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La Dolce Vita (Part 3) The Vatican’s Treasures


When visiting the Vatican you leave Italy and enter another country, albeit a very small (110 acre) country with only a few hundred permanent residents.  Yet the Vatican is an extraordinary place with an influence that belies its diminutive size.  One of the most remarkable travel days we’ve ever experienced was our visit to the Vatican.  Here we saw not only the world’s most beautiful church (the Sistine Chapel) but also its largest and most impressive church (St.Peter’s Basilica) and the treasures of an extravagant papal palace (the Vatican Museum).   I understand that the massive spending spree by the Catholic Church during the Renaissance lead to the Protestant reformation, but as a Protestant and lover of art I marvel at the wonderful collection and magnificent sights of the Vatican — it seems, especially in hindsight, to have been money well spent.

The Vatican is situated on sacred ground where the Apostle Peter was crucified (upside down at his request) and buried.   Jesus had told Peter that “on this rock (i.e. you, Petrus) I will build my church”; in the Vatican, this is both figuratively and literally true.  Thus, for Christians of all types the Vatican is a sacred place where you know with certainty that one of Jesus’ chosen disciples lies buried (the body and it’s location have been so carefully tended for thousands of years that I am comfortable with stating this as fact).

It is best to have advance reservations to see the Vatican Museum and avoid the long line (tickets can be booked on-line by clicking here).  You should structure your visit to the Vatican around when you get these precious reservations.  I’ll describe our day here, a visit Sylvia and I enjoyed in the company of our friends Neil McAleer and Phil Coomber, in the order we experienced it.

Map Gallery, Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum.

Within this old papal palace are situated many of the greatest treasures of the Catholic Church, which it began accumulating since the fall of Rome.  Try to arrive early in the day and after gaining entry make a beeline to the Sistine Chapel (near the end of the tour) so that you can experience it when it is not so crowded.  After you’ve taken your time and enjoyed the beauty of the Chapel, return to the museum and experience as much of it as you have the stamina to see.  There are literally thousands of items on display so you pace yourself as not everything can be studied in detail.  Ideally have a guidebook with you which will point out the most important items in the collection.  The Vatican Museum tour begins with ancient artifacts including fascinating items from ancient Egypt, Greece and Sumeria, and takes you through an extensive collection of sculptures many from the time of Ancient Rome and Greece (see photos below for examples).  For thousands of years — until the Renaissance really — these were by far the best sculptings ever crafted by man.

The museum has a long gallery devoted to tapestries, another gallery to 16th century maps of Italy, and an extensive wing featuring the magnificent work of Raphael, especially his famous “The School of Athens”.  You end your tour of the Vatican Museum with a visit to…. 

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel.

Rarely have I walked into a place and literally had my breath taken away by its sheer beauty.  But that happened to me as I climbed the steps leading into the Sistine Chapel and got my first glimpse of it’s vibrant colors and art that seemed alive.  We spent the better part of an hour walking around the chapel, studying each of the panels in detail and listening to a podcast guide to the art, and became more and more impressed with what we saw.   It is, I believe, the single greatest work of art by one man.  And remarkably that man didn’t even consider himself a painter; he was a sculptor (a very gifted one at that and as it turns out also a great architect).  It took Michelangelo 4 years to complete the painting of the ceiling — backbreaking work that required him to stand on scaffolding 6 stories up for hour upon hour painting the wet plaster required for the fresco technique — and tearing it down if it wasn’t right and repeating the process.  We all know how hard it is to stand holding our arms up even for a few minutes.  Now imagine doing it for four years!  It only enhances the accomplishment.  After two decades, Michelangelo was called back to paint the wall behind the altar, his famous “Last Judgment” — a somber painting showing on the left side the good rising to heaven and on the left the damned being sucked into hell.

The Sistine Chapel is the Pope’s personal chapel and is situated adjoining his residence.  It is where the council of Bishops elects a new Pope. Very likely your visit here will be the most memorable part of your trip to Rome.

Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica.

It is the richest and most impressive church on earth, built on a scale that is hard to fathom.  It is free and open to all (but with modest dress requirements and security screening). Everything is massive and worthy of at least an hour’s exploration into the many recesses of this church.  Rich in beautiful marble, elegant mosaics, massive statues (including the magnificent Pieta by Michelangelo), and a massive 4 pillar altar is by Bernini, there’s much to take in at St. Peter’s Basilica.  Parts of the basilica may close suddenly as this is an active church, not a museum.  Mass is held daily at 5 p.m. and open to all (we attended and while we couldn’t understand Italian it was a very nice service).
It’s optional to take the elevator to or walk up to the 448′ tall dome or to descend into its crypt (for both of these options there are modest fees). The large square at the front of the church is where the faithful wait for the Pope’s weekly address and prayers on special occasions (eg. Easter and Christmas). It, too, was extensively designed by Bernini.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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