October 7, 2012

Our Visit to the Vatican Museum - Can You Say "Moooo?"

Having read about the crowds at the Vatican Museum, we had purchased our tickets in advance and reserved a 1:00 PM entrance time. Apparently, 4 million other people did the same thing! Although the line to enter (without a reservation) was almost non-existent, every single room of the museum was filled almost to capacity. It was so crowded, you could only be herded through like cows, barely taking a moment to snap a picture. Forget about reading the placards about the art or statues you see. A good percentage of the crowds inside were comprised of tour groups. Large groups with very pushy leaders, often carrying a flag or some other annoying distinguishing beacon for their worshipers to follow. Did I mention that these people were pushy? We were actually pushed aside when admiring some piece of art or statue, or what have you, so that they could place themselves front and center and then address their followers. This really pissed me off.

I try to be a considerate tourist. This isn't my home, often these are not my customs, but I try my best to blend in, not stand out, and mostly, I try very hard to be nice to people. I wish the other 3.9 million people visiting the Vatican that day felt the same. Seriously people - have some respect and consideration!

The Vatican Museums display works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 16th century. The Vatican Museums broke attendance records in 2011 with just over 5 million people. I'm pretty sure 2012 will also break records, if this Monday afternoon in October was any indication.

While I'm bitching, I have to mention that it's become a regular practice for almost all of the museums we visit to not offer any type of map. You must purchase a book on the museum in order to understand WHAT you're looking at, or which room you're in. It's very frustrating for me and my greatest regret about this particular scheduled visit is that I should have spent the money on a private tour. There are several companies/individuals whereby you can pay for a tour in which your tour has access to the museum an hour before it is open to the general public. Imagine viewing the Sistine Chapel with only a dozen people inside instead of 1,000? But we didn't want to spend the money and felt it wasn't a good use of our budget. Boy were we wrong. So, I guess that's another trip!

At the beginning of the tour, there was a lovely octagonal courtyard filled with many beautiful statues. It was too crowded for me to get a shot of it, so I had to rely on Google for this image:


Some of the rooms we passed (or were herded through) only offered a glimpse of the works inside as they were roped off from the public. This room housed a large collection of animal statuary.

The Round Room is based on the Pantheon in Rome and contains very large statues from ancient Rome.
In the center of the room is Emperor Nero's bathtub.
The floor of the Round Room is adorned with intricate mosaics from Otricoli Baths (Umbria) which date back to the 3rd century. Each mosaic depicts scenes of battle between Greeks and centaurs, mythological sea beasts, tritons and nereids, which together evoke a ‘water theme’. Each tile was lifted and transferred to the Vatican individually.

This 2nd century gilded bronze statue of Hercules was discovered in 1864 in the area of the Theatre of Pompei.

Next, we visit the Room of the Greek Cross, which contains the tombs of Helena the Empress as well as her daughter Constantina. It also features another stunning mosaic floor.

I'm not sure what this part of the museum is called, but the artwork and detail on the ceiling was quite beautiful.

The Gallery of Tapestries features Flemish tapestries, created from 1523 - 1534 in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s School from drawings by Raphael’s pupils. They feature gospel scenes from the life of Jesus and scenes from the life of Pope Urban VIII Barberini.

I'm not sure what the official name of this room was.

The Gallery of Maps was one of my favorite rooms on our visit. It features 40 panels that map the entirety of the Italian peninsula in large-scale frescoes, each depicting a region as well as a perspective view of its most prominent city and the most magnificent ceiling.

Next, we visit the Raphael Rooms. The Raphael Rooms are a series of previous Papal apartments which are now located in the Vatican Museums. They are named after the Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio who painted three of the four rooms now visible to the public.

In 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Italy's best painters to decorate a series of rooms upstairs in the Apostolic Palace. Julius refused to sleep in the Borgia Apartments where his predecessor Pope Alexander VI Borgia had slept. Initially Raphael was a minor name. Upon seeing his work, the Pope entrusted the entire project to Raphael and he brought in his own assistants to help him carry out the work.

The project took 16 years to complete (1508 to 1524) and spanned two Popes (Julius II and Leo X). Unfortunately, Raphael died in 1520 on his 37th birthday meaning the last room, the Hall of Constantine, had to be painted by his assistants Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni.

Another commission started in 1508 was the Sistine Chapel ceiling which would hugely influence Raphael's style. Raphael and Michelangelo were rivals for work and disliked each other personally although Raphael came to respect Michelangelo's painting talent once the chapel was unveiled in 1512. There are four rooms in the Raphael Stanze and each room has four wall paintings and a ceiling.

This mural features the Coronation of Charlemagne, to whom, according to ancestry.com, we are related. See, I've always "felt French" and April found the proof, although in the early 1100's, we emigrated to England. Among our English ancestors are King Henry VIII (through both a reportedly "illegitimate" child and a legitimate child) as well as the Diana Spencer family. Our very wealthy English heirs were then granted land in America by King James in the now famous Jamestown settlement. Somehow, we went from being wealthy English Aristocrats and notable American landowners (had plantations and horribly, also slaves) to poor farmers in Louisiana. Not sure what happened there, but all of my hopes for finding an attic full of treasures in some ancestral home that I could have appraised at the "Antiques Road Show" have been blown to smithereens.

After the Raphael Rooms, it was finally our turn to see the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel is the private chapel of the Pope and is where any Pope in the last five hundred years has been elected. Completed in 1481, it is located to the right of St. Peter's and is named after the man who paid for it; Pope Sixtus IV. There has always been a private papal chapel at the Vatican, and by the 1400s the previous Cappella Maggiore or Major Chapel was in disrepair.

Pope Sixtus commissioned Giovannino de Dolci and Baccio Pontelli, two Italian architects, to build him a new chapel based on the proportions of the Temple of Solomon as given in the Torah or Old Testament.

When it was finished six years later, some of the best Italian painters decorated the inside with scenes from the old and new testaments and these paintings, particularly by Michelangelo, are regarded as revolutionary for their time. The key painters were Petro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

They divided the side walls in to three sections. On the bottom of the walls would be blank squares resembling drapes or curtains. Tapestries were later designed by Raphael to hang over these blank areas in the chapel during conclave (the election of the Pope).  At the top of the walls, on either side of the windows would be paintings of the first 32 Popes going around in chronological order.

The middle of the side walls were the most important. There would be 16 paintings, 8 scenes from the life of Moses and 8 scenes from the life of Jesus. 6 remain of each. The most famous of these is Christ Handing of the Keys to St. Peter by Perugino. At this point the ceiling was painted blue with yellow stars in circular formation, looking like the sky. After this, no further painting was envisioned.

In 1508 a crack appeared in the ceiling, which at that stage was entirely blue with small yellow stars.
Pope Julius II asked Bramante to fix the crack, which he did, and Bramante recommended that Michelangelo should repaint the ceiling. The Pope agreed but Michelangelo, a sculptor, did not and arguments ensued.

The original contract stipulated he has to paint the 12 apostles, but Michelangelo rejected this and went with his own plan, which the Pope approved. In the middle he painted scenes from genesis, with God touching Adam in the very center.


In the four corners he painted the miraculous saving of the Israeli people. In the triangles he painted the ancestors of Jesus and the old testament and pagan prophets around them.

The ceiling took him four years to do and is regarded as his best work. Hundreds of years of lighting candles covered the ceiling with a layer of smoke which was cleaned before the millennium, revealing Michelangelo to be a superb colorist.

In 1535, a new Pope asked Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement. It occupies the whole altar wall and shows Jesus sorting out the dead; the elect go to heaven at the top and the damned go to hell at the bottom. In the center, souls move up and down in purgatory. Now a man in his 60's, it took Michelangelo six years to finish this work.  

"Seeing" the chapel isn't exactly the correct word. There were hundreds of people in the chapel. It was impossible to stand in one place as the crowd was continually pushing us towards the back of the chapel (and exit). It was astonishing how many people had a complete disregard for the rules of the chapel, which included NO TALKING and NO PHOTOGRAPHY. Even the "tour guides" were talking into their little mini microphones to describe Michelangelo's work. We really didn't see the chapel at all, which was a huge disappointment. So I've had to rely on Google to see what I missed.

There was so much to see and learn about in the Vatican, it was almost overwhelming. It's one of those places, similar to the Louvre in Paris where you really need multiple visits in which to absorb everything. After doing some research on the Vatican Museums, it seems that many of the rooms were not currently open, such as some rooms featuring Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts, jewelry, statuary and art. I would have been interested in seeing those items. So as the saying goes, "that's another trip."

You can view my Vatican pictures on Shutterfly.


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