Monday, April 28, 2014

Even if you aren't Catholic...

Monday morning, our last full day in Rome, was given over to the Vatican City.  At the Vatican, which from the street looks like a huge fortress with very tall walls, there was the usual parking of the bus, some way away -- you can never park close to any of these places -- the walk up the street, past all the poor souls who had to wait in the very long line to get tickets, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that as part of a tour group you won’t have to wait long at all.

You enter the Vatican museums through a very LARGE stone gate that interrupts those high, blank walls.  It’s topped by sculptures of Michelangelo and Raphael.  Inside, you’re surprised to find yourself in a very modern setting: a tall escalator ahead of you, above, a multipaned skylight; at the top of the escalator a wide expanse of empty grey floor, surrounded by bare, charcoal grey walls, modern lighting, and a decidedly functional-looking gift shop, or rather, collection of gift counters.  You pass through security turn-stiles, walk across more floor, though glass doors -- it’s all rather like being in a big, modern train station.  But then, at last, with thousands of other people, you move up the ramp that takes you into the museums proper.

And the gorgeousness begins.  It isn’t just that there are all these exquisitely beautiful works of art everywhere you look, but that every inch of space -- walls, floors, great arched ceilings, staircases, archways, windows, nooks, crannies -- are also exquisitely beautiful, covered with inlaid marble, colored tiles, mosaics, paintings, gilt, etc., etc.  And it isn’t like you’re in museum at all, but rather a very sumptuous palace, that belongs to, maybe, the Sun King.

One of my favorite galleries -- and these are often like wide hallways, rather than rooms --was the tapestry gallery.  Huge things, gorgeous, essentially gold with some color thrown in, and full of story-telling.  This was one of so many times on our tour when I longed to be accompanied by a private guide, who would be able to answer my questions, and give me time to look.  I was also frustrated by not being able to see the tapestries as clearly as I wanted, due, if fear, to a glasses prescription that could stand updating.  But also, the gallery -- like so many of them -- is not brightly lit, no doubt to preserve the tapestries.  And because of the crowds it is difficult to get close enough to take in the details.  So there I was, dazzled, but frustrated. 

The giant pigna (pine cone) in its niche
At one point we were led out into the large Pigna Courtyard, which is named for the giant bronze pine cone that stands at one end, and dates from the Middle Ages.  Why a giant pine cone?  Our guide may have told us (my guidebook doesn’t), but I was busy investigating the much more interesting sculpture in the center of the courtyard.  At first I thought it was a globe of the earth, but it’s actually a gold-and-black sphere within a gold sphere,  Parts of the outer globe are cut away, revealing the dark interior with the second sphere, which put me in mind of a very large ball bearing.  It’s so intriguing that most people take a picture of it, usually with a family member standing in front of it.  But it isn’t old like most of what you see at the Vatican: it was done in 1990 by Arnaldo Pomodoro.

The Golden Sphere, relatively new (1822) gallery in background
We spent far too much time out there in that open, windy courtyard.  Some of us walked briskly off looking for a bathroom.  This exodus was led by Theresa, who was one of the three women traveling alone.  She was chunky, very fair-skinned with short dark hair, and looked to be somewhere in her late 20s.  Everyone was astounded when it became common knowledge that she was all of 42.  Theresa was the most consistently disgruntled member of the group.  I thought it was so unfortunate that she was unable to appreciate and enjoy what we encountered, without complaining about this lack or that inconvenience.

Even when we returned, we still had to wait to go in for our next stop, which was -- ta-dah! -- the Sistine Chapel.  Later I realized that we were “held prisoner” outside for so long because the powers that be will let only a certain number of people into the Chapel at a time, and we had to wait until a group our size could be accommodated (or, perhaps, was scheduled).  However, I also wondered later why they didn't take us to see more galleries while we were waiting!

So at last we’re there, in what is surely the most famous “chapel” in the world.  And I find myself tearing up, simply because I am actually there, looking up at all those paintings I’ve seen in so many art books.  I feel a kind of speechless awe to be looking at “the real thing,” even though I can’t see the real thing very well.  I don’t know how much of this can be blamed on the out-of-date prescription, but there is no question that this was the most dimly-lit of all the dimly-lit sites we visited.  I strained and strained to see things clearly.  It was very crowded, and the only places to sit down -- benches along the two long walls -- were usually full; if you saw someone get up, you grabbed his or her place.  For it was much easier to look up from a sitting, rather than a standing, position.

Because the place is a “holy chapel” you aren’t supposed to talk.  Our guide had given us his little talk before we entered, because of this rule, but some guides would try to stage-whisper their explanations to their groups, only to be shushed by the guards.  For once I did not feel rushed, because once I was able to nab a seat, I had plenty of time to peer all around.  Everything is either high up on the walls, or on the ceiling, so there is not the usual trial of trying to get close enough to see.  Interestingly, the famous picture of God reaching out to give the touch of life to Adam is almost lost in a ceiling of dozens of pictures.  Besides those running down the middle of the ceiling (the God/Adam picture is in the center of those), there are painted columns topped by nude figures separating these pictures, as well as pictures inside triangles just below the curve of the ceiling, with paintings of individuals in the space between each triangle.  The intricacy of it all is stupefying. 

And there is no question that Michelangelo was glorifying the male body.

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