My next day in Rome wasn’t even spent in Italy. Instead, I took the Metropolitana di Roma to the world’s smallest country: Vatican City.
Soon I was part of a large crowd and even if I hadn’t been able to see the top of St. Peter’s, I still would have known I was going the right way based on the frantic walking and guidebook checking all directed at its dome. My first stop wasn’t the church, but the museum. I’d heard horror stories about the lines at the Vatican, but I only waited in line for five minutes at the new millennium door of the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museum).
Overwhelmed barely describes how I felt in the Vatican Museum. Awe struck, vanquished, staggered, stunned, maybe describe how I felt after winding up those spiral staircases. I knew that the collection there was impressive, but it seemed endless. Hall after hall of Roman art, each piece seeming somehow familiar. It had been a few years since I took a classical archaeology course at Oxford University, but I still found myself remembering the marble and gods. The one I was most excited to see was the Laocoön, which to my shock was displayed in an outdoor courtyard. It was covered by an overhang, but still, this is the sculpture that started the Vatican Museum, the one piece of Roman art that had more influence on the Italian Renaissance than any other. I’ll just have to assume the Vatican knows what they are doing. Although as my tour guide from the day before said, we’re being let into the Pope’s private art collection, so it’s arranged more to impress guests than art historians.
After endless Greek and Roman sculpture, a hall of beautiful and intriguing maps, and rooms painted by Raphael, I was finally heading to what’s probably the most famous of all the rooms at the Vatican City: the Sistine Chapel. I’d thought the rest of the museum was crowded, but that was nothing compared to the chapel. I managed to move into the middle of the room among the flashing cameras and prone people (both supposedly forbidden) to look up at the ceiling. Adjectives probably won’t describe it. Maybe I’ll compare it to seeing a celebrity in person and the shock of what they actually look like (shorter, more wrinkled) along with the awe at being in their presence.
After surviving the Sistine Chapel, I got a slice of pizza at the Vatican Museum food court. I like to think that because of my attempts at Italian, they gave me the most giant slice of vegetarian pizza on the tray. Or maybe they were all giant and I was just delirious. But there was still more of the museum to see, and I would like it to be known that I went into every single gallery I could find. The paintings, the Etruscan art, the early Christian art, the modern art, even the room full of popemobiles. Where is my certificate of achievement in travel?
There was still the other behemoth of the Vatican City to visit, so I met up with Mari and Natalie at a fountain in front of St. Peter’s. There was no line here either, although when I came back to go up the dome, I would see that this had just been luck.
If you’re wondering where all the marble and bronze on the Roman ruins went, this is it. I don’t think I’ve been in a church more demanding of reverence. Popes and saints by Bernini and Michelangelo stare down from the walls as believers and tourists swirl around you, their languages mixing into one low roar. The basilica is built over what is thought to be the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope, and you can still see his grave through a door under the altar. I also saw it when I went into the crypt, where most of the popes are also buried and Pope John Paul II is attended by guards and praying nuns.
Remember Le Suisse from Valence? I got to see his inspiration in the form of the Swiss Guards.
After a day at the Vatican, I was exhausted and retired for an evening accompanied by red wine.