller than I and with a snake wrapped round her feet – one with molars rather than fangs no less.

There was an entire room dedicated to sculptures of animals and these weren’t just your typical Lions either. Aside from the lion stretching, chest to floor, there were centaurs with angels and dead rabbits, men about to slit the throats of cattle while dogs and snakes looked on, and several sculptures of animal versus animal, mid kill. I don’t understand the mind set of the sculptor that thinks, ‘Hmmm, I have a spare few months, I might create something out of a slab of marble – how about a frightened deer about to have its throat ripped out by the dog on its back?’. To have got the look of fear in the eyes and the tensed muscles as the neck arched back – the sculptor can’t have been in a particularly happy place when he was putting all of his effort into these things.

It’s a good thing the ceilings are so incredible in the Vatican – paintings that look more 3D than some of the sculptures, other areas that really are reliefs, gilded and ornate – because beyond the sculpture halls we often had plenty of time to stare at them. The first time we waited 5 or 10 minutes to get through a door, we thought we had just hit the rest of the crowd, and resigned ourselves to patience. When we got through though, we realized there was no continuous crowd, just a tour group damming the area in front of the door way. I’d like to say they were oblivious to the massive build up of traffic behind them, but we saw several different tour groups do it on several different occasions, and quickly learnt to push through and break out on the other side.

We saw the papal apartments painted entirely by Raphael, after the new pope of the time decided he didn’t want to live in the same place as his predecessor, and the dark, dimly lit halls of Modern Religious Art – apparently commissioned by the Church to prove they were allowing artists to think for themselves and not constantly forcing them to do the same things as the Renaissance artists in the halls prior.

We stopped for a drink before climbing the small staircase to the Sistine Chapel, the piece de resistance, that which I had been waiting for the entire day. Of course, as with all things that rest in high hopes, it did not meet expectations. Away from the perfectly lit photographs we’ve all seen in books, the Sistine Chapel is dark and drab, barely lit for the preservation of the artwork. When the frescoes were commissioned, only the highest windows were left intact, to make room for the art work. It now feels like the hall at my first school, like I should sit cross legged on the floor and wait for assembly.

The Last Judgement was amazing though, as were the ceilings. There were no photos allowed but I joined the hundreds of other people turning off their flashes and subtly turning their cameras upwards from waist-level. Guards were on hand to loudly Shhhh every minute or so, their requests for silence ignored by all. More so than the ceiling, where the famous painting of the hands barely touching between clouds lies, proportionately tiny and unimportant, The Last Judgement is the best part of the Sistine Chapel. Taking up one end wall, it is a far cry from the normal religious frescoes we had been seeing, with a human skin near the centre (apparently a self portrait of Michelangelo) and enough demons near the bottom to keep Courtney satisfied.

Once we had made it through the Sistine Chapel, there were still rooms to see but we kind of rushed them, looking forward to fresh air and lunch. We followed the city walls for 5 or 10 minutes until rows of columns beckoned us into St Peters Square. The square itself is less breathtaking than I thought it would be – pictures don’t show all the rows of cordoned seats, the metal detectors and the big screens – but the basilica is very cool. We didn’t go inside, of course because of another massive queue, but we ate our cheese and salami crostini in the centre of the square, people watching and taking in the massive dome and the arms of columns hugging the crowd.

Afterwards, we did our best to navigate yet more tour groups and know tour busses as well, to walk past Castel Sant Angelo of Angels and Demons fame (a secret tunnel leads to it from the Vatican, used by the central characters in the climactic scenes of the novel) and cross the river in the search for the relative quiet of Piazza Navona. Of course no wander through Rome – or anywhere really – would be complete for us without gelato, and we found a gem of a place not far from the Piazza itself. This place had at least 10 travel guide and newspaper write ups on the walls, and a plexiglass window at one end where you could watch the gelato being made. The gelato was outstanding – I had Chocolate Orange and White Peach and Lavendar, and Courts had Chocolate Wine which turned out to be the best flavour we had ever tried in our entire lives, made with Sicilian red wine and dark chocolate.

Piazza Navona, when we did get there, was lovely. The protesters camped out in the middle did little to detract from the three fountains and the art market, or from the incredible buildings surrounding it. The real high point of our afternoon wanderings though, was the Pantheon. Richard had told us it was amazing but there’s no way to understand how a church with a hole in the top can really be amazing until you see it. When you walk out of a narrow side street into the square infront of it, the building itself is breathtaking. Over hundreds of years the buildings that have gone up around it have been built very closely, almost suffocating the Pantheon. All they really do though, is change the scale of the Pantheon and make it look even more massive and powerful than I imagine it would otherwise.

Inside, it is hard to explain, but the oculus in the ceiling is far more than just a hole in the roof, the light it lets in and the glow it creates is awesome, and I only wish I had seen it when it was raining to witness the surreal column of water that descends through it from the sky. The sculptures and artworks around the edges are awesome, and I didn’t realize until I was in front of it, that Raphael is buried here, amongst Kings and Saints. It’s a weird little buzz to discover you are standing in front of a legend, however long he’s been under the marble.

With a slight detour to Campo Dei Fiori to see where the stake burnings of ancient times were carried out, it was back over the river and to the shuttle bus again, just making the last one home. I don’t even like museums but the Vatican really was worth the trip. It was the Pantheon though, that had us talking about it all night as we treated ourselves to a restaurant dinner for our final night.

Next stop, Tuscany.