Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Sistine Chapel & the Palazzo Barberini, Rome 2.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 9, 2007

We were picked up at the hotel by our guide, and then set off for the Vatican for the Sistine Chapel tour. Although tourists do it every day, I found it curious to drive in through the entrance and find myself in an entirely separate state, guarded somewhat laconically by gentlemen in Swiss uniforms. Apparently the Vatican has about 1500 citizens, but nobody (not even the Pope) has only Vatican citizenship. The Vatican issues only diplomatic passports, so all its citizens are diplomats, which must come in handy when trying to get out of parking tickets in Rome.
The queue was the longest I’ve ever been in, but our guide, Dani, made it endurable with witty chat and a wicked sense of humour. She warned us, however, not to dawdle off because once inside, there would be no way of finding each other again in the crowds. It was imperative to keep in sight the cheeky red loveheart she held up on a stick to guide us, and how right she was!

There was no sign of the new Pope Benedict XVI but I suppose he may have been busy checking his inventory – there’s a lot of loot in the Vatican. On our way in through the Museum, Dani pointed out some of the expensive gifts given to the Pope by Napoleon – he knew the right way to get a blessing for his enterprises in Rome when the Vatican became a separate state! On our next trip to Rome I want to have a closer look at these priceless things, because we were rushed past most of it in a bit of a blur.

Being in the Sistine Chapel that we had heard so much about was an amazing experience. It is a chapel, and there is some attempt to maintain the silence and dignity that a chapel deserves, so although one is cheek by jowl with hundreds of other tourists, there are only hushed whispers and the rustle of people moving about and pointing at the things they have come to see. The paintings on the wall (Perugino, Botticelli, Rossellini, Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, and the Last Judgement by Michelangelo) are magnificent but we were overwhelmed by the magic of the ceiling frescoes. (This was when I was very glad to have brought the opera glasses from home). To think that the conception, the design and the execution of the artwork on the ceiling was the work of one man who thought of himself as a sculptor not a painter, is just astonishing. We weren’t allowed to take photos , but it would have been impossible to do justice to these massive artworks anyway with our paltry cameras, so click the link here to see the frescoes – and make plans to go and see them yourself if you can.

Dani had told us to look out for amusing aspects of Michelangelo’s work and it was fun to find them in his painting of The Last Judgement. Michelangelo’s battles with the cardinal were legendary: Cardinal Carafa did not approve of the nudes. In retaliation for criticism that the paintings were obscene by the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, Biagio da CesenaMichelangelo immortalised his critic’s face as the door-keeper Minos, complete with ass’s ears and among the damned in hell . He also included his own face in The Last Judgement and on the ceiling as a kind of autograph – apparently it was against the rules of decorum for an artist to sign his name on a work in a church, (although Perugina did it above his baptism scene) and Michelangelo had been outraged to learn that another artist had been taking the credit for his Pieta. Since he worked on these frescoes for four years, from 1508 to 1512, lying on his back day after day, I think he was entitled to do as he pleased…

Alas, the tour did not allow for dawdling through the museum again (crowd control, I suppose – apparently they get 20,000 visitors a day in the chapel) so we were led briskly out via a stunning staircase with two separate spirals for going up and down. But Tim still managed to take some beautiful photos of the Pope’s backyard…

vaticangarden

We made our way out into a broad avenue called Via Della Conciliazione where enthusiasts could buy souvenirs and the weary could relax over lunch in one of the cafes. Apparently the locals don’t like this avenue, because it means that St Peter’s is visible in all its glory from a distance, when they would rather that visitors came upon it almost by surprise. I do not understand this preference for clutter rather than spaciousness, and I thought the avenue seemed very appropriate for such an important building, even if it was Mussolini’s idea.

We then had the usual break to recuperate at the Hotel Regno, and in the late afternoon set out to explore the North East and Via Veneto. We watched cats scampering about amongst the Roman ruins in Piazza Sallustio, and made our way through heavy crowds and dense traffic in search of the Palazzo Barberini.

By then it was getting late and we were not expecting it to be open, but it was, and we had the place almost to ourselves! A splendid but rather gloomy staircase by Borromini took us to a series of galleries which house the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, holding works by Filippo Lippi, El Greco , Raphael, not to mention Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The biggest surprise was finding Holbein’s wedding portrait of Henry VIII (to No 4, Anne of Cleves) because I had always assumed it was somewhere in England, (and it would be interesting to know why it isn’t).

By the time we’d explored everything the Barberini had to offer we were starving, so we found a very good seafood restaurant nearby, tucked in, and then made our way back to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

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