If you go to Rome for essentially one day, the one place you must visit is the Vatican. Now that a Jesuit is running the place for the first time, I took a particular interest. Our time was limited, so we chose to take the four-hour tour of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We have seen a bunch of churches and museums on this adventure, but the Big Three of the Vatican rank at the top.
That’s true for everyone else too. The lines for the Vatican Museum stretched for blocks. Our tour guide said that people in line today would wait two to three hours before getting in. In the summer, the wait could go to four or five hours. She may have been exaggerating to support the value of a guided tour, but having seen the lines at the Coliseum the day before, I wouldn’t argue.
Once we emerged inside the Vatican Museum, the crowds thickened even more. Tour groups jostled each other as we all tried to squeeze into the small apartments to view the art and treasures. Certain groups from a non-Western continent are the rudest and pushiest of all. They don’t cede territory to anyone and will barge through like they are trying to squeeze into a rush-hour subway car already too full.
Despite the crowd-induced claustrophobia, I was able to have my own religious experience when we entered the Stanza della Segnatura painted by Raphael. I had written no fewer than three separate papers in college about this specific room commissioned by Pope Julius II, as it is considered to be the quintessential definition of the Renaissance, especially the wall titled “The School of Athens.” In college, I never thought I would ever see the monumental site in real life. Despite the crowds, the noise, the push of the group, I stood in the room enthralled, humbled and thankful just to be there.
The Vatican Museum contains more than just a bunch of art from centuries ago. There is an entire modern art wing of paintings by Dali, Chagall and many other contemporary artists who have donated their works to the Pope for more or less the same reasons that Michelangelo and Raphael did. Of course, the throngs of groups were not interested in these, but they are worth another look another time. The Sistine Chapel awaited.
Our guide explained that once we entered the Sistine Chapel, she was no longer allowed to give us commentary over the radio, and photos were expressly prohibited by none other than Francis I himself.
One aspect that struck me was that the Sistine Chapel is a chapel, not a church and is sized accordingly. In other words, it’s small. The crowds packed the space to the extent it was hard to move. And remember, this is the lowest of low season. Despite the warnings everywhere against photography, cameras clicked, and the police shouted every minute or so over the crowd noise that no photos were allowed. Most of the people who ignored the prohibition were from other cultures, let’s just say.
But small and crowded as this little chapel is (it has no altar anymore), it is nothing short of stunning. Michelangelo’s paintings are resplendently colorful following years of meticulous restoration. The Last Judgment on the front wall is bigger, more awe inspiring than any art book can render. The creation in the middle of the ceiling is no less splendid, even though smaller than I would have thought until I actually witnessed the relative size of the room.
And then there is St. Peter’s, the Pope’s church.
This year has been declared a quarter-century Jubilee Year, so the Holy Door of the cathedral is open to entry, which conveys upon the person walking through a plenary indulgence. Since I certainly need all the help I can get, I eagerly jumped through without any need for encouragement. (My plenary did not last long. My first thought as I crossed the threshold was about how to make a secondary market of plenary indulgences. Then my second thought was that’s how Reformations get started.)
Inside St. Peter’s, 84 popes are buried, including the first and the last to die (Benedict XVI still lives in his apartment next door to the Vatican Radio tower), plus a few others who served in our lifetime.
John Paul II is especially revered (he is already a saint), and large throngs crowd in front of his tomb to pray and revere the beloved first non-Italian pope in half a millennium. John XXIII, formerly Cardinal Roncalli, patriarch of Venice, is on full display behind glass below St. Jerome’s altar. St. Peter’s tomb is capped by a statue of the first pope, and legend has it that those who pat his bare feet will be graced. So many faithful take advantage of this that the bronze feet are worn smooth to the point that the toes have disappeared.
I chose not to add my little contribution to the eventual damage and desecration of a part of a Renaissance sculpture. Besides, I had just pocketed a plenary indulgence merely by walking through the Holy Door. No need to be greedy. But I did dip into the holy water for a sign of the Cross on the way out. No need to take chances either. The Holy Door was nearly an hour ago.
Returning to the hotel before a late checkout, we walked around the corner to the Spanish steps and the church at the top of the stairway. Unfortunately, a major construction project obscured the view of Rome from the steps, but we both agreed that it was somewhat less than spectacular, even under better circumstances.
By the time we boarded our train back to our lovely Florence, we congratulated ourselves for accomplishing quite a bit of Rome in just a bit more than 24 hours:
• Whirlaround tour of the major Roman sites
• Trevi Fountain
• Spanish Steps
• Vatican Museum
• Sistine Chapel
• St. Peter’s
• A Roman cheeseburger (medium in Europe is NOT medium in the U.S.)
• Two delicious pasta lunches
• Navigating the Rome Metro four times
Not bad for a day and a half. It was time to reward ourselves.
Back in beloved Florence, we treated ourselves to a splendid dinner at La Cucina del Garga, the best restaurant we have found here. Not only does it offer great food, but the service is most friendly and the entire space is an art gallery. Lynn had what she considered the best pasta in her life, and I enjoyed their veal osso buco for the second time. We chatted with the couple next to us, who ironically were spending a day in Florence before they had to take the late train back to Rome, where they are staying a week. We gave them directions on how to walk to the train station, as it is much faster than a taxi.
How Florentine we have become.