Our second day in Rome was dedicated to the Vatican Museums. People often mistake St. Petersburg and the Vatican Museums with Vatican City itself. That is not the case. Vatican City is the smallest country in the world - the size of a room - entrance to which, requires a separate visa. I think it'd be safe to say, "Don't bother trying!"
St. Petersburg did not boast as much grandeur as the aura it generated. Memories of the much-loved, John Paul II resonated, the only one I had witnessed all my life, waving to a sea of devotees, from one of the balconies. The huge columns, lined up in concavity, were distinctly Roman, but I still insist that the entire package was not too captivitating (...unless of course, they hire me to write a review for eager travellers). My first reaction to the Swiss Guards (watching over the Pope's personal safety) was how anybody else would react. They say they come highly trained, but their uniforms spoke another story. A cutting right out of Jumbo's circus, is what I'm implying. The museums themselves were very captivating. Although I've heard that Paris' Louvre is the biggest museum in the world (?), the Vatican Museums are far more taxing on the legs and indeed, on time. For one, you need to walk a considerable distance after getting out of the subway to reach its entrance. For another, you can conveniently pick and choose galleries you wish to visit in the Louvre; that is not the case here, especially if you want to take in, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. And believe you me, you want to take it in, you want to take it all in. The Romans are a proud people. They are not humble about the history that backs them, about the art they have treasured and they definitely are not shy about scolding you should you make an attempt to try and tell your friends, "I saw the Chapel!" From the moment you enter the Vatican Museums, they keep telling you that the Sistine Chapel is just ahead. In no time, it starts feeling like an endless trail; as if you're in a jungle and you feel like somebody's playing a prank on you, or as if you're in Oz and stuck in a maze. It simply isn't around the corner but they'll insist that you are soon to witness history. I think it took us more than a 100 minutes to finally enter that historic hall, where Michelangelo took four years - lying face-up on scaffoldings, painting frescoes onto the ceiling - which is worth every strain your calf muscles take to reach it. We weren't artists; heck, we weren't even amateurs, but we could see how special it was.
The beauty of it is that one can explain it in a way that ordinary folks can visualize the spectacle, and connoisseurs of art can wink at how cute and sweet you and I can make it sound. The painting generated a three-dimensional feel about it. As if all the people and the objects were extending out of the womb that was the ceiling; as if all the people and the objects were generating shadows from the blue skies surrounding them. No sooner do you get over-whelmed and try to sneak out your camera, that an usher splurges rough Italian on you. I fear some sensitive souls might even have cried at the rude, offensive scoldings. No sir. Photography is not allowed. I recall that back in '89, we weren't allowed to photograph Mona Lisa at the Louvre. In 2008, we were. So one hopes they can answer the aspirations of a million tourists - some having saved every penny to be where they were, wanting to capture a glimpse of their experience. (Click on the picture to see the enlarged image. It is understandably blurry...but I dared!)
For those who are keen to read more about it, here's an excerpt from 'Europe for Dummies', which comes highly recommended by yours truly (others can skip it):
The pinnacle of Renaissance painting fills the ceiling and end wall of the Sistine Chapel. Originally, Pope Julius II hired Michelangelo to create a magnificent burial site for him, but then he switched the artist to another job — painting the chapel ceiling. Michelangelo at first balked at the request, saying that he was a sculptor, not a frescoist, but eventually he agreed to work on the ceiling.
After four years of arduous work, the frescoes were unveiled. Michelangelo had transformed the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel into a blueprint for the continuing development of Renaissance art, developing new means of depicting the human form, new methods of arranging frescoes, and new uses of light and color that painters would embrace for generations to come. He covered the Sistine ceiling with nine scenes from Genesis (the fingers-almost-touching God Creating Adam is the most famous) and ringed these with figures of the ancient prophets and sybils, with nudes in contorted positions that show off brilliant attention to human musculature.
The walls of the chapel are covered by wonderful frescoes from earlier Renaissance biggies including Signorelli, Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Ghirlandaio — all works that would command attention if they weren’t under such a fabulous ceiling. In 1545, at the age of 60, Michelangelo returned to the chapel to paint the entire end wall with the Last Judgment — a masterwork of color, despair, and psychology.
A couple of days later, in Florence, we made our way to the Accademia Gallery to see another marvel by old pal, Michelangelo: David. I've heard some people say that the sculpture looks quite distorted, but we were in awe of that too. So we decided to pay our respects to the great artist - buried in Florence's Basillica de Santa Croce. But for some strange and odd reason, it church was closed that day!
So back to Rome. The house of tombs was a must-see though a tad spooky place to visit, right next to St. Peter's Basillica. Pope John Paul II was being mourned by most visitors. A sobering experience.
We took the evening that day, to visit the Pantheon - another powerful ancient building in Rome. Had gelato ice-cream from a recommended ice-cream joint - one out of a million - in a nearby, pebbled street, and hated it. To the bins! Took a bus to see the Colosseum at night, and bought a tripod for the camera, from a Bengali vendor, for about 8 euros!
Sistine Chapel: Mine
Swiss Guards: http://www.birchimages.co.uk
Copyright (c) 2008 Saadia Malik