I am a former Catholic. Some would say recovering, some would say lapsed, I joke that I gave up being Catholic for Lent and never looked back . Before you think this is going to be an anti-church screed, relax…I don’t do it anymore, but I’m not here to pick on those who do. Whatever gets you through the day, man. Go for it. Despite my lack of churchiness, I would find it nearly impossible to make a trip to Rome that lasts more than a few hours without making plans to see the Vatican. It is significant not only to the (lapsed or practicing) Catholics; it’s also significant in understanding the geopolitical forces that have shaped the world that we live in today. Because you should never, never ever forget, the Vatican may try to cloak itself in ethereal goodness and call itself a museum but is, first and foremost, a fortress.
Dig the stone pines? They’re all over Italy, lovingly and judiciously pruned, and they are gorgeous. Majestic, even.
Vatican City, as many of you know, is the world’s smallest country, with the world’s smallest population. Oh! And they have a dress code they actually enforce. Ladies, no short skirts (knee length, please!), and ladies and gentlemen, shorts are only allowed if they’re knee-length or longer, and no bare shoulders. If you must wear a tank, bring a sweater. If you’d like an idea of actual propriety, let me assure you my cherry-print skirt and black tights meet papal approval. Don’t be creepy.
As you can see from the map above, there are really only two entrances into Vatican City: through Saint Peter’s Square (though that doesn’t allow access into the museums) and through the museum entrance, which will allow you entrance to the rest of the City. (The railroad station is used primarily for freight and doesn’t allow pedestrian access.) Sadly for Roma Pass users, the Vatican doesn’t recognize the pass as a short-cut in the door. I’ve heard that there’s a booth somewhere nearby where you can get pre-paid Vatican museum tickets (or you can get them online), but we went the old-fashioned route and stood in line. And got hawked at like crazy by tour vendors. I have no idea if these vendors provide worthwhile information, maybe they do. But I can’t stand being told what to do (just ask my poor boyfriend), and I especially hate the thought of someone telling me where to direct my attention in a museum, where I might want to look and learn and ponder at will.
Anyway. Enough about me. So, indeed. The Vatican Museum. You go up the stairwell at the entrance, walk out into the initial courtyard and…
As soon as you step into the courtyard, you’re smacked in the face by relentless beauty.
Prepare for a long day, because the Vatican is exhausting. Part of the reason behind this is that there is just so much to look at–there’s fantastic art on the walls! the ceilings! the floor! The floor? Yes! The floor!
There are millions upon millions of dollars worth of priceless art and antiques here, and this is the stuff they let the public see; there’s no knowing what’s stored in their vaults. So while you’re there swooning over this
Remember, you’re only seeing a small portion of it. Which is why I get a major attack of the tee-hees when I hear about the Vatican pleading poverty over things like budget deficits, especially in 2008, when the whole world was reeling. Look at it this way: if I didn’t have enough money to make my budget, and I had a painting by Raphael on my wall, I’d be expected to sell my Raphael first before asking the people of Shamokin to scrounge deeper into their own pockets so I could stay on track. Dig? Never mind if I had more than one room entirely dedicated to his artwork. It’s like having the worse case of PLOMS* in all the world. Though I think it leads directly to the question, what’s hidden from sight? What message is the Vatican trying to promote with their selection of artwork? Why have they chosen these particular pieces to show?
Or not show. Because…what they particularly don’t have on display are penises.
It’s almost sort of a joke–and a surprising source of debate–about what happened to all the Vatican peenies. Some say that Pope Paul IV decreed a fig leaf initiative in 1557, some say there was a “great castration of 1857″ engineered by Pope Pius IX. There are even extra-creepy rumors of a Vatican penis repository, where all the stone wangs knocked off the statues have been laid to rest, though from everything I’ve seen that only truly exists in the mind of Dan Brown. (Dan Brown fans: you know he writes fiction, right?) Whatever the cause and whoever did it, it is true that Vatican statuary either lacks a penis or has it covered up by fig leaves.
Not a hoohah to be seen. And while we can argue that with the issues that priests have brought upon themselves in recent memory, perhaps it’s best for them to think as little about the willie as possible, it’s still…so…so weird. Why collect art only to destroy parts of it? It’s like saying, “The Mona Lisa, I like all of it except the background. It’s a little glum. Can we pep that up?”
At least the statues manage to remain gorgeous, even if they’ve been unceremoniously clobbered.
As you leave the main museum, you funnel out through the Sistine Chapel. You’ve all seen the famous “God and Adam” painting, and I’m sure you all know that Michelangelo painted the entirety of the ceiling, and it’s kind of a small chapel, but…
For all the posturing and the display of wealth you can find in the Vatican, it cannot and will not take away from the achievement that is the Sistine Chapel. Four years, one guy, some scaffolding, and fresh plaster every day does not necessarily equate to a soaring accomplishment of art and vision. Unless you happen to be Michelangelo Buonarotti. Because then? All bets are off.
And check out the floor.
Because nobody looks here, they’re all looking up. Shake up the perspective a little bit, people! See what’s around you.
Once you move on from the Chapel, you’re back out in a courtyard and pretty much facing St. Peter’s. Go in. It’s astonishing. Elaborate. Ornate. Check out the altar.
When we walked in, my boyfriend was looking at our guide book and saying something to me about…the truth is, I don’t remember a word of what he was saying because I just…walked away. When he caught up with me he said something like, “I guess you don’t care what I had to say,” and I said, “It’s not that. It’s just that the altar sucked me in.” He looked up, blinked, paused silently, blinked again and said, “…oh…”.
Is it the skill of the wood carvers? The design? The massive scale? The amount of labor it must have taken to get this particular item situated correctly? The vision required to engineer this sort of thing? And even more to the point about St. Peter’s; the altar is only one of many, many things in the building to feast your eyes upon. Where do you even begin to look?
How about the Pieta? (Also done by the hand of Michelangelo, that talented Florentine.) …. You know what? I’m going to save her for last. She’s too significant for me to nod at and move past. She deserves some contemplation.
Step outside St. Peter’s Basilica and into the Square. It’s where all the papal announcements are made, and I think it’s permanently set up for mass to take place. Of course, it wasn’t used for papal services this week since el Papa was busy healing the communist wounds in Cuba. It’s almost too bad since, if I were there and he were speaking, I would have lingered to see what it was like. I mean, seriously, when else am I going to have the chance to witness that sort of thing for myself?
The Square is just that–your typical big square, with fountains and people and one end under constant surveillance by brightly-clad Swiss Guards…wait, what?
The Swiss Guard contracted to become the Pope’s private bodyguards in 1506, when Switzerland was still a poor country (insert jokes about their lack of savvy banking skills here) and their young men hired out as mercenaries. As the papacy was in constant conflict with Italian families who were wealthy enough to raise their own armies (the Borgias, the Medicis, the Doge of Venice), the Pope had to look elsewhere, lest the locals were actually Medici or Borgia moles who might try to kill him. So Pope Julius II hired young Swiss men “of impeccable character” (who liked a steady paycheck) to fight for him. They must have shrunk the world in order to maneuver through it in such a large scale, at a time when the speediest means of transport was the horse. Messages and people would take days to get somewhere and yet, the Pope in Rome managed to negotiate and hire men in Switzerland. Figure this: Rome is about 430 miles away from Geneva. And while horses can have massive days where they can travel up to sixty miles in a day if they’re well-rested and the roads are easy, you can’t really count on them to do more than thirty on a regular basis. That’s two weeks of travel just to get started on what you’re doing. I’m so used to a speedy world; I have no idea how they worked around this sort of time lag. And five hundred years later, the Swiss Guard still protect the Pope, though they don’t all wear the ceremonial uniforms. Most of the ones walking around the Vatican are in discreet blazers with automatic weapons tucked up in their sleeves. This guy’s just out here for the tourists.
And now, back to the Pieta.
She’s stone, but so human.
If I were a religious type, this statue would make me think about what it means to lose someone you love to selfless sacrifice, even if you understand and support their reasons. Who am I kidding–I’m not a religious type, and this is what it made me think about. Can you look at this and not empathize with the pain of a mother who’s lost her son? Does it humanize the loss for you? It did for me. I’m always happy to push the boundaries of my own empathy, since it keeps me from feeling smug and/or stagnant, but this moved me in ways I didn’t expect. And while I’m not willing to let go of the idea that the Vatican should think about selling off some of its art before it starts asking for increased donations from parishioners, I am glad that she is on public display somewhere. Protected, sure, behind bulletproof glass (since some wacko took a hammer to her in 1972), but not locked in a private collection away from public view. Because I am delighted I got to see her, and not just for the artistic merits. There may be many things about the Vatican I can take issue with, but this isn’t one of them.
More pictures of the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s can be found here.
*PLOMS: Poor Little Ol’ Me Syndrome.