If it's Monday, it must be the Vatican
16.05.2011 - 16.05.2011 68 °F
Monday morning dawns cool and bright...and I do mean "dawns". We're up very early for our 8am booking for the Vatican Museum. I puzzle over the Rome bus map, and figure out how to get from the apartment to the Vatican.
The bus system is actually very efficient and easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. Bus stops are clearly marked, and have signage that shows what buses stop there and where they will go. The biggest trick is that they don't always stop at a bus stop if no one is waiting there to board, so you have to keep an eye on the window and ring the bell as your stop is approaching.
The bus lets us off about two blocks from the entrance to the museum. Although it's early, a line has already formed, mostly of tour groups. We wait for the huge bronze doors to open.
Promptly at 8am the doors swing wide, and we swap our prepaid voucher for tickets. The rooms of the museum are designed to passed through in sequence, although there is signage for a shorter itinerary. We're working on a tight schedule because we have a 10:45 meeting at the Ufficio Scavi (more about that later), so we decide to beeline through the museum to the Sistine Chapel, then backtrack. We race through the halls, past tour groups that are just starting to gather.
We arrive at the narrow corridor that leads up and down stairs to the Sistine Chapel, and pass through the doors. The Sistine Chapel is.....EMPTY!
Yes, the Chapel, which we've heard is normally shoulder-to-shoulder with people shuffling along while gazing at the ceiling has less than 20 people in it. We gasp at both our luck and the sheer awesomeness of the Chapel. There are vacant benches lining the room, and we sit and marvel at Michelangelo's ceiling. Once you see it in person, you suddenly understand the breathtaking effort that must have gone into creating it.
Photos are forbidden here, but...."Bless me Father for I have sinned".
While we're there, I take the opportunity to exercise my Italian language skills with the guard at the "secret door". This door, at the far end of the Sistine Chapel, gives direct admission to St. Peter's, inside the security perimeter. More importantly, it's a shortcut to the Ufficio Scavi, but it's normally reserved for tour groups only. I ask the guard if we can use this door later, since we have reservations at the Scavi. He says yes, as long as we show our reservation form. Cool.
After enjoying the Sistine Chapel, we backtrack through the museum, checking out the varied works of art and treasure contained in the halls. There is far more to see here than you can scratch the surface of in the few short hours we have, including a marvelous Egyptian collection. Although we're planning on visiting Cairo later on during the trip, we take advantage of the opportunity to "warm up".
We exit the museum through the Sistine Chapel (which now is wall-to-wall people) and cross the porch of St. Peter's to visit the Swiss Guards. We show them our Scavi pass, and they let us pass through to the interior courtyards of the Vatican.
Vatican Scavi (Necropolis)
We've made arrangements for a 10:45am tour of the Vatican Necropolis, provided by the Ufficio Scavi. The Necropolis is an ancient pagan tomb complex that once stood above ground on Vatican Hill. It is believed that St. Peter the Apostle was buried here, after his inverted crucifixion. When Constantine decided to build a church on the site in the third century, he leveled Vatican Hill, and filled in the Necropolis with the rubble. Since then successive altars and churches have been built on the site, all centered around the original burial place.
In the 1800's, the Necropolis 35 feet below St. Peter's Basilica was rediscovered, and gradually excavated. Now, an eerie street of tombs is open for a select number of visitors to view each day.
Our tour of the Scavi ends in the crypts below St. Peter's, where centuries of Popes are now entombed. No photographs are allowed in the Necropolis, and I suspect if you pulled out a camera you'd be clapped in irons and carried off by the Swiss Guards, so you'll have to satisfy yourself with the virtual tour provided at the Vatican website.
After the Scavi Tour, we have direct access to the Basilica without passing through security again.
St. Peter's Basilica
It's hard to describe the scale of St. Peter's. Photos cannot capture the outrageous proportions of this church. Standing underneath the highest dome on the planet, it's still difficult to conceptualize what we are seeing.
See that lettering up there? Each letter is nearly 7 feet tall. Picture the Statue of Liberty, including her pedestal and upraised torch. She could easily fit under the dome, with about 150 feet of headroom!
Markers are inlaid into the marble floor of the great nave, indicating the relative lengths of the next largest churches of the world. No matter what church you think of, it would fit within the footprint of St. Peter's. Oversize statues abound, and the camera cannot capture their scope.
Wall size paintings are discovered on closer examination to be finely grained mosaics. Paint would not be able to withstand the smoke from centuries of oil lamps, candles, and incense.
St. Peter's is amazing, no matter what your religious affiliation may be. We marvel at the 60 ton bronze baldicchino, sculpted by Bernini. It is said that much of the bronze used to make it was stripped from the portico of the Pantheon.
If you circle the church clockwise as you tour, the last major artwork that you come to is the chill-down-your-spine inducing Michelangelo work, the Pieta. As many times as you've seen the image of this statue, seeing it in person, even through a thick layer of bulletproof glass, is a very moving experience. To cap it off, as we stood there contemplating the sculpture, a processional of priests entered the church behind us, chanting in Latin. It literally raised goosebumps.
Next entry, we'll be off on walk across Rome, to view some of the Baroque tourist sites in the early evening.