The dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican reached out through the roofs of the buildings I could see from the balcony of Castel Sant’Angelo.
Going to Rome and not going to the Vatican is unthinkable.
When I was younger I thought it was just another monument, a big cathedral in the middle of the Italian capital. As I grew I understood that it is a sovereign state, a city within a city. Where in the world have you seen another place like this?!… seriously, if you know such a place tell me about it in the comment box.
In the castle, looking at the entrance of the Vatican, I was aware of these two very distinct places. I left Sant’Angelo and walked along the avenue that leads to the doors of the highest representative of Christianity in the world.
As I said before, I’m not a Catholic — nor of any particular religion — so my interest in a visit to the Vatican was purely cultural. I wanted to see the museums that hold remarkable works of art.
For some, seeing the Pope is crucial; for me, not visiting the Sistine Chapel would be unthinkable.
Confident, I made my way to St. Peter’s Square, and that was when I saw the longest queue. “I don’t believe it! It can’t be… there has to be another way in for visitors that have already bought a ticket. “
I stood in line as Nuno went to see if there was an alternative way in. He came back: we were in the wrong place! The access to the museums isn’t through the square, next to the cathedral, but on the other side of Vatican City!
With scheduled entry time, we rushed up the street, but the path was still long and the beads of sweat began to drip down my back.
Once at the door, now at the Musei Vaticani, we went to a security guard who immediately indicated us a direct entrance. Success! It was well worth buying tickets in advance.
Wandering through the Vatican Museums
The first contact we have with this place is a magnificent staircase that takes us to the top floor. There’s an elevator, but starting to do that spiral climb creates a growing expectation of what is to come.
There are those who prefer to visit museums with a tour guide or even without any company. Personally, whenever there’s audio guide available I opt to take one. It allows me to get information about what I’m seeing while discovering the place at my own pace. That’s what I did in the Vatican Museums.
With the audio guide in hand, we followed left. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure where we were going… I prepared myself by buying the tickets early, but I should have spent some time researching the route I wanted to take.
Entering the Museo Chiaramonti, we could see a long corridor with an immense repository of statues and sculptures. More than a thousand, I learned later. Here I found that by pressing the number indicated next to each piece of art in the small audio guide I would know a little of the history behind them.
The room continued to the Galleria Lapidaria, the richest collection of tombstones in the Vatican. Then, we decided to go back and discover the Museo Pio Clementino. Slowly, trying to absorb everything we saw, we walked through the vast exhibition halls. Sometimes stopping, curious about a certain statue, but shortly afterward going forward through the rooms and the Octagonal Patio, a place of open air.
Speaking of the exterior, next stop: the Cortile della Pigna. This 300m2 of open space, next to the corridors and rooms of the museum, is named for the large bronze pine cone that occupies the north side of the patio.
Did you know that the pine cone is often used as a symbol of immortality and rebirth?
Still in this place, the old crosses with the modern, with a large and curious sphere placed in the center, donated to the museum, in 1990, by the artist Arnaldo Pomodoro.
It's Napoleon's fault
After wandering the Cortile della Pigna, taking a deep breath and recharging energy, we returned to the interior, this time to discover the New Wing of the Vatican Museums, which has quickly become one of my favorite places.
The Braccio Nuovo is an extension of the Chiaramonti Museum and was built after the return of art pieces previously confiscated by Napoleon.
The building, which runs between the galleries of the Chiaramonti and the Vatican Apostolic Library, is considered one of the most important references of Roman neoclassical architecture.
I went through the 28 niches that hold imposing statues of emperors, using the audio guide to learn a little more about those figures, as well as the Greek statues that are also there.
I don’t know if it was for the beauty of the pieces, the amazing floor, the marble work or the high ceilings, but this is one of the spaces that still populate my imagination when I remember this visit to the Vatican Museums.
Towards the Sistine Chapel
By this time I’m completely lost, not knowing what the next destination is. But the waves of people moving around us seem to know where they’re going. When we started the visit we realized that the Sistine Chapel is one of the last stops on this trip, so we just have to go with the flow and we’ll certainly find the way.
On the 2nd floor, there’s the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, which houses artifacts from the ancient Etruscans, a group of people who came to live on the Italian peninsula. From there, followed to the Salla della Biga, the Galleria dei Candelabri, the Galleria degli Arazzi (Gallery of the Tapestries) and, another of my favorites, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche.
The Maps Gallery, as it is commonly known, is just that: a corridor lined with ancient geographic charts that put us looking at the ceilings and walls and traveling through giant maps that drew the world hundreds of years ago.
Its size, the crossing of the strong blue with the gold, the details, learning how it was before, as we know how it is today. Everything makes that space a very special one in the Vatican Museums.
From this gallery a few more followed, but the legs throbbed, the fatigue began to take over and the waves of visitors guided by raised flag tour guides allowed little space to give due attention to what was to see.
By this time, everybody there just had one thing in mind: to reach the Sistine Chapel.
All just for a ceiling
I have never visited the Louvre — yes, a serious fault of mine — but when I hear the comments about the first impression when I someone sees the Mona Lisa, I think perhaps that’s what I felt when I saw the Sistine Chapel.
The place is much smaller than I imagined. Or, maybe the fact that it’s packed makes it even smaller than it actually is.
As soon as we enter, we are reminded that we are in a religious and prayerful place, and therefore, silence is requested (and constantly remembered through a microphone!).
Pictures are also prohibited. Of course, this doesn´t stop countless people from trying to covertly capture an image with their phone. For me, I agree with the ban. If this weren’t so, we would see thousands of flashes pointed at one of Michelangelo’s most important and famous paintings.
Around the chapel, there are places for visitors to sit and contemplate the beauty of the frescoes. Of course, they are always occupied and we hardly see one free. Those who can’t rest their legs have to content themselves with standing up, with their noses in the air and the audio guide translating some of the scenes portrayed there.
Soon we realize that we have to leave to give space to a new wave of visitors. The time was little, too little to give due attention to that emblematic work of the fifteenth century.
Hats off to the art made by the master, with all the detail, colors and expressions. But it lacked… magic. Perhaps this is the misfortune of great artworks. They were made to be admired, but in a sea of people, we lost ourselves in incomprehension.
I leave the Vatican Museums with the sense of mission accomplished, but knowing that much remained to be seen. The afternoon dedicated to the visit wasn’t enough to go through all the nooks and crannies and absorb so much culture. But for me, a whole day would be unimaginable, such would be the fatigue of body and spirit. If you are really keen on art and history, a worthy visit to the Vatican Museums should be done in two half days, calmly and patiently.
We return to St. Peter’s Square. Since we’re in the Vatican, maybe there’s time to see the interior of the Cathedral.
The queue we had found in the beginning, that led into the cathedral, remained the same size. No more, no less. Only the faces had changed. With tired legs, I no longer had the strength to stand for a more couple of hours.
We left Vatican City, back to the Roman streets. Not to return to Sant’Angelo, but towards our own “castle” that during those days in Rome was an Airbnb in the center of Trastevere. On the day dedicated to the Vatican, there was still room for two more art forms: to take a nap and to eat una bella pizza at dinnertime.