Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Schlepping to, and Slinking through, the Sistine Chapel

On Monday when I visited St. Peter's Basilica, the separate line to get into the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) curled around the compound for about half a mile.


I had been warned. I was advised to arrive at the Museums' entrance an hour before they opened (meaning 7:45 am) to be able to enjoy the place with the fewest possible people. My bed & breakfast, located in a quiet (e.g. not central) part of Rome, is about a 45 minute journey on foot and metro from the Vatican. Was I really going to get up at 6:30am?

Umm. No. Certainly not after that Negroni. Sorry, Michelangelo, your work is considered to be amazing by most of the world but I am not so in love with it.

On Wednesday morning I managed to get my tuchus out the door a bit before 9:00 a.m. The metro was experiencing delays, and we sat in a sweltering graffitti covered car for too long. I started to mentally prepare myself for a multi-hour wait in the sun. Emerging from the station, I was relieved to discover that the line to get into the Museum was about half as long as it had been two days before. And it moved relatively quickly - within 30 minutes I was inside, ticket in hand.

One of the advantages to traveling alone is that I have relative ease of movement. Whereas a cluster of people moves like a sluggish amoeba, I can slink around at will, exploiting gaps in the crowd (thanks, Israel, for the basic training!). So I darted ahead into the Museums. You can either take the express route, directly to the Sistine Chapel, or first visit all of the other sites, following a set of arrows that lead one through a sort of maze. I chose the latter.

The Vatican has accumulated some rather cool things....micromosaics, with tesserae only visible with the help of a magnifying glass, Etruscan ceramics, ancient beads and millefiori glasswork. Not to mention tapestries, jewels, and other treasures. In some of the rooms, the mosaic floors and decorated ceilings were even more entrancing than the objects themselves. The map corridor, with a brilliantly decorated ceiling and enormous wall panels of painted topographical maps depicting regions of Italy, was probably my favorite thing.

By the time I arrived at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, my attention span was already maxed out and I needed a break. Fortunately, the Vatican has a snack bar at just that very spot. To its credit, the prices were very reasonable, even though they could have easily charged double. Fortified by a cappuccino and a linzer cookie, eaten in the presence of a massive Hungarian tour group that loudly occupied nearly all the seating at the Vatican cafe, I climbed yet another set of stairs into the chapel.

The lights were dim but the colors were brilliant, a riotous mix. A security guard bellowed, "SILENCIO!" and "No photos" at regular intervals, which resulted in maybe a nanosecond of semi-quiet. These futile pleas were followed by a loud recorded announcement saying the same thing, in four languages, that seemed to descend from the heavens themselves. Most of the many people there continued to chat and whisper and the cumulative effect was a dull roar.

I tried to look at each of the many paintings decorating the chapel but my neck began to hurt. It was interesting to see the Hebrew prophets and some Old Testament scenes depicted; at least the cardinals and others who gather in this room are reminded about how it all started. A few other rooms had paintings that included Hebrew text. Something familiar in the vast sea of religious art.

Having survived the crowds, I was surprised to find that there was even more to see after exiting the Sistine Chapel...would I make it? A gallery of contemporary religious art even had paintings by some Jewish artists.

By this time, I was ready for some fresh air. Finally, finally, after wandering down more art-filled corridors and being dazzled by intensely painted ceilings, I was at the entrance to the spiral staircase that would eventually deposit one on the street. Down I went, maneuvering past the groups, eventually sprinting for the outdoors.

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