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


(Mural of Pope John Paul II, St. Peter's Square, The Vatican)


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 historic 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.  



 (Courtyard at the Vatican Museum, Dome of St. Peters in background)


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 in a more leisurely manner.  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.





(Sixteenth century maps, Vatican Museum)


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….


Sistine Chapel, The Vatican


 (Michelangelo's magnificently painted Sistine Chapel, The Vatican)


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 four 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 after the death or resignation of the old one. Very likely your visit here will be the most memorable part of your trip to Rome.



 (St. Peter's Basilica viewed from St. Peter's Square)


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).


St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican


(Interior, St. Peter's Basilica)

 St. Peter's Basilica -- the Throne of Peter

 (St. Peter's throne, St. Peter's Basilica)



(Michelangelo's amazing, "The Pieta", The Vatican)

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.


A truly remarkable place!


Vatican --Swiss Guard

 (Changing of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican)


 For an extended high resolution slide show of the Vatican, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.






Images (26)
  • Courtyard at the Vatican Museum: The dome of St. Peter's Basilica is to the left of center
  • Hallway of the Vatican Museum: The crowds were rather light that day
  • Egyptian Section, The Vatican Museum: Elaborately painted sarcophagus
  • Vatican Museum -- Laocoon: Rediscovered just before Michelangelo's era, the detailed work greatly influenced him
  • Vatican Museum -- Red Porphyry marble sarcophagi: The rarest color of marble.  Every known reserve has been quarried, with none left anywhere
  • Mosaic at the Vatican Museum
  • Vatican Museum -- Map Gallery: Crafted in the 16th century, the maps are wonderfully detailed
  • Vatican Museum -- Map Gallery: Map of Italy
  • Vatican Museum -- Map Gallery: A map of Venice
  • Vatican Museum -- Detail of "The School of Athens: Plato and Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci inspiring the one on the left
  • Vatican Museum -- Detail of "The School of Athens: Raphael include Michelangelo in this painting
  • Sistine Chapel, The Vatican: The greatest painting in the world, Michelangelo's glorious Sistine Chapel
  • Sistine Chapel, The Vatican: Ceiling detail
  • St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican: It's hard to appreciate the immense size of the church
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- Bernini's Altar: Made of 927 tons of dark bronze (much of it pilfered from the portico of the Pantheon), and accented with gold vine leaves
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- Bernini's Altar and Dome of St. Peter's
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- Detail of roof: The letters around the roof are over 2 meters tall
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- Detail of roof
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- the Throne of Peter: Designed and crafted by the great Bernini
  • St. Peter's Basilica -- detail of the Dove Window: The dove has a wingspan of over 2 meters, though it hardly seems so
  • The Pieta, St. Peter's Basilica,  The Vatican: Michelangelo completed it when he was only 24 and it was the only work he ever signed
  • The Pope's Residence, the Vatican
  • Vatican --Swiss Guard: The uniforms are said to have been designed by Michelangelo. If so this is one of the few tasteless things he did in his life.
  • Vatican -- St. Peter's Basilica and Square
  • Vatican -- Obilesk in St. Peter's Basilica: Pilfered from Egypt a long time ago
  • Vatican -- St. Peter's Square: Mural of Pope John Paul II

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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