St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and its museum

[click to enlarge the pictures]

Almost all of us, even Grandpa, left the apartment by 9 on the morning of Tuesday the 17th. We wormed our way into the packed metro cars and rode the few stops to the stop just outside the Vatican City, and followed the crowds to the arched entrance through the thick, brick walls of the Vatican into the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square.

When Grandma and Grandpa were in Rome three years ago, Grandma discovered that a free – totally free; not even tips accepted! – tour of St. Peter’s occurs three mornings a week. An advertisement for the tour is apparently posted on the wall of St. Peter’s information and gift shop, but people must just miss the information, because very few people take the tour, considering the excellent price, that is. The tour meets just outside the the shop to the left of St. Peter’s at 9:45 am.

After we followed her to skirt the large line to enter the basilica, the wonderful English lady, a resident of Rome for 40 years, guided us up and down the length of the church, providing historical facts, art identification, and anecdotes from her own long history with St. Peter’s and the Catholic church. It was an excellent tour.

The main lesson from our tour was that St. Peter’s is one grand optical illusion. As one of the main architects and designers, Michelangelo, mindful of the huge scale of the building, worked to make St. Peter’s feel like a much less overwhelming, much more personal building that it actually is. Statues are larger in size the higher up they are placed, so all the statues seem the same size and appear close. Each of  the letters of the John 21 passage that runs around the cathedral is about six feet tall. The arched ceiling, though obviously lofty, does not seem nearly as high as it is. The illusion is quite impressive, once you know the actual measurements of the various structures within the building. But really, you have to see it to understand. Go see it! It’s worth the trip.

As for the Vatican Museum, I have the popes, who pillaged, plundered, and threatened their way  through the centuries to acquiring a world-class art collection, to thank for my visit. The museum overflows with art on the floors, walls, and ceilings of sprawling rooms and 1/4-mile long hallways. My favorite part of the museum was being able to see Rafael’s The School of Athens in context with the other paintings in the room. There are four, relatively small frescos on the ceiling of the room that depict poetry, philosophy, justice, and theology. On the walls corresponding with their respective sides of the ceiling are painted scenes depicting those four types of knowledge. Besides The School of Athens, clearly portraying philosophy, a picture of Greek and Roman gods reflects poetry, while a vision heaven filled with Christian philosophers, Catholic saints, and the Trinity represents theology. I found the small fresco of justice rather uninteresting. However, on the whole it was fascinating to discover that The School of Athens is not a stand-alone fresco, as I previously imagined, but rather part of a larger cohesive unit of frescos meant to be seen as a whole piece. Who knew!

Of course, seeing the Sistine Chapel again was very nice. But, I did not stay long in the chapel. Besides the discomfort of tilting my neck back at a 45-degree angle to stare at the ceiling, my mouth hanging unceremoniously open in the effort, the room was absolutely packed. There was barely room to stand, let alone be seated on the benches along the wall, which is the only place you are allowed to sit. In addition, the museum guards were incessantly and somewhat ironically yelling, “Silencio!” and “No photo!” at us, the rowdy mass of visitors. The low roar would quiet almost imperceptibly for a split second before returning to its accustomed volume, that of 200 people whispering comments to their neighbors or reading guidebooks aloud to their children. It was quite an experience.

Bottom line of this post: if you go St. Peter’s Basilica, take the free tour. 

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