Thursday, December 6, 2012

Visiting the Vatican

Sue and I knew from previous experience that virtually all of France goes on vacation during the month of August.  We had assumed most of the French go to the beach then.  It turns out, however, that a goodly number of them visit Rome – at least, we heard almost as much French there as Italian, and saw a couple of French tourists melt down when they discovered the Metro branch leading to the Vatican City was closed for repairs.  The city was running extra buses in that direction, but didn’t really have enough to cope with everyone who wanted to go there.  Can you spell “sardine cans?”

We signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museum so we could skip the ticket counter lines AND take the shortcut to St. Peter’s at the end of the tour.  (If you go through the museum by yourself, you have to walk all the way back through the museum to where you started and around to St. Peter’s on the outside of the buildings.)  The guide also saved us from having to try to elbow our way through the crowds to read the captions telling us what the exhibits were.

Since the Vatican is holy territory, bare knees and shoulders are not allowed inside, even in the museum; this means the approaches to the buildings are clogged with vendors selling scarves large enough to serve as a shawl or sarong for anyone attempting to enter in a tank top or shorts.  (Most of them are printed with the word “Rome” in Latinesque type.)  Head coverings are no longer required, but many of the older women we saw there wore them anyway.

The Vatican Museum itself was incredible – the result of hundreds of years of treasure-gathering by acquisitive Popes and their staff.  Some of the collectors had better taste than others, so some of the artifacts were exquisite and others were just, um, gaudy, but the overall effect was of unbelievable wealth.  It was also a quickie tour of the history of art.  Our guide kept saying things like, “This statue was the first attempt ever to show the human body in a realistic pose, rather than just standing still.”  Amazing.

Note to potential visitors: Neither the museum nor St. Peter’s has been retrofitted with air conditioning.  If you plan to visit, you may not want to do it at the end of August.  If you are there during the summer, take a large bottle of drinking water with you – you’ll need it.  And remember, no shorts or sleeveless tops, unless you WANT to buy a cheesy Vatican-themed scarf to cover up with.

Of course the tour ended in the Sistine Chapel, where we were not allowed to take pictures.  Surprisingly, the cleaned and restored paintings there were even lighter in color than I had expected from the photographs I’ve seen of the restoration, and more beautiful.  Interesting fact: The Sistine Chapel was the first thing Michelangelo ever painted – he was strictly an architect and sculptor before the Pope made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The high point of St. Peter’s, also courtesy of Michelangelo, was the Pieta, behind glass since it was attacked.  Fortunately the repairs are not noticeable.

Here are some of my photos from the areas that did allow (non-flash) photography.

"The Vatican Museums is one of those places that everyone should visit at least once in his life."

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