Like I said in the first Roman blog, we arrived in Rome during Holy Week, the busiest and most crowded season to visit the Vatican. But we were here with our friends, the Greigs, who only had a few days in town so dove into the throngs with determination.
Steve, Peter, Sam and I cued up with tens of thousands of other tourists to enter Saint Peter’s early in the day while the women and girls ran a reconnaissance mission to check out the line to get into the Vatican Museum. The Vatican line was moving much slower than the St. Peter’s line. I decided to hold places for everyone in the Vatican line while the others visited Saint Peter’s. After all, I had visited there 25 years earlier, and given its history, how much could change in that amount of time?
After an eternity of crowd shuffling (2 ½ hours) the St. Peter’s faction rejoined me only 30 minutes from the entrance. The Vatican Museum is overwhelmingly large. It really should be tackled over several days if you want to maximize its wealth of treasures. Ruling Popes over the centuries collected art and artifacts from everywhere they established churches. Some of the objects were gifts. Some were commissioned. And others were taken. Endless halls with a “Who’s Who?” of Roman and Greek characters are followed by miles of tapestry lined corridors. The subjects of the artwork range from the expected Biblical stories to the totally surprising inclusion of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman religious tales.
I love how the Rick Steves’ Italy Guide puts it so I’m including this quote from page 569. “After long halls of tapestries, old maps, broken penises, and fig leaves, you(’ll) come to what most people are looking for: The Raphael Rooms (or stanzas) and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” I could have stared at Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens all day of given the chance and stronger neck muscles. In this piece Raphael honors great thinkers throughout the classical age like Plato and Aristotle, but substitutes in the faces of innovative thinkers and artists of his own time. Plato got Leonardo da Vinci’s face.
Of course the main attraction here is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is the Pope’s personal chapel and the place, upon the death of the old Pope, where the Cardinals gather to elect a new Pope. It also pretty much marks the end of the museum gauntlet, the exact opposite of the direction it went when I visited 25 years ago. The guards do a pretty good job trying to keep the crowd quiet and respectful in this beautiful room. Most of our time was spent gawking at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the wall at one end of the chapel and The Creation on the ceiling. They are truly amazing. I was so focused that I hardly noticed the crowds. It’s that riveting. Sam pointed out Michelangelo’s self-portrait in The Last Judgment, a very self-deprecating sack of skin dangling above the abyss of Hell. Somehow I get the idea that Michelangelo held a pretty low opinion of his chances of making it into Heaven. It was well worth the wait, cost, and crowds. By this I mean the visit to the museum, not Michelangelo’s chances of making it into Heaven, but I’m pretty sure that would be worth it as well. I digress, and so I will change subjects.
After the Greigs left, and Easter had passed, we decided to again brave the crowds at St. Peter’s. The crowds were still there but the line moved relatively quickly. While we waited in line, Pope Benedict XVI stuck his head out his office overlooking the square and gave a brief public address. Of course we were directly underneath his window at the time and had no idea that he was really there. Since it was all in Italian we had no idea what was being said or that it was “live.” Oh well… we did get to hear the Pope.
St. Peter’s is a cavernous structure. There is no other church in the world even close to its size. Michelangelo designed it in the shape of a Greek cross, but it was later elongated on one end to take on the more recognizable shape of a Latin cross. It can easily fit more than 95,000 worshippers standing on its six-acre interior marble floor. To the immediate right of the entrance is one of the most recognizable Christian statues in the world, Michelangelo’s Pieta. A pieta is a type of artwork showing Mary holding the dead Christ. Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted this marble masterpiece. Unfortunately it is a bit hidden behind bullet proof glass that was installed after a vandal clubbed the sculpture in 1972, breaking off an arm that was later restored.
After wandering around the interior for an hour we once again queued up for the cupola tour. Again we waited in line, this time for more than an hour. I can’t believe the kids survived the claustrophobic mobs waiting to buy tickets. Yuck! But the climb up the close to 600 steps to the top was stupendous. Easy encircling stairs gave way to narrow spirals with the dome bending in over us that eventually led to a ladder out to the observation deck at the top of the dome. The views were incredible and so were the crowds. It made me wonder at the strength of this structure’s construction! Along the way up we detoured and walked around the base of Michelangelo’s dome inside the basilica. People looked like ants milling about the altar below us. On the way down we ducked into the tourist shop on the roof, bought a cool little nativity, some stamps, and mailed some cards home from the roof of Saint Peter’s! Despite the crowds and the lines the kids loved it. They said it was well worth the “suffering.” We topped off the day with some of the best gelato in all of Italy at Old Bridge near the entrance to the Vatican Museum.
Cruise St. Peter's with Us