Tuesday, October 20
Tuesday morning and we’re up at 6am as we’ve got a date set at the Vatican Museums. vespa, as a member of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, has secured us a special visit to the collections and we need to be there at 8am. We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to get to see, beyond having requested a chance to visit their art restoration labs. vespa is hoping since our time is an hour before the general public is allowed inside, we might get to see the Sistine Chapel before the crowds descend.
But we have no idea. All we have is an email printout with our names and the name of a person on-site we are supposed to be met by. And that we need to go to the exit door, not the main entry of the museum, to find her.
So we get a cab (who takes us right to the PROPER location) and get there about 7:30. OK, we’re early, but we see guards already there, along with a few regular visitors starting to form an entry line already. Email in hand (and our Patron pins on our lapels), we start walking towards the guards, even as their waving at us to get in the regular line.
“No no no, Patrons! Special appointment!” But they don’t want to hear anything about it. We show them the email, but they don’t read English. More waving and insisting to stand over by the regular entry line.
This is getting frustrating. And potentially dangerous?
So we start giving names. The first name gets a pause out of one of the guards, but still insistence that we need to stand to the side. The second name finally ends up being the “secret password” to get in. Suddenly one guard snatches the email from our hands and waves us to come to the door. There he is interrogated by another guard before we are let inside, there is a lot of furious discussion in Italian with some other officials inside before we are told to “stand right there and wait!” until the proper person shows up to take us around.
Which is fine. At least we’re inside and we didn’t get arrested. We get to watch the comings and goings as the Vatican Museum prepares to open for the day, which is an interesting site all of its own. Finally we are pointed down another corridor, then to the Special Passes ticket window, where we wait for our guide from the Patrons to meet us.
She is there by 8am and we are quickly through security and being led quickly through the corridors of the museum, deserted and chilly in the morning air, to one destination: “You would like to see the Sistine Chapel first, yes?” Yes!
Trying to describe the experience of walking into the chapel that morning, with literally no one else there except for a few guards and a handful of other special guest visitors with other guides, is rather indescribable. vespa may have uttered a few words not entirely appropriate for such a holy place, but I think one should be forgiven when struck by such a site. Our guide told us to please enjoy and take it in ourselves for a time, and when we were ready she would give us more of a tour of the chapel. The only thing I wished for, as provided in some of Venice’s great palazzos with tremendous ceiling panels and artwork, were some mirrors to be able to fully study and appreciate the work without straining the neck.
We were then treated to a very informative discussion and tour not only of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes and Last Judgement, but also the works by Raphael, Bernini, and Sandro Botticelli that decorate the walls. vespa had plenty of technical fresco questions and learned some surprising things about Michelangelo’s technique. As for the debate over the cleaning of the frescoes? I have to stand by the position that no, they were not over-cleaned. To go into that in more detail would necessitate a long discussion of “buon fresco” vs “a secco” work, but I do believe that Michelangelo only worked “buon fresco” so stripping away any layers added beyond that was the correct thing to do.
We stayed in the chapel with all of maybe 20 other people until the general public was just beginning to stumble in (advice to future travelers: If you want to see the Chapel without the crowds? Line up as early in the morning as you can to get in the Vatican Museum. Have a map of the museum handy with a clearly marked path to the Chapel (it’s a LONG walk) – Rick Steves’, again, has a good map for this. As soon as you are through the doors, bypass EVERYTHING to get to the Chapel as you can go back at your leisure to see the rest. Because if you really want to appreciate the Chapel, you need to do so before you are in a mass of hundreds (if not thousands) of others, unable to move about freely or really stop and pause to appreciate the work.
After that, our guide lead us to Raphael’s Rooms, which again we had the chance to enjoy and study before being jammed in with massive crowds. These rooms feature beautiful frescoes with intricate stories to tell, well worth reading about before visiting (or at least, having a wonderfully educated guide as we did). After we finished there, we headed down the Map Room, where I paused to take some photos in front of the one featuring my “home town”, Ancona.
We were then taken outside into the courtyard to visit one of the current restoration projects taking place, sponsored by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Vatican Patrons. It was fascinating to learn about the work involved in restoring two ancient marble statues, replacing old restoration work that was causing more damage than good. After that, we got word that we would indeed be allowed to visit the painting restoration lab! This was a really amazing chance to see restoration work up close, from removing old varnish, in-painting missing sections of paintings, stabilizing panels and also repairing frames. We spent about a half-hour observing work being done on about a half-dozen works before our guide had to leave us to finish touring the museum on our own.
We took a quick early lunch break at that point, and then completed touring the rest of the museum’s collection of paintings (not terribly impressive, although their modern religious art wing actually had three Salvador Dali paintings I’d never seen before) and sculpture (much more impressive). We saw the legendary Belvedere Torso, for one, and I found that my appreciation for sculpture as an artform expanded dramatically that day. I just don’t think American museums have anywhere near the quality – let alone quantity! – of classical sculpture works that Italy does. The collection here was simply staggering.
We finished up at the museum in early afternoon, but had to hang around the area as our passes for a papal audience the following morning were to be picked up after 3pm. So we headed over to St. Peter’s Basilica, which is more impressive for its size than for its interior artwork. Still, we did get to see Michelangelo’s Pieta (now sadly behind glass) and visit the Vatican grotto, most especially to visit John Paul II’s tomb. Which was the first sight in Rome to move me to tears.
At the appropriate time we attempted to pick up our tickets, however there was still some confusion as our “official” invitation was not yet ready. But the Swiss Guard was happy enough to give vespa two regular passes, so we were set for the following day, which would be another early morning!
Tired and rather “art-ed out” at that point, we hopped a cab back to Trastavere to do some more exploring, chill out with some early evening drinks at Aristocampo’s little panini cafe/bar, and then seek out someplace new for dinner. The place I really wanted to try on several recommendations sadly was closed on Tuesdays. Woe! But we wandered about until we ended up at a place vespa had noticed the night before and thought looked good. I can’t recall the name now (if I can find a receipt I’ll add it later). This place was bigger and more “touristy” than the previous night, but the food was still excellent.
We started with marinated anchovies (lemony, oily, and delicious with the restaurant’s heavy bread). In a seafood mood that night, for my primi, I had a wonderful fettucine with arugula, shrimp and a light pink cream sauce, followed by pan-sauteed mixed seafood in a delicious tomato broth. (What vespa ate now escapes me, but I remember the tastes I had were good). Further walking was out of the question, so it was time to catch a cab home and get ready for another early day tomorrow…