Vatican Museum: my mad dash through 2000 years of art

For more than 500 years, the Vatican Museums have been custodians of some of the best art in antiquity and in the Renaissance. Yet, despite two earlier visits to Rome, this would be only my first visit to the museums. Why did I wait so long? Mostly, I guess I was afraid of the notoriously long lines to gain entry. Secondly, I thought all that art would just sail over my head in one long boring drone.

I couldn’t be more wrong.
First, I researched Vatican line strategy: How to Avoid the Vatican Museum line. Lots of excellent resources online, but all pointed towards buying one tour or other, usually from private operators. And these did not come cheap, usually ranging about €55 and up for a half day guided tour. Some other sites gave strategies such as visiting in the afternoon, forgetting about the free Sunday visits etc. But I could not be sure these were really foolproof and when you’re travelling on a tight timeline and budget, there are certain risks you really don’t want to take. In our case,  we decided to book a tour – not with a private operator – but with the Vatican museums directly.

It was painless and easy, all in English and quite idiot-proof. Just choose your slots and you’re good to go. It cost €31 per person for a two-hour tour and this includes the must-see Sistine Chapel. I knew of course that two hours would be nowhere near enough to cover everything. But then, I wasn’t a diehard art aficionado who really wanted to see everything. I thought two hours was just about right for an introduction before my brain combusted from art overload.

emperors and empresses in a row

We showed up bright and early after a wrong turn from the subway station. Instead of Ottaviano, we thought we’d be clever and get off at Cipro Musei Vaticani. But we ended up making a wrong turn (or several wrong turns) and ended up taking a longer walk than we would have had we gotten off at Ottaviano.

Once at the entry, it’s easy enough to grin loftily at the queue, wave the confirmation email at security, and we’re through! Once in, you’ve got to clear the bag checks and the scanners and then – pandemonium as you hit the first marketplace in the Vatican Museums. People were milling about, lines were forming and then dissolving, signage was poor, counter staff were slow and grappling with changes and a line of English-speaking tourists who signed up for the tour, who are bewildered by the disorder and queuing at the wrong window to pick up their tickets. Yes, welcome to Italy!

It reminded me of my first trip 17 years ago driving in from orderly, calm France. Then we hit Italian traffic and the road signs look weird, point in roundabout directions and I was begging my husband to please turn back because “these Italians don’t make any sense!” The man calmly said to give Italy just a day and if I didn’t like it then, we could turn back. Well, I did, I gave it a day and look what happened?

We ended up in the Cinque Terra in Vernazza with its pink, yellow and green houses, a sunset from the ramparts of a castle and I was sold. I ended up with a love-hate relationship with Italy that resulted in a baby named after Vernazza and two other trips back.

So the takeaway is: you may wave a fist at the chaos but settle down, there is method in the madness. And these Italians might just impress you yet!

Just as my little flashback ended, our guide appeared. She calmly issued us earpieces, spoke crisp English with a delightful accent and we were all hers for the rest of the morning!

There she is (above) giving a quick overview of the Museum and more importantly, the Sistine chapel. The interactive touch screen jammed a bit sometimes (welcome to Italy!) but lit up with such brilliant colour that all was forgiven. I can’t remember the name of this guide but I am so grateful to her. Under her guidance, art came alive. I could find meaning and understanding in Raphael’s frescoes. I could understand how much work went into the Sistine Chapel and how much it wrecked Michelangelo. Art was not yawn-yawn boring but a fascinating glimpse into culture, tradition, beliefs, faith, personality. The artists were no longer just two-dimensional names but real people with fears, failings, desires, challenges, a sly sense of humour (yes Raphael I’m looking at you)…

Like I said, I’m no art historian and I think you’d probably find better explanations and narration about the great art in the Vatican in other sites. But I’ll just give the whirlwind tour and my own personal impressions of what I saw.

The Laocoon, one of the most important pieces in the Museum. This is Laocoon and his two young sons being strangled by the sea serpent. Circa 30 – 40BC. The story is sad but check out the bods! Look at the musculature and the physical details of the human body – and this was carved so many years ago! The Renaissance sculptors, great as they were, were not the first to produce such good work were they? The Greeks got there first.

Etruscan mosaic floor that’s more than 2000 years old and we were stepping all over it!

This is not a 3D wall relief. It is a painting. More importantly, it is a painting on the frigging ceiling!! I could not stop looking up to gape at these. The whole corridor ceiling was full of it. Just amazing.

Don’t ask me which gallery this is. After a while, it all morphs together. It’s all spectacular. ‘Nuff said.

Yep, I kinda had the same expression as this guy – the slack-jawed, cross-eyed from too much art look. This is the papal apartments and we’re looking at Raphael’s work. Check out the trompe l’oeil. It’s all frescoes people, flat walls, 2D looking like 3D.

Overall, the place was packed. We were not so much walking as shuffling our way through the galleries and corridors. It was a regular tower of babel as you hear explanations from guides in every conceivable language. That alone was amazing to me – so many people in the world, so many cultures and languages – and yet all have the same star-struck gaze. The great artists may be long dead but their personality lives on in their work. I felt, as we learned about each of them and their work, that we were meeting them in the flesh.

Finally we get to the Sistine Chapel. The star sight.

Here, let me say that I am so glad the guide took us through all the work done in the chapel – Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, the Last Judgement fresco etc – BEFORE we got to the chapel. I say this not just because we were told that the chapel was a place for prayer and contemplation and hence, silence and reverence were required, no guide commentary was allowed in there.

I say this because the place has turned into a market! The chapel, not big to begin with, was jammed – I say again, jammed! – with people.

One woman (what was she thinking?) was heaving a pram through the door complete with wailing baby, flashbulbs were going off in incessant starbursts of light, despite the No Photography rule. People were talking – loudly – about the ceiling, how tired they were, what to have for lunch, how Maud was sick of Henry and so on. The two policemen were reduced to directing traffic flow and not enforcing the rules. Italy is chaos? Try the Sistine Chapel.

We got out quick. It was a travesty we should not witness. To get a better, clearer look at the ceiling, my sister wisely bought a poster of it.

So here’s the takeaway: yes absolutely worth a visit. Get a tour. Get a Vatican tour. It’s less expensive and I doubt it is less effective than a private tour. Go early. The Sistine Chapel is no great shakes (gasp, what blasphemy!) when it is overrun by tourists looking for bench space. So don’t hold your breath waiting to absorb Michelangelo’s brilliance. Buy a poster instead and take the ceiling home with you. When you exit the Sistine Chapel, usually the last stop in the tour, you’d be right smack inside St Peter’s Basilica, bypassing the painfully long queue for security and entry out in the square. If the queue to the dome is not long, join it. It’s right next to the Sistine Chapel exit.

Final thought: with no internet or cable back then, people could sure produce Great Art! Of course, some died before they could complete their work, but you can’t have everything.

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