I’ll just say this. There comes a point when you are spending so much time with the great classics of art, that you find yourself really grasping what modern art is all about. Gosh I love history, but while I was surrounded by such breathtaking pieces of art I felt myself desperately seeking a breath of fresh air. Thanks for the Renaissance, please hand me a Kandinski.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.
I’m not a Catholic. My grandmother was, and she on several occasions threatened to whisk my sister and I off to be baptised. My mother wouldn’t allow it, and my protestant father’s side of the family would down-right go crazy if such a thing happened. My grandmother understood this. After all she married a Scotsman, not known for their Catholic sidings in this century or the last.
But Jane is Catholic. It seems this is going to be a persistent cycle in my family. One side good Catholic, the other heathen bastards. It’s all great for adding spice to the table at Christmas dos.
The day after visiting Olivetti exhibition, we decided to head to the Vatican. Its a short train ride from our apartment, and we got there near mid-day. Not that we could tell be the sun, as the rain the came over the afternoon before had morphed into what would be mostly days-long miserable downpour. Everything was wet and slippery under a melancholic sky.
Getting into Vatican City is easy. You just line up in the rain for a prolonged period until you buy a ticket. Then, you line up for a prolonged period to get inside the gate. As a surprise twist, you then line up for a long period to get through the security scanner. That is… unless you have a tour guide. But how do you get a guide?
That’s easy. Just walk near the city and someone will approach you. Simply say yes, then go with them to a seedy little room where you pay money, then go to another seedy waiting area where you sit about for a little bit out of the rain, then head onwards with your your tour guide through to the security desk to get scanned-in like you do at an airport.
Our guide was a gentlemen of indistinguishable origin. He wasn’t Italian, and he spoke about 4 languages so it was hard to pick his accent. But he was humorous, energetic and mostly enthusiastic, with a touch of impatience and cynicism. Perfect for my tour guide.
Once inside the guide took us up to a board that displayed to us many of the features of the Sistine Chapel. To keep things interesting, we were told that we should study these now as we were to keep silent in the chapel, where our guide couldn’t talk to us. To add to the effect, we were forbidden to take photographs inside the most photographed chapel in the world. There’s a reason for this, however it means – Spoilers: There’s no photos in this blog from inside, as I respected their wishes.
The Vatican’s museums.
The Vatican’s museums are famous. It’s not just about Italian classicism, and the astonishing prolific output that came from the Renaissance. Over hundred’s of years the Vatican has amassed a collection of art and artefacts taken from many of the cultures that came before Christianity. Ancient Egypt and Greece. Sumerians, and artefacts from cultures along the Silk Road. To call the Vatican a trove would be understating its value. It is one of the finest collections of history in the world. And you get to see… well… a bit of it. All from your vantage point within the crush of huddled people.
In a lot of ways the Vatican’s museums are exactly what you would expect of any museum. Cluttered but refined halls of marble filled with reverently upheld artefacts. To the faithful it is a collection that proves god gifted to mankind creativity with the inspiration of his greatness and divinity. To the faithless it’s a collection that leaves you wondering how the church could take itself seriously as it holds so much evidence that it is yet another in a long line of religions that’ve held power in many hearts and minds across the world.
Eventually as you push forward, slowly edging towards the Sistine, the space opens up and you’re not in such a crush anymore – with exception of cramming yourself around particular works of art. Every so often things get close again as you filter through doorways, but no matter what you’ll often find yourself bumping into other people as you stare in awe at the ceilings, walls, shelves and floors. And seriously… keep a close eye on the floors. You never know what, or who, you will step on. As you will see later.
The art is genuinely breathtaking. The skill in many of these sculptures and paintings is astonishing. As you from great hall, to great hall, it starts to become overwhelming. You pass piece after piece of immense and bewildering works, never able to stop for long enough to soak it all in and study it, leaving you unable grasp what the artist was attempting to portray or potentially communicate. After a while you feel yourself awed by presence of kings, yet you feel you are stepping on their toes. Even the most battered and fractured pieces of art are held with esteem – with many items dating back so far that the flash of a moment you are there to look upon them isn’t even a blink of an eye in its lifetime.
The halls then close in again, and you find yourself once again being crushed and whisked along corridors filled with more sculptures, followed by more paintings. I found myself wishing for more time so I could truely appreciate what I was looking at. However as our tour guide was a nice chap and all, the handful of words he gave us on some of the works were never enough, or even always accurate.
It is here in these long stretching halls that the cultural mash of the works kept in the Vatican becomes as interesting as it becomes overwhelming. Art from Russia, Egypt, Greece and many other other strange corners of the world are held here – all marvellous relics of civilisation’s growth that I found fascinating.
Our tour group spilled from hall to hall that were filled with depictions of deities and myths brought to life in many media of art :- sculpture, painting, mosaics and tapestry. There’s just so much to fill your eyes. It is like being bombarded by the Greek tragedies, life of the Pharaohs and the explosion of Christianity all at once. They were celebrations of mankind and its devoted love of the god/s they worship – with many of those gods men themselves. Just as I felt I was enjoying the familiarity of studying these old artefacts, our tour group crashed through the doors into the illumination of the galleries of the Vatican’s more… well… comparatively recent works.
And oh my gosh are they awe inspiring.
The halls seem endless, and just as I felt exhausted from looking over ever corner it all ended. We were then shuffled through a couple of dully painted rooms, then up a stairwell. Then down, then through a wood panelled hall where you’re told to stay quiet.
Before I knew it I was standing in the….
Or Cappella Magna if you will.
It wasn’t exactly silent in here. Indeed plenty of tourists were busy openly yabbering, much to the disgust of others that had made this chapel their pilgrimage. Like much of the Vatican’s art the Sistine is a complex mix of mythology and story-telling. Coming from largely Christian circles I knew most of tales, but the sheer enormity of the canvas painted on, and the astonishing work of some of the greatest artists of the era is near impossible to take in as you squash through the crowd. There’s Botticelli, Perugino and Rosselli. Its a room with walls painted end to end with some of the most admired works in history. Works that depict everything from artificial curtains to theatrical-looking representations of early christianity.
But the show-stopper is the ceiling. That ceiling that everyone knows. Michelangelo’s masterpiece that has influenced almost everything that the Vatican holds dear that came after it’s painting. it is so iconic that elements of it have been reproduced millions of times over, with in almost every house-hold in the western world holding some kind of depiction of an element of this ceiling. Its on everything from wall-hangings and Sunday-school books, to Monty Python movies and biscuit tins.
It’s all here. And as I stared at the ceiling and ponder its mastery, I found myself feeling everything was so terribly familiar, yet not. The colours are different. The depictions don’t seem as grand, while some are grander, then I thought. I’ve seen it before, I’ve studied it before. I searched myself for reason in the 10 minutes I had been allocated in that room to justify my feelings of awe, but I found myself overwhelmed not by the mastery, but by the artistic repetition of the Vatican’s entire collection. Angels, bold heroic beings, muscular men and fertile women. Carers, champions, gladiators. The Vatican’s artworks are as impressive as they are impersonal. They are pieces that fire your emotions and bring you to awe, tell you a story and leave you with nothing that’s your own. Every corner, every surface. Everything is art in this space and it surrounds you, it envelops you. And it is all the same.
Silently I exited. The art is amazing, but I was done. Done as I could ever be done with art. I longed for the freshness of art from the modern era where sex is neither demonised or commoditised. Where the pieces are open to you, but express more of the artist’s soul than a heroic story ever could. Where people are accepted as frail and broken, but this isn’t a spiel that contrasts you against a perfect god. There’s a million books telling me about how Michelangelo painted the ceiling and the torments he went though. But while you can see some of that in the stories chosen to be depicted, the rawness of the art of my own era is something I found myself looking for on this day. Something I could breathe in that felt like it was experiencing the art. Something I wasn’t expected to worship or welled feelings of guilt inside of me.
But by gosh do I still feel conflicted about this. I am fascinated by, and even love, history. So feeling so exhausted by it felt strange.
“That was amazing” Jane said to me. I nodded and mumbled a “Yes, it’s great” in return. The Sistine IS great. The art is loved by many, and the skill of the artists involved is unrivalled. With us now outside a patter of rain splashed refreshingly against my face. We walked down an elevated granite and concrete ramp that ran along a laneway, then though an arch where we found ourselves walking out into St Peter’s square, with St Peter’s Basilica over my right shoulder. I imagined Pontiffs and Cardinals walking down along this lane, dressed in cassocks and odd little hats. A theatrical uniform once introduced to rival the pageantry of the pagans. For a moment I felt history coming alive again, only because I had enough time to allow my mind to wander without the 360 degree stimulation of the chapel and the museums.
Into St Peter’s
The grand facade of the building is as dominant in the landscape as it is epic. Out in front of it our tour guide said a farewell and in the blink of an eye was gone and we were forgotten, left to tour St Peter’s at our leisure. We skipped along ribbon-sashed aisles and walked through a door built ti accomodate a giant walking through them, then found ourselves inside. What the Sistine offers in treasures of art, St Peter’s offers in opulent design. Inside the weather-worn outer is a gleaming hall that leaves you in awe of its striking beauty.
Or did I mean ostentatiousness?
The ceiling reaches for the heavens, glistens with gold and polished marble while the walls adorned by bold paintings that naturally depict much of the bible and the history of catholicism. It is reverent, revenant and immortal. It’s bold, sometimes show-ey. And everything is a glorious piece of architecture that’s so textured with history and art there’s barely a place you can turn your head and not see something different. You even walk on history. Literally, as I discovered as I walked on a dead pope.
With such heavy skies overhead the lighting inside StPeters was tested to its limits, giving everything a shadowy depth, as though you could find earnest spiritual entities coming out of almost every corner. I was left only imagining what the basilica looks like with sunlight flooding in.
But as Jane and I walked around, something unexpected happened. Jane went the full catholic, stopping to give prayers at appropriate sites, while informing me what means what in the catholic faith. Crossing herself, often and silently bobbing her head while occasionally dropping coins in the appropriate slot. I was a bit… bewildered. The most religious I have seen her in church perviously was a solid recital of the lord’s prayer.
Stepping on former Popes isn’t difficult. The place is filled with them, with plenty of space to accomodate more. Many are entombed and mummified for display. some gratuitously, others interestingly and creatively so. Jane even gave me the run-down on several of them, telling me tales of some, while describing others for their good or bad deeds – at one stage pointing to the statue and saying ‘he was a bad egg’.
St Peters is quite loaded, wall-to-wall, with saints or at least depictions of. Some of which prompted Jane to pray. A friend of ours was dying of cancer, and she felt motivated. Far be-it me to belittle her for that, as it meant a lot to her and I think she took away much personally from this visit. Meanwhile, I was endlessly fascinated by the peculiar art, the tombs and the mummified remains of former popes, with much to explore from one darkened corner to the next.
While much of the art around the Basilica serves the same purpose the art in the Vatican’s galleries and museums, there’s a difference. While the museum’s collection are a carefully curated assortment that feels like an almost organic growth, the Basilica’s art is alive and immediately relevant to the purpose of a church, and influenced by the whims of the time and the lives of the people that pass through it. It isn’t a ‘look what we’ve collected’, but rather immediate, earnest and filled with meaning for the people that follow the Catholic faith. It’s empowering to the church and to christians, andnd it’s that interaction that I find fascinating.
And if course. Who couldn’t find mummified popes fascinating either.
This was often seen as a miracle – one of the first steps to the pope becoming beatified. Something which has since ceased as it became obvious that there was a bit of cheating going on with the ‘incorruptible corpses’. That, and that it didn’t always work.
Leaving the Vatican.
As we left St Peters the skies parted and the rain stopped. A warm glowing sunset began to fall across the grounds of the Vatican, and I looked back across St Peter’s and reflected on the interesting and somewhat overwhelming day I had just had.
There’s much to see, love and explore at the Vatican, and I only graced pieces of it for mere moments. It made it hard to appreciate, even if much of it I had seen before. We walked across St Peter’s square, surrounded by onlooking saints. Again, more amazing art that I had seen before that blurred into the obscurity of so much similar works. Is it possible to get tired of Quality?
Outside the Vatican’s walls stores had opened up and the streets were alive with people moving about, looking into shops. Trinkets could be found by the thousand to every square meter. Worshippers haggled and juggled faux artefacts, seeking something to give them a reminder of the incredible works of art they had just been inspired by.
I was hungry. Hungry for less caged history, and a bit of pizza. We headed back to our apartment then towards the Trevi Fountain again, which we passed to explore elsewhere for food. In a restaurant Jane and I sat down and planned out next trip to another historical site. In a way I was feeling weary of all this carved-stone history being dished up to me on a plate of classicism, and was beginning to wonder if the effort was worth it.
It would be. The next place we visited would forever alter how we felt about exploring history, leaving us changed and inspired. The next day we were headed to Pompeii.