Not being keen on lines and much less crowds, I instantly mentally said “yes” when I saw there was a tour of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum before the crowds got in. I was quite willing to pay for the privilege of going before the SC and VM opened – which is rather an inaccurate concept as the moment you go in, the museum IS open – but this “before it opens” thing is about beating the crowds who did not want to wake up earlier, who did not want to (or could) pay the extra cost, or who did not know/think about it ahead of time. Plus with a tour guide to be sure nothing noteworthy was missed in the eagerness to see the SC.
Dark Rome (www.darkrome.com) provided one of those tours. (I found them via my ultimate authority for local tours, Viator.) Their tour guide, an archaelogist from Ireland named Rachel (cute!) was engaging and well prepared. But beyond not missing any key artifacts, the value was getting background knowledge about the great pieces I was going to see.
I have to say that while there were other tour groups (I didn’t pay THAT much money!), there was space to move around and stop without getting crashed into or pushed. Lots of interesting art (Rafael’s masterpiece right before the SC being one of them) and architecture. The crown jewel, though, really blew me away. Having heard SO MUCH about it, I was expecting to be impressed but not blown away. One of those things were the expectations are made so big that by the time you get there, it is not the same as what it had been built to be.
NOT this time! I have to say that having learned how frescoes are made in the tour, having been explained Michelangelo’s design and process, etc. really made a big difference in the appreciation for those drawings up in a ceiling. Just thinking about how high he had to climb every day to do the job was quite impressive. (I did wonder if he took bathroom breaks and, if so, did he do it in a bucket and lowered it when done… or was he SO engrossed in his masterpiece that he could hold it however many hours?? The things that churn in my head…)
Soapbox break. The one shameful thing I observed was fellow tourists who did not seem to get the concept of no pictures allowed. First of all, these fools don’t realize those drawings are so far up that their pictures will do them no justice. Just buy a freaking post card or, even better, the book. But most importantly for me is the lack of respect they show for a place of worship. If you cannot respect the sites you visit, then why are you really going there anyway? I treat other faiths’ places of worship with the same respect I pay my own. Soapbox break over.
It is neat to understand where Michelangelo started the ceiling and how his technique evolved during the project. I didn’t realize he was rather inexperienced in frescoes when he got the commission (that he didn’t want to do but Julius II forced to accept). I will not get into it here as I am not an art connossieur nor is that the purpose of this blog. But it is really interesting to see how he learned about how to do the frescoes once he came down and admired one of the earliest panels finished – the ceiling was too far up and the figures were too small: he had to paint them bigger! I am surprised though that he didn’t re-do that first panel. Or maybe he did and I didn’t catch that…
The Sistine Chapel frescoes on the ceiling are matched by an imposing altarpiece fresco where Michelangelo gets back at a “foe” using his face as the face of someone being walked into hell. I think Michelangelo won that little feud of theirs… And remember Rome is eternal… Lots of good ceilings in the Vatican (and Rome)!
Finally, as a Catholic, picturing a conclave (where Popes are elected) taking place in the SC while standing there was priceless. I couldn’t quite picture all these cardinals in there but, I take it by faith.
I think in some future visit, perhaps I will explore more of the VM themselves. Lots of important artifacts and art that I may not really be prepared to explore. But something will be learned, something will probably impress me and… I can get to see the awesome work in the Sistine Chapel one more time!