The treasures of the Vatican undoubtedly represent collectively the most famous art historical hoard in the world. Containing works such as Raphael’s School of Athens, Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, the incredibly preserved pre-Roman sculpture Laocoön and his Sons, the Belvedere Torso, and of course Michelangelo’s most famous masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, there are few in the world who would enter without feeling as though they had seen something of its contents before. Indeed I had seen it all before, having first visited the museum during my art history studies, a period of absolute enlightenment which opened my eyes to the aesthetic possibilities of the present via the past. But since that trip, unbelievably some 15 years ago, I have routinely put off reentering this temple of art, for fear of the crowds who regularly collect there.
On this year’s trip to Rome, we decided to break the stalemate. Dominik had never been in, and my last trip was too confined into distant memory to be of proper value. Besides, as far as the Sistine Chapel stakes went, I was no longer satisfied to content myself with the (albeit rather good) replica in Goring-by-Sea, nor the probably computer generated scenes in Angels and Demons. While we found the entrance to be a good 20 minutes walk in the merciless heat around the enormous outer perimeter of the Vatican City, upon our arrival at the museum, we were surprised to find our pre-bought ticket entitled us to immediate entrance without so much of a hint of a queue…That was until we got inside.
To say that there were crowds inside the museum would be suggest a beach is endowed with a few grains of sand. It was packed, rammed! There were so many coach parties, each plugged into headphones bearing the monotonous tone of their flag-bearing guide, that at times we felt as though we might be forcefully parted by the tidal wave of tourists, rather like that traumatic scene in Empire of the Sun. Just as one wave was swept along the corridors in search of the predetermined scheduled “highlights” another would sweep into the vacuum left in its wake. Moments of reflexion and breathing space were few. Once we got up to the corridor of maps, the bottle necking effect was so intense that we had no choice but to continue with the flow of the coach tours. Turning back was no longer an option. Finally we shuffled into the Sistine Chapel. So too did the coaches. And any attempt to enjoy the serenity of Michelangelo’s masterpiece was resolutely destroyed, not so much by the crowd´s chatting, but by the screaming guards shouting into the microphone “SILENCE!!!!”, the words booming out of the speakers so loudly they practically cracked the great work. Lord, I think the shock of it shaved at least 5 years off my life.
Despite all of this, the Vatican museum remained an immense treat to behold. There are elements of the collection so arrestingly beautiful, and so incredibly well known, that one can’t help but get lost in the historical aura given off before them. However, knowing already what famous pieces lay in store, I actually found myself more happily drawn to the lesser known objects… the gallery of over 1000 marble busts was disarmingly beautiful, as well as some of the frescos painted in the Galleria deli candelabra for example, or in the long corridor of maps. And even better, since the works weren’t marked on the tourist trail, most of the hoards left them alone!
Somewhat surprisingly, we were allowed to take photos, so the images featured on this post were taken by yours truly. Don’t expect to see the Sistine Chapel though. Photo (and indeed bare knees and shoulders) were strictly banned there… so it looks as though you may need to rely on the Goring-by-Sea replica after all.
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