Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Taking my trousers off in The Vatican

After causing myself great foot injury the day before, I was not that enthusiastic about visiting the Vatican on our third day in Rome.  We had pre-booked tickets, but had heard the museums were large and there was a lot to see.

It was true - the museums are large and there is an awful lot to see.  Fortunately, by the time we'd gone fifty yards down the street from the hostel I had perfected a kind of arched-foot hobble that took the weight off the blister on the ball of my right foot, and gave me an only slightly perceptible limp.

One of the other reasons I was not full of the joys of summer was that it was the hottest day we were there (approx 40degrees) and you are not allowed to have your knees or shoulders uncovered in the Vatican.  As I am a devout member of the Stereotypical Gay Team and would rather suffer dehydration and heat rash than wear a summery floaty skirt or cover my shoulders with a light shawl, I had to battle on with jeans and t-shirt.

More on this later.

Despite the foot and trouser situation, I was quite looking forward to going to the Vatican Museums.  Religion aside, my guidebook reliably informed me the museums were very extensive, housing art from many notable artists throughout the ages.  And that it definitely did.

Started in the 16th century by Pope Julius II with the purchase of a statue of Laocoon (a priest who advised the Trojans not to accept the Greeks gift of a wooden horse) from a vineyard owner, the Vatican Museums contain many of the vast number of pieces of art amassed by the Catholic Church.  You simply have to see it to believe it; the wealth and opulence in that little country state is astonishing.  Marble statues from Ancient Egypt and Greece, jewelled artefacts from previous Pope's, ceiling frescos impregnated with gold leaf, and an entire wing of one building painted by Raphael...  This museum was the beginning of my realisation of how extensive and rich the Catholic Church is, how it has shaped culture worldwide, and how much influence (politically and religiously) it still has.  Regardless of my personal feelings about the Catholic Church, you can't help but be impressed by its longevity and power.

I'm not going to recite the entire list of galleries and collections we saw, as that would take ages and, frankly, bore the socks off you and me, but there are a few worth mentioning.

The Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Gallery of Maps) was my personal favourite.  This was a long corridor with colourful topographical maps of Italy in panels along the walls, and one of many painted ceilings from which light glinted off the gold leaf.

The Stanze di Raffaello ('Raphael's Rooms')is always worth a mention.  This is a series of four rooms, commissioned by Pope Julius II as a way to outdo his predecessor.  Three of the rooms, the Stanza di Eliodoro ('Room of Heliodorus'), the Stanza della Segnatura ('Room of the Signatura') and the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo ('The Room of the Fire in the Borgo') were painted by Raphael himself, while the entrance hall, the Sala di Costantino ('Hall of Constantine') was completed by his assistants after his death.

The above picture is the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Stanza della Segnatura, and depicts various Popes and important folk debating transubstantiation (the idea that wine and crackers transforms into the body and blood of Christ during communion, while still tasting rather similar to wine and crackers).

We also saw works by many famous artists and sculptors, such as Giotto, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Bellini...maybe one day I'll do a 'Who's Who in Renaissance Art' blog post.  There were also many Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian statues and monuments, including these rather impressive colossal statues of Hercules, holding the skin of the lion, and Meleager, a Greek hero who looks rather like a girl to me:

Maybe I should do a 'Greek/Roman Mythology for Dummies' post too...

As well as all the old stuff, there is also a large Collezione Arte Contemporanea ('Collection of Modern Art'), which includes religious-themed artwork from the much more familiar Matisse, Dali, Picasso etc.

Finally, having worked our way through 53 galleries, we had reached the highlight of the museums - the Sistine Chapel.  Possibly the most famous chapel in the world, it contains the most celebrated of Michelangelo's painting achievements: Genesis on the ceiling, and the Giudizio Universale ('Last Judgement') on the end wall.

A true testament to Michelangelo's dedication, Genesis took four years to paint, and most of this he will have spent in an odd half-lying, half-standing position on some scaffolding.  Considering he was a sculptor, and didn't want to do the painting in the first place, this is pretty impressive and/or idiotic (though he probably had no choice but to obey the Pope at the time, the aforementioned Julius II).  The ceiling is a fresco, which means the paint is applied directly onto fresh, wet plaster.  His assistants applied the plaster, and Michelangelo scaled up his small drawings onto it, as evidenced by the faint grid apparent in the background of the lighter pictures.  Then he painted onto it in a variety of techniques to give depth and texture.

The panels in Genesis were painted in reverse order - he started with 'The Drunkenness of Noah' and ended with 'God Separating Light from Darkness'.  You can actually see the development of Michelangelo's painting style as you move backwards through the sequence; in fact the final panel was painted in a single day.  'The Creation of Adam' panel contains one of the most famous icons of Renaissance art - the hand of God reaching and almost touching the hand of Adam, as he gives the spark of life to his creation.

Cameras are forbidden in the Sistine Chapel, so the above picture is added thanks to Wikipedia.

What is widely considered Michelangelo's masterpiece, 'The Last Judgement', covers the entire end wall of the chapel, and has a quite funny history.  It depicts the souls of the dead rising from their graves to face judgement in the Second Coming of Christ, and was meant as a warning to Catholics to behave as the Reformation swept Europe.  Michelangelo painted lots of naked, writhing, tormented figures, which offended the sensibilities of the Church, in particular the Master of Ceremonies Cesena.  Michelangelo responded by incorporating the face of Cesena into his depiction of Minos, the god of the underworld, with donkey ears to depict foolishness.  When Cesena complained to the Pope, the Pope jokingly said the portrait would have to stay, as his power did not extend to Hell.

Later, after Michelangelo had died, an artist called Daniele was commissioned to paint loin cloths and fig leaves over the exposed genitals and buttocks of the figures.  He also redid the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise behind her, because people thought the originals looked too much like Blaise was looking at Catherine's naked derrière.

But anyway.  Enough about the historics of the Sistine Chapel.  My opinion?


After all I'd read and heard about the chapel, and Michelangelo's brilliance, I thought it would be breathtaking.  Instead the chapel was smaller than I imagined, and while very beautiful and technically brilliant, just really not that spectacular.  I suppose when you think about how it was painstakingly painted, every inch of ceiling and wall, it becomes more impressive, it just didn't quite reach the level of wonder I was expecting.  However, it is still not a sight to be missed by any visitor to Rome.

After leaving the Sistine Chapel, and then the Vatican Museums, we stopped for a quick lunch of bucatini all'amatriciana, meat and potatoes, and gelato, then headed to St Peter's Square, and the title subject of this post.

Designed by Bernini, an artist, sculptor and architect, St Peter's Square is a very large space with 284 columns, 140 statues of saints, an Ancient Egyptians obelisk, and two fountains.  It contains the Basilica di San Pietro, the second largest cathedral in the world, another building that Michelangelo had a hand in creating (he designed the dome, as well as contributing several pieces to its internal decoration).

After having finally seeing everything in the basilica, we made our way back out into the scorching heat, and I suddenly reached breaking point.  I had been baking in the excruciating heat, and my legs were now more red than white thanks to the spreading prickly heat.  I just HAD to get my trousers off.

So I ducked down a little alley between some of Bernini's columns and whipped my trews off, sheltered from nosy nuns by B's helpful shoulder shawl.  Didn't even make it to the privacy of the toilets.

Oh well.

Sighing in relief as the air hit my stewed shins, we made our way to the shady streets of Trastavere, a region just south of the Vatican, and the home of the real Romans.  Here we met actual Italian people going about their own business, and not the business of the tourist industry.  There were old Italian men sitting on deck chairs in the middle of cobbled, winding streets, smoking cigarettes and talking really loudly to each other.  It was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of central Rome which, lets face it, looks like any other city except for the ancient structures interspersed between the H&M and Gap stores.

After a brief stop off for some more granita di caffe con panna, we ambled across the river and decided on primavera pizza for tea opposite the Forum, followed by healthy amounts of cocco (coconut) and tiramisu gelato.  Yum yum.

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