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Vatican City

We spent most of a day in the world’s smallest country, Vatican City. It’s home of the Pope, St. Peter’s, and the world’s shortest national railway (all 980 feet of it).

We started at the Vatican Museums, which house an incredible, expansive art collection. Despite it being low season in Rome, the museums were quite full and I’m glad we weren’t trying to visit during a busier time.

Egyptian art at the Vatican Museum
We were surprised to learn the Vatican has an excellent collection of Egyptian art!

I’m not all that into religious art, but I was stunned by Raphael’s The Transfiguration. It is beautiful. No photograph can do it justice. The composition, coloring, and execution are perfect. (I recall taking at least 2 art history courses in college so I feel my opinion here is well-qualified. Right?).

Raphael's The Transfiguration
Raphael’s The Transfiguration. To get an idea of scale, it’s more than 13 feet tall and 9 feet wide. It took me a couple attempts to get a photo without a tour guide’s umbrella waving around in the foreground.
View of the Vatican's Gallery of Maps with tourists
View down the gallery of maps.

I love old maps, and annoyed my family by spending too much time in the Gallery of Maps, a football-field-long corridor lined with artistic representations of the various regions of Italy. The maps are frescoes painted to give a 3-dimensional effect. I could have spent hours here if not for family constraints and the river of tourists slowly but inexorably flowing toward the “Raphael Rooms” and Sistine Chapel beckoning at the far end.

Map of Sicily in the Vatican Gallery of Maps
Map of Sicily. North is at the bottom – this is (sort of) what Sicily looks like if viewed from Rome!

The Raphael Rooms are a suite of reception rooms graced with exquisite masterpieces by Raphael up on the walls and ceilings, and a permanent jam of tourists on the floor. My favorite was the School of Athens, which depicts Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Raphael was painting this fresco around the same time Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The two were rivals, but also respected each other’s work. The story we heard is that one night Raphael snuck into the Sistine Chapel to see Michaelangelo’s unfinished, off-limits frescoes. He was so impressed that he added Michelangelo to the School of Athens as the brooding Heraclitus, seated on the stairs in the foreground.

Raphael's School of Athens
School of Athens
View of the Raphael Rooms with tourists
Sharing the masterpieces with dozens of our closest friends

The Raphael Rooms funnel into that literal and figurative zenith of artistic achievement, the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, which is just as well since they can’t do it justice. The frescoes on the ceiling are extraordinary. I had always assumed the famous The Creation of Adam took up most of the ceiling, but even at 9 feet by 18 feet it’s only one small part of a much larger masterpiece. The Last Judgement, which takes up the entire wall behind the altar, is also incredible in scale and detail. We were absolutely captivated by Michelangelo’s tour de force. Even the kids were impressed.

After a quick and unremarkable pizza lunch at the Vatican Museum cafeteria, we walked to St. Peter’s Basilica. This lunch was important, as one of Lauren’s rules for visiting a country is that the visit doesn’t count unless you’ve eaten a meal there (outside an airport or train station). It was also important because we were hungry. I was a bit disappointed that the slices of pizza were cut in standard wedges instead of stylized into the shape of a cross. After some careful consideration I decided that the triangular wedge must represent the Trinity.

St. Peter’s is massive, and to my eye much more elegant than the ornate (and gaudy) churches and cathedrals we saw in South America. I came away with a strong appreciation of the church from an architectural and aesthetic perspective. Like other artwork in the Vatican it’s sublime – a display of what humankind is capable of achieving. I was also left with some questions.

First to my mind, would the resources put toward creating these undeniably breathtaking masterpieces, instead have done more good by being directed to those who most-needed help? I suspect there is no answer to this question. These treasures have no doubt enriched humanity and – especially now that they are accessible to the public for free – have directly or indirectly provided employment and therefore support for many people through their construction, tourism, maintenance, sales of books and reproductions, education, and so on.

I felt as well as sense of the concentrated power of the Church. This came not in a spiritual sense, but instead a sense of unease. How must a commoner have felt about the Church (or any institution that could commission something so grand as St. Peter’s, or indeed any of the great churches and cathedrals)? They must have been in awe, but also in fear. I’m generally uncomfortable with institutions that obtain and retain power over others, and I contemplated what my life would have been like had I lived in a time and place with less religious freedom than I enjoy today. I hadn’t expected such musings from the day’s visit, but then again that is why we travel – no?

Security line outside St. Peter's Basilica
Security line outside St. Peter’s Basilica (It took about 30 minutes to get in).
Looking up at part of the ceiling in St. Peter's Basilica
Looking up at part of the ceiling in St. Peter’s Basilica
Canopy over the high altar (St. Peter's Basilica)
The canopy over the high altar
Interior view of St. Peter's Basilica
Interior view of St. Peter’s Basilica
Swiss Guards on duty
Swiss Guards. It was chilly, so they got to wear coats over their colorful uniforms.

3 replies on “Vatican City”

The art is incredible. From a time when giving glory to God meant putting all your resources into making the boldest, grandest statements. Great questions to ponder.

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Such thoughtful, excellent, and eloquent comments. I concur with the feelings of awe the Vatican can evoke — despite the crowds, even, off season as you say. I had the same reaction. And also some of the same uncertainties and queasiness about the ironies of such astonishing beauty among the horrors of poverty. I have no more answers than anybody else. Thank you for your superb commentary.

PS: School of Athens was my second favorite; I was most impressed by Laocoön and his sons.

Ellen

Sent from my iPhone

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