Scene 9
The Vatican Museum and St. Peters

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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Day 2 in Roma (Rome) and my body had metabolized enough excess hormones in the last week to leave a sultan unsatisfied with a harem of a thousand, and my mood told the tale - mean. I did my best to keep my mouth shut for the first hour, hoping the sights would distract me from my woes (though the biggest reason for this state happened to be my tour guide.)

Vatican Museum

Only the Vatican Museum could have done it.

Here's my quick-and-dirty how-to guide for the Vatican Museum: there are four routes through the Vatican Museum. If you arrive early, like 8 AM, take the A route, the shortest route, and skip EVERYTHING – yes, everything. Just walk on by, don't stop to gawk because you'll be looping back around to catch what you missed, just trust me. When you get to the Sistine Chapel you’ll have it almost to yourself.
It's stunning, amazing, etc. Yes, the famous ceiling is something but every square inch in the place is covered in one important work or another. Gawk for an hour while the crowd catches up. When you continue on you'll reach a courtyard in which you can loop back around and see what you skipped.
The museum is free on the last Sunday of the month and whatever you do avoid it like the plague. Easily half the galleries are closed and they use the rest as a labyrinthine, sardine-can line, even if you’d rather skip them all and just see the Sistine Chapel. Of course, that’s what everyone else wants to do too, so everyone is crammed together ignoring everything and simply trying to move forward, which nobody can do since everyone is being herded through a bottleneck entrance at the Sistine. It's a nightmare.

"What are your qualifications?"
"Stampeding cattle."
"That’s not so bad."
"Through the Vatican?"
"Kinky!"

From Blazing Saddles

Vatican Museum
Even the entrance stairwell to the museum is spectacular.

Vatican Museum

 

Fortunately on my first trip to the Vatican Museum I missed that particular horror and arrived on a comparatively uncrowded week day.
We took the D route, the whole damn thing, including the "arduous modern religious art" section, as Let’s Go describes it.
When you reach the Sistine again you'll see why you should follow my directions - the room gets crowded to capacity with everyone chattering away and the guards trying to keep everyone quiet with intermittent "Shhhh"'s. The museum admission is 15,000 lire but I'd pay double for the Sistine alone.

The Pinacoteca, containing the Raphaels and Caravaggios and other Renaissance painters, is my personal fave, but you have to be attentive to find it. They’ve tucked it away behind the cafeteria and lots of folks miss it without even realizing where it was. Instead, they cram into the Papal Apartments to see Raphael's works there. They're impressive, of course, but the frescoes are faded and worn and the rooms often crowded to capacity, In the Pinacoteca you don't have to fight to get close to the comparatively fresh-looking canvases.

The rest of the museum is cool too with some interesting Egyptian stuff, of course, a surprisingly interesting Etruscan collection and countless other things to amaze - too many to detail - but what grabbed Heather and I were two Caravaggio paintings. Flesh so real you're waiting for the figures to take a breath. Heather and I just stood and gawked at the hands and feet in the paintings. We’d been struggling together in figure drawing classes for months and perfect hands and feet like those gave us spasms of both delight and frustration. I laughed, knowing what she was thinking.
“Oh, shut up” she said, half-playfully.

Leftover cheese and roasted red pepper sandwiches from the day before were again food fit for gods. The thing I miss the most, even with all the Roman ruins, Renaissance art, incredible architecture and beautiful women is undoubtedly the food. Walk into any back alley or basement deli with 8000 lire and a willingness to point (and/or your pocket English/Italiano dictionary) and you’ll come out with lunch for two that is divine.

We stepped around the corner into St. Peters. It has the precise affect that those who designed it (Donato Bramante and Michelangelo, among others) and decorated it (Bernini, among others) had planned - awe inspiring. I cannot believe there is a comparison, nor words to describe it.

Pictures cannot capture it at all, though Japanese tourists with high-tech camcorders desperately try. I’ll provide a few photos to try to it justice and a quote to fill in the words I lack:

"Of course we have been to the monster Church of St. Peter, frequently. I knew its dimensions. I knew it was a prodigious structure. I knew it was just about the length of the capitol at Washington--say seven hundred and thirty feet. I knew it was three hundred and sixty-four feet wide, and consequently wider than the capitol. I knew that the cross on the top of the dome of the church was four hundred and thirty-eight feet above the ground, and therefore about a hundred or may be a hundred and twenty-five feet higher than the dome of the capitol. --Thus I had one gauge. I wished to come as near forming a correct idea of how it was going to look, as possible; I had a curiosity to see how much I would err. I erred considerably. St. Peter's did not look nearly so large as the capitol, and certainly not a twentieth part as beautiful, from the outside.
When we reached the door, and stood fairly within the church, it was impossible to comprehend that it was a very large building. I had to cipher a comprehension of it. I had to ransack my memory for some more similes. St. Peter's is bulky. Its height and size would represent two of the Washington capitol set one on top of the other--if the capitol were wider; or two blocks or two blocks and a half of ordinary buildings set one on top of the other. St. Peter's was that large, but it could and would not look so. The trouble was that every thing in it and about it was on such a scale of uniform vastness that there were no contrasts to judge by--none but the people, and I had not noticed them. They were insects. The statues of children holding vases of holy water were immense, according to the tables of figures, but so was every thing else around them. The mosaic pictures in the dome were huge, and were made of thousands and thousands of cubes of glass as large as the end of my little finger, but those pictures looked smooth, and gaudy of color, and in good proportion to the dome. Evidently they would not answer to measure by. Away down toward the far end of the church (I thought it was really clear at the far end, but discovered afterward that it was in the centre, under the dome,) stood the thing they call the baldacchino--a great bronze pyramidal frame-work like that which upholds a mosquito bar. It only looked like a considerably magnified bedstead--nothing more. Yet I knew it was a good deal more than half as high as Niagara Falls. It was overshadowed by a dome so mighty that its own height was snubbed. The four great square piers or pillars that stand equidistant from each other in the church, and support the roof, I could not work up to their real dimensions by any method of comparison. I knew that the faces of each were about the width of a very large dwelling-house front, (fifty or sixty feet,) and that they were twice as high as an ordinary three-story dwelling, but still they looked small. I tried all the different ways I could think of to compel myself to understand how large St. Peter's was, but with small success. The mosaic portrait of an Apostle who was writing with a pen six feet long seemed only an ordinary Apostle.
But the people attracted my attention after a while. To stand in the door of St. Peter's and look at men down toward its further extremity, two blocks away, has a diminishing effect on them; surrounded by the prodigious pictures and statues, and lost in the vast spaces, they look very much smaller than they would if they stood two blocks away in the open air. I "averaged" a man as he passed me and watched him as he drifted far down by the baldacchino and beyond--watched him dwindle to an insignificant school-boy, and then, in the midst of the silent throng of human pigmies gliding about him, I lost him. The church had lately been decorated, on the occasion of a great ceremony in honor of St. Peter, and men were engaged, now, in removing the flowers and gilt paper from the walls and pillars. As no ladders could reach the great heights, the men swung themselves down from balustrades and the capitals of pilasters by ropes, to do this work. The upper gallery which encircles the inner sweep of the dome is two hundred and forty feet above the floor of the church--very few steeples in America could reach up to it. Visitors always go up there to look down into the church because one gets the best idea of some of the heights and distances from that point. While we stood on the floor one of the workmen swung loose from that gallery at the end of a long rope. I had not supposed, before, that a man could look so much like a spider. He was insignificant in size, and his rope seemed only a thread. Seeing that he took up so little space, I could believe the story, then, that ten thousand troops went to St. Peter's, once, to hear mass, and their commanding officer came afterward, and not finding them, supposed they had not yet arrived. But they were in the church, nevertheless--they were in one of the transepts. Nearly fifty thousand persons assembled in St. Peter's to hear the publishing of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It is estimated that the floor of the church affords standing room for--for a large number of people; I have forgotten the exact figures. But it is no matter--it is near enough."
Mark Twain, from Innocents Abroad

Everyone comes away nearly silent. What can one say? Just shrug, grin, and move along.

St. Peters

 

 

Saint Peters

Saint Peters
As you step into the front porch area there's an intricately decorated door to the right. This is the door the Pope opens by cracking the concrete barrier behind it with a silver hammer for the Jubilee every few decades, though which Christ is supposed to enter when he returns.

Saint Peters
Once inside, you'll be stunned at the size.

St. Peters
The ceiling isn't as pretty as others in Italy, though the height astounds.

St. Peters
In a sunken area under the dome is the supposed site of the crypt of St. Peter himself. Bernini did this, and the large balcchino, the canopy, above it.

St. Peters

St. Peters
Bernini also did the altar, housing St. Peter's original throne. It was roped off every time I've ever been so it's something else you can't get close enough to, but impressive even from afar.

St. Peters
Off to the sides there are chapels with their own little mosaic ceilings.

St. Peters
The place is full of gorgeous, titanic sculpture.

St. Peters
To the right of the entrance is Michelangelo's Pieta, now protected behind bulletproof glass after some lunatic went after it with an axe. It's unfortunate because now it's too far away to really get a good look at.

   
St. Peters view
If you're got the energy for it, the hike to the top of the dome is magnificent. Halfway up you can stop on the roof and get a feel for how large the sculptures along the edge really are (yes, those are people on the right side behind the sculpture), then continue on to the top of the dome for a fantastic view of Roma.
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