Rome: In Which I Use the Word "Statuary"

We signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museums with one of those groups that gets in early so you don't have to wait in line, and even though Sam and I generally like to do things on our own, we were SO glad to have a guide in these museums. There is so much to see that no matter how amazing everything is, your eyes start to glaze over after awhile, and our tour guide helped us know what we should focus on—and (maybe more importantly) what to pass by quickly!

We got there quite early in the morning, so Sam and I wandered around the empty St. Peter's square for awhile, waiting for our tour to start. It's so enormous you can't even capture it in a photo! I remember learning about this square (designed by Bernini) when we studied architecture in school. It's amazing to have all these famous things all crowded together: Bernini's piazza, Maderno's facade, Raphael's architectural plans, Michelangelo's dome—not to mention all the amazing things inside the Basilica!
The piazza is surrounded by two beautiful arched colonnades, like two arms reaching out to hug someone—or as Bernini said, to "give an open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith." Not sure if I would count as a "heretic" to Bernini or not, but they are lovely, welcoming arms all the same.

Once we got inside Vatican City, we zipped through several long corridors (pausing only to admire an unwrapped mummy in the Egyptian section—very interesting) so we could enjoy the Sistine Chapel in relative seclusion before it became packed wall-to-wall with people. The Sistine Chapel, of course, is what everyone has heard of and what everyone comes to see, so I was prepared to be disappointed by it. You can't take pictures inside the chapel (interesting backstory here), but just for reference, it looks like this:
Image from Wikipedia
I knew this was the place with the painted ceiling done by Michelangelo, and the picture of God touching Adam's finger, but I didn't know (or had forgotten) that there were so many other panels showing so many other scenes and people! Our guide had gone over it while we were waiting to get into the Vatican, so we knew mostly what we'd be seeing.

Image from Wikipedia
When we walked in, though, it was still overwhelming! So many colors, so much light. We asked our friends that went to Rome earlier this year what their favorite part was, and they said almost apologetically, "We know it's so expected…and we liked lots of things…but there's still just nothing that can top the Sistine Chapel." I understand their hesitancy, because having heard of it and seen the pictures so many times, it's easy to think, "Can it really be THAT amazing? I mean of course it's famous and all, and was innovative for its time…but…." Well, but nothing. You stand there craning your neck backwards and thinking about how physically difficult the painting process must have been, and then that all fades away as you fall into the colors and the forms, and you realize why it set the standard for great art. I'm sure Sam could say better WHY that is. I think the most striking thing for me was the vibrancy of the color. I've never seen paintings with that kind of glowing, luminous color before (and it's because these aren't paintings—they're frescos—which keep their color better). That's what the photos of the art never captured for me; that and the sheer size of it all. And the weight and volume of the forms—like there are real people up there, breathing. (I also love the woman encircled in God's left arm. Some people think it's Eve. I lean toward a different interpretation, where Michelangelo [maybe inadvertently] depicted Heavenly Mother. Fascinating!)
Here's the outside of the Sistine Chapel. Fairly unassuming.
And the alcove you pass through before entering the chapel. Less unassuming. :) I love the night-sky-with-stars effect of the doorway.
After the Sistine Chapel we walked through the long corridors again. (Later in the day these were literally filled WALL TO WALL with people. Like I said…July isn't the best time to visit. One nice thing, though: the Vatican and other churches require people to have their shoulders covered, and also their legs down to the knees. Most women we saw around Rome were dressed waaay more skimpily than that, but in the churches they would just wrap themselves with scarves or tie shawls around their waists like skirts, so they could go inside, and I kept thinking, "They all look so lovely! If only they'd wear their clothes like that all the time!" :)) 

We could see other gardens and palaces of the Vatican through one wall of windows, and with the shutters closed against the sun on one side and open to the air on the other, it really wasn't too hot inside at all. The halls were filled with artifacts from the Greek and Roman empires—oil lamps, urns, silver vessels, brass hardware. Things like hinges that were machined so smoothly and perfectly, you would swear they were made ten years ago. No wonder people in the Renaissance marveled, discovering those ancient civilizations, at all the technology and knowledge that had been lost.
The floors and ceilings were works of art in themselves. It was too much, really, to take in.
I loved this Hall of Maps, with ancient charts and maps that were as interesting for what they left out as for what they showed.
You'd like a closer look at that ceiling, wouldn't you?
There was also a place you could look out over the city. So many cool monuments and spires rising up toward the sky! You can see the round dome of the Pantheon there in the center of the photo, and the bronze chariots of the Victor Emmanuel Monument to the right of that.
This staircase ("The most photographed one in the world!" said our guide) is cool—it's a double helix, so there's one side for going up and one for going down. It was built in the 1930's but it's based on one of the same design built in 1505 (!).
One of the most amazing places was the hall with all the Greek and Roman statuary! It's unfathomable to me that some of these were carved several centuries before Christ. The proportions are so beautiful, and the muscles and draperies so delicately handled! Our guide was trying to give us an idea of how literally priceless this statuary (don't mind me; I greatly enjoy that word; it sounds so much more art-history-ish than statues) is. One bust similar to these, for example, recently sold for something like 9 million dollars at auction. A full-body statue would be worth exponentially more. So even a smallish section like the one below
would add up to billions of dollars—if it were for sale at all—which, of course, it isn't. Those popes! They sure took whatever they wanted. And I guess it's good because it was preserved and now we get to see it (if "we" go to the Vatican Museums, that is, ha ha).
Going through the rest of the museums was seriously like taking a walk through the pages of my Art History book. I kept wishing my friend Rachael were there since we studied (and learned through only the most ridiculous and hilarious of mnemonics, and under the influence of whatever delicious food we were cooking up that night for fortification) all this stuff together in college. I didn't even remember that much information about the works, but the names kept coming into my mind like ghosts. Apoxymenos! Doryphoros! The Belvedere Apollo!
Laocoön Group! (This was a particular favorite—of Rachael and me, that is. It's so terribly difficult to say [and I'm still not sure if I've mastered it] that it became a delight. It was also a favorite of Michelangelo's—for different reasons, presumably.)
The Belvedere Torso! Another favorite—mine, because it's funny, and Michelangelo's, who referred to it as his "teacher" and said it was created by a man "wiser than nature." Or, if you'd rather believe the estimable Sir Joshua Reynolds (painter, philosopher, and one of my London professors' heroes):
What artist ever looked at the Torso without feeling a warmth of enthusiasm, as from the highest efforts of poetry?
Well? What artist ever DID look at "the Torso" without such warmth? Hmm? Certainly not Sam. He was giving off warmth of enthusiasm like the dickens!

Oh, I'm making fun a bit, but it really was all amazing. Greek and Roman art was never my favorite era to study, and I confess to skipping over the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in favor of more modern works—but there's something pretty powerful about seeing this sort of thing in person. It makes you think about how people really lived back then, and the things they learned and knew—and it reminds you how fragile and temporary human achievement, even the greatest of it, is.
Another famous fresco—Raphael's School of Athens. Again the clear, bright colors—though not, I thought, as stunning as the ones in the Sistine Chapel. This was a huge work taking up all of one wall. I never imagined that, seeing it in my art history book.
And then, of course, there was the constant splendor of our surroundings. This was one of the papal apartments for an earlier pope—can't remember which. Even discounting the frescos or the sculptures housed in the rooms, the tiles and mosaics make the space so opulent!

After several hours of trying to take everything in, and developing advanced cases of Museum Knee, and having seen so much statuary we felt like we were going to turn into some—

we emerged onto a balcony to see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica looming up over us.
Then it was just down a couple of stairways and through these imposing arches, and we were in the crypt, where the apostle Peter himself is buried. I thought a lot about him while we were there (though, of course, HE is not there any longer!), wondering what he thinks of this place built in his honor. I love Peter. He's one of my favorite people in all the scriptures. 

And THEN we went up a tiny narrow staircase and emerged under THIS:
The dome of St. Peter's! which, in this photo, is really nothing like as magnificent as it was. The almost dizzying size of that dome, covered as it is with glittering gold leaf, almost gave me a headache as I looked up at it. And that's just the central dome. There are smaller domes over the corner chapels, too, nearly as stunning—though it's this one that's the architectural masterpiece. We learned about it a couple years ago (Building Big! Such a great documentary!). It has iron rings inside the stonework to counteract the hoop tension pushing outward, and pendentives to distribute the weight downwards. You can learn more about the engineering of the dome if you want to (and who wouldn't?), here.
Just for scale—each of those letters in the word "Petrus" is six feet tall. I think it's that scripture from Matthew: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."
Behind one of the altars in the basilica is another famous painting, Raphael's The Transfiguration. Only…to our amazement…it WASN'T the painting. It was a mosaic copy of it! The colors were so perfect, and the pieces so small, we couldn't believe it at first.
Even up close it's hard to tell, but you can see some of the tiling in the shadow of the robe, and in the sky and the grass beneath the tree here.
Bernini's massive canopy above the papal altar. Note that intricately decorated barrel vault above, and then behind it:
This alabaster window with a dove in the middle of it. I love those sun rays bursting out all around.
And then, suddenly, there was the Pietà, which I didn't even know would be here, but which I've always wanted to see. I think I first heard of this work when I read My Name is Asher Lev, before I ever took an art history class, and I had to find a picture somewhere in a book at the library to see what it looked like. It's behind bulletproof glass now because some maniac took a hammer to it in the 70's, but the power and the emotion of it were, to me, undeniable. Michelangelo sculpted Mary as such a young woman, and Sam told me that's because it's supposed to BE the young Mary, holding her baby Jesus, and foreseeing in her mind and heart his eventual, inevitable death. I kept thinking of what Simeon says to Mary: "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also"—and wondering about all the things Mary kept and pondered in her heart—and I thought in some small way my own mother-heart could understand. And in that crowded alcove, surrounded by cameras and sweaty bodies and people talking on their phones, I cried.
There wasn't much more after that, and we felt completely exhausted anyway. We went out into the now-crowded St. Peter's Piazza, walking by the obligatory obelisk on our way, and turned back to gaze at this place one more time. Truly amazing. I'm so, so grateful we got to actually go there!


  1. I love the business about the woman encircled in God's left arm! So cool!

    And all that statuary -- BILLIONS of dollars of it in one place -- fills me with dread over a terrible earthquake or some such destroying it all in one fell swoop. Which is an odd thing to think. But I can't help it! So much amazing stuff in one spot makes me feel vulnerable about us losing it all!

    1. Eeek! I never even THOUGHT of that, but now you've got ME worried about it! What if we lose it all?! At least now I have my pictures…��

    2. I know! Why would I be such a Debbie downer??? It just suddenly seeming terrifying having all those amazing eggs in one basket!!


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