- How to Appreciate the Art Which Helps Make the Richest Country in the World Get Richer... Without Blowing Your Top
09.07.2004 - 09.07.2004 92 °F
WHEN IN DOUBT, PRAY: KEEP YOUR MIND OPEN AND YOUR HEART WILL FOLLOW
Friday, July 9, 2004. Up at 7:30, breakfast at 8:30am; our day’s sightseeing list was a short one: a visit to the world’s smallest nation, Stato della Citta del Vaticano- Vatican City- to see the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. Although my knee felt sorer than the previous day (from my fall 3 days earlier chasing bulls in Pamplona), its size was almost back to normal, just a half grapefruit sticking out on the right side. We stopped to greet the nuns who ran our pensione; they gave us bus directions to the Vatican. All morning, I had been praying to God to open my eyes and give me patience. I was not sure how I would react, knowing we were going to visit the richest country in the world, with much of the riches being stolen goods, treasures of the old and new world, much of it locked up and not even shared with the world; to top it off, there were supposed to be many pagan objects in what was supposed to be a Christian institution - not a museum of history or archaeology. I was having a very hard time swallowing that. But, I was determined to go in with an open mind, and prayed for eyes to see what God saw and not be blinded by my own prejudice… or at least, to make my hands big enough to cover my big mouth in the event something struck a nerve… So we followed the nun’s directions on Rome’s great public transportation system-bus #40, 2 stops, change to bus #42, to Vatican City. We’d know our way once inside the Stato della Citta del Vaticano walls; if we forgot, it would be simple: follow the crowd.
A NATION SO SMALL, IF YOU BLINK YOU’D MISS IT
It truly was a small country/city-state- only .17 square miles, with a theocratic government headed by none other than the pope with a population of something like 550; our digital tour guide from our bus tour of Rome the previous day had informed us it had its own currency as well. It was not part of the EU, but did accept all Euros, Visa and MasterCard. Although I remained tense on the ride over, once we entered the Vatican gates, I felt a calmness wash over me. The line to the entrance of the museum compound was long, stretching around the corner of the building’s entrance, but it moved quickly. Inside, I took one look at the enormous spiral ramp leading to the first floor of the museums, my knees screamed and my eyes about popped out of my head, and I took off in searched for the nearest elevator. Unfortunately, neither were working, so anyone in a wheelchair had to be pushed up the spiral ramp to get in to the museums and rolled down down to exit (now that would be fun!), but for hop-along hunchbacks like myself with just a bad knee, no choice but to hop all the way up… I had my “Top 10 Rome” book with me, which was great to give details of the best highlights to see, but the map wasn’t the greatest; we bought a guide book, which would double as a souvenir for €6, on top of the €12 each entrance.
DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF ARTWORK; LA LA LA LA LA, LA LA, LA, LA
The Vatican museums consist of a combination of 10 museums and several galleries and palaces; we restricted ourselves to the main galleries and of course- the Sistine Chapel. The galleries were lovely and very, very crowded. It had a very unusual background for being the heart of the Catholic religion; while one would think they were built to display religious paintings, the museums were actually founded in the 16th century to showcase the pope’s prized possession (from his days as a mere cardinal) - the Apollo Belvedere - a statue of the Roman and Greek god of the Sun, sculpted around 325 BC; and the acquisition of the Laocoön. The Laocoön had been famous, written about by Rome’s 1st century famous philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder. It had been lost for centuries, discovered in 1506 near good old Nero’s house of gold-Domus Aurea, purchased by the pope, who then opened his museum a month later (maybe he used his own popenopener?). Dating between 160 BC and 20 BC, it was a sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons being strangled by sea serpents. According to Greek legend, Laocoön was the priest who tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept any wooden nickels or horses, but they responded to him saying one should never look a gift horse in the mouth…
The main target for most visitors, us included, was the celebrated Sistine Chapel; we would need to proceed through no less than 53 galleries before arriving at the famed chapel.
The first thing I noticed was the ceilings- every square inch covered with paintings of all sizes; borders and corners painted to boot. We walked through a series of halls with the flow of the slow crowd, getting separated a few times... Vidal and I are too much alike-we get lost in our own worlds, one of us walking ahead and losing the other in doing so. There was so much to see, and I prayed my photos would turn out, as my hands were still fairly unsteady (a result of Grave’s Disease - not nerves). While digital cameras were all the rage, I had yet to make the changeover from my trusty 35mm; no little screen to show me what my photo would look like before or after I snapped it, I had to rely on my own judgment, my own mental picture… or at least, a wing and a prayer! I eavesdropped on the occasional English speaking tour guide, in hopes of picking up interesting tidbits of trivia…
The galleries were all cluttered with various forms of art; there did not seem to be in any hall or room one spot left untouched. At times there was so much going on, my eyes did not know what to focus on. It seemed to me that most of the art was done with such passion, such obvious love for God; other artwork, while being beautiful as well, seemed to me to illustrate nothing more than the artist’s talent, but nothing of his soul. The first Gallery we passed through was of the Candelabra, a long corridor of Roman copies of 3rd to 2nd century BC Greek statues and 2nd century candelabra.
Then on to the Tapestry Gallery, full of, believe it or not, tapestries - masterfully made by none other than Raphael’s students. The details were amazing; some did not seem like tapestries at all.
Following was the Gallery of Geographic Maps, the 40 ancient 16th century maps of the Italian regions and papal properties of the time were actually frescoed onto the walls.
From there, we peeked down through the open windows to the Vatican Gardens, with a glimpse of St. Pete’s dome.
CELEBRATING WAR IN THE VATICAN
It would be impossible for me to write about every single gallery, but there were certain ones that stuck out more than others, such as the Sobieski Room. Named for King John III Sobieski, it showcased the first war painting we came across, ‘The Victory of Vienna’. Although quite a work of art, it seemed so out of place- and yet it wasn’t at all. Sobieski, commander of the army, won a glorious victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683; a triumph which historians regard as one of the most decisive battles in the history of the world, as it saved Christian Europe from Turkish domination. A banner wrapped around the 2 of the otherwise plain walls, looking very much out of place, like a roll of foot wide art wallpaper- border slapped on.
I C THE PAPAL BULL!
The Room of the Immaculate Conception pretty much sums up what paintings we saw within, each was absolutely spectacular. There were other treasures and display cases as well; one massive display case supposedly showed preciously bound volumes containing the text of the papal bull defining that particular dogma. However, the room was so packed and the crowd simply did not want to move for us, and not wanting to spend an hour waiting for the red sea to part so we could have a glimpse of a closed book, we went on.
FRA ANGELICO ON ICE
Also of interest was the Nicholas V Chapel, a tiny chapel with the distinctive frescoes of Fra Angelico. Although I had assumed by the name there would be paintings of St. Nicholas and we would be viewing good old Santa Claus of the 15th century, I was mistaken. Before he got into the liquor business, Fra Angelico painted many scenes all around the small chapel, including ‘The Deposition of Christ’, ’The Prayer of St. Stephen’, ‘St. Lawrence Receiving the Treasures of the Church’, and ‘The Last Judgment’.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE AND YOUR CRIMINALS CLOSER: THE BORGIA APARTMENT
The Borgia family, AKA "history's first criminal family", was a family of Italian nobility whom history remembers for their corrupt rule of the papacy during the Renaissance, earning well their nickname. The apartment has five rooms- Room of the Sibyls, Room of the Creed, Room of the Liberal Arts, Room of the Saints, and Room of the Faith, decorated with frescoes by Pinturicchio. The year that Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, the paintings were painted to celebrate the supposedly divine origins of the Borgias. However, after the death of Pope Alexander VI in 1503 (him of the Borgia family), the apartment was closed up; the new papacy wanted to turn a new leaf and distance the church from the corrupt Borgias. It was not until 1889 that the rooms were restored to their former glory and opened for public viewing.
THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR A RAPHAEL
While the main attraction was naturally the celebrated Sistine Chapel, we were also anxious to see the highly acclaimed Raphael Rooms. Breathtakingly beautiful walls and ceilings, there was not one iota of space which had not been touched by this master of the brush. I was at once amazed at Raphael’s gift, his brilliance; he worked on the rooms between 1508 and 1520 before his untimely death at the tender age of 37; his students finished his work for him. He was allegedly more than a bit appalled that a pope should have had such richness for himself. Reading that, I felt a connection with Raphael, sharing similar sentiments- if a man was truly a man of the cloth, did that not mean he gave up earthly possessions- or at the least, his desire to acquire riches... remind me what Jesus said about the camel and the eye of the needle? While that thought went through my mind upon entry to the first room of Raphael’s treasured work, I remembered my vow to not allow myself to be prejudiced and prayed once more to God to let me see what He wanted me to see instead of me seeing red. My prayer was answered and the knowledge that these were once private papal rooms no longer bothered me, in the place of anger I felt so grateful they had chosen to open this splendor to the public (oops-another fleeting thought-even though the entrance fees of the thousands of tourists daily brings in an easy thousand Euros minimum every hour, feeding the piggy banks of this already richest country in the world, but no! I wouldn’t allow that to bring my blood to a boil until later). I just kept looking for Jesus. I had been told He wasn’t there, but I saw with my own eyes that was not true at all. He was everywhere; Raphael had made sure of that. At first I wondered, was it just because he was commissioned to, or was it his faith? My eyes told me he must have been a man of great faith, as the love of God seemed to come alive in his art. This surprised and delighted me, and I once again prayed my photos would turn out, as we were not allowed to use a flash, my hand being unsteady; but this time I attributed it to the beauty and history of the art I was admiring that was having quite an effect on me. We made our way very slowly through the Raphael rooms together, feasting upon every detail; there were four rooms in all.
THE SALA DI CONSTANTINO
The Sala di Constantino was the first room we entered. Not one millimeter left untouched by a brush, there was so much to look at… Although the design was completely Raphael’s, it was finished by the school of Raphael after his sudden death in 1520 before his completion of the work. The ‘Battle at Milvio Bridge’ portrays a calm yet determined Constantine in the midst of a battlefield, seemingly glowing, with men and horse in full battle all around him; he is on his white horse, holding high the cross that foretold his triumph over the pagan Maxentius. The sun is about to rise behind the mountains in the background, suggesting a new dawn, a new era is about to occur; two crosses are held high above the battle, right in the very spot where the sun will arise. Three angels float above the battle as if in battle mode themselves, suggesting the battle is in heaven as it is on earth. The ceiling, called ‘The Triumph of Christianity’ has several scenes going on, paying tribute to the doings of Constantine and a couple of popes, with the usual pomp and glory. But it is the large panel in the center that is beauty in its simplicity, making its point in uncomplicated terms. It is simply a grand, beautiful room of what looked to be all marble and looking very much like the Parthenon, with no people to distract the eye. There are only two objects- up on a pedestal at the end of the room sits a crucifix; lying on the floor below it is a broken statue- a pagan idol.
STANZA DI ELIODORO
]The Stanza di Eliodoro was the 2nd room to be painted by Raphael. The theme throughout is the intervention and miraculous protection bestowed by God on His people, from the Jews in Biblical times up to the Renaissance. The room takes its name from a thief in one of the room’s paintings- ‘The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple’, an event taken from 2 Maccabees, in which Eliodoro (Heliodorus) was supposedly ordered by the king of Syria to seize the Temple treasure in Jerusalem; God heard the high priest’s prayers and sent a horseman and two youngsters to beat up and drive Eliodoro out. The ‘Mass of Bolsena’ shows the story of a 13th century legend: a priest doubted the principle of transubstantiation (in which the communion elements of bread and wine change into the body and blood of Christ without actually changing appearance); God would have none of that and stepped in. During mass as the priest was holding the Host, drops of blood fell from it, convincing him transubstantiation, and the Power of God, were indeed real.
The last of the Raphael rooms was named after the main fresco, the ‘Fire in the Borgo’, showing a supposed miracle performed by Leo IV, when he extinguished a fire, simply by making the sign of the cross and saving the people. We had ‘overheard’ from a tour guide in the previous room that it was also painted by Raphael’s students. One unusual thing I noticed was something I did not recall seeing in any other of Raphael’s paintings - naked men running- what was up with that? Did the students neglect to paint robes on them, or were they suggesting that, unlike the women in the scene, the men were taken off guard during their siestas? A young naked man carrying an elder naked man on his back is supposed to allude to the thought that Rome is where the Trojans ran to-the new Troy, echoing the legend of the Trojan prince Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from the defeated Troy to safety. Why were those two chosen to be naked? Was Raphael (or his students) trying to show they were stripped of their country, their heritage? Interestingly, the main subject of the painting was supposed to be Leo IV, but while he is almost in the center, he is very small and the eye is not drawn to him… it is to the people in action.
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST…STANZA DELLA SEGNATURA
The Stanza della Segnatura was the 1st to be painted by Raphael, the name coming from the original use of the room as the papal library where official papers were signed. While each of the Raphael rooms were incredible works of art, it was here that we found ourselves spending the most time and not wanting to leave. As it turned out, right as we were about to leave, an English speaking tour came through, so we stuck around to hear what the guide had to say…The theme of the room was Truth, Goodness and Beauty. There were four paintings in the room; Truth was represented in the paintings ‘Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament’ and ‘School of Athens’, Goodness in ‘Virtues and Law’, and Beauty in ‘Parnassus’.
In the painting ‘Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament’, my eyes were immediately drawn to the central figure- Jesus; in white robes sitting on a throne that resembled the sun, His hands are raised up in such a way as if trying to calm the people below him. God the Father is directly above Him and a simple dove in the actual center of the painting right below Him -representing the Holy Spirit. Directly below the Dove is an altar holding the monstrance (vessel which holds the Host); the floor leading up to the monstrance is empty, all people at ground level are off to the sides. Various Biblical figures from Moses with the 10 Commandments and some Apostles are seated on a level by Jesus’ feet; Mary sits a bit below and to the right of Jesus, opposite John the Baptist and her head is bowed in reverence with adoring eyes looking up at Jesus. Below on Earth were about 50 people-men and women, clergy and non-clergy alike, some in various conversations- some more heated than others, some reading, others bowing down to Jesus. Typical cherubs and angels grace the scene as well. As extraordinary as that painting was, my personal favorite was what was across from it, and one of Raphael’s most famous paintings:
the ‘School of Athens’. The center figures, Plato and Aristotle, are depicted walking confidently down a great hall headed towards a small staircase. They seem to be in conversation, oblivious to their surroundings; Plato points to the sky, suggesting his theory of The Forms, while Aristotle’s right palm faces downward, supposedly alluding to his philosophy of logic. Off to the sides all around them are people in action; either having discussions, reading or in deep thought. The tour guide pointed out many of Raphael’s contemporaries incorporated into the painting, such as that of Heraclitus (Michelangelo), and Euclid (Bramante); also in the painting were figures resembling Dante and Alexander the Great. It became my personal favorite because of what it represented to me- education, thought, philosophy; in the midst of galleries filled with art which often expressed nothing more than the triumphs of man for self or for the church, here was something much greater that spoke in volumes about the importance of thinking for yourself, of reading and researching, of standing up and arguing for what you believed in. Where was God in that? Raphael knew; he painted it right there, plain for all to see: Free Will.
SO MANY MUSEUMS, SO LITTLE TIME…
There truly was so much to see in the massive Vatican complex, including but not limited to the Pinoteca with more of Raphael and Michelangelo paintings as well as others, the Museo Chiaramonti with the world’s largest collection of stone tablets and inscriptions (again- why are they in the Vatican??), the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, showcasing Etruscan archaeological pieces including sarcophaguses (okay, re- Roman Italian civilization, but again, please tell me WHY they are in the religious institution of the Vatican??), and the Museo Gregoriano Egizio (Egyptian) with sarcophaguses, mummies and the Book of the Dead… Gee, that I can see belonging in the Vatican! But, as our time and budgets were limited, we cut our visit short with just one more very important area within the Vatican walls to visit… the Sistine Chapel.
SPECIAL DEAL FOR YOU TODAY; CAPITALISM AT IT’S BEST (OR WORST)- RIGHT THIS WAY TO THE POPENOPENERS
We marveled at the marvels of the Sistine Chapel (highlighted in the next chapter!) before finally heading out. At that point, I was feeling so good about the Vatican, I bought another book in a hallway right outside of the Sistine Chapel, then turned the corner and it hit me like a freight train: more hallways with paintings, this time solely of popes and very rich papal life and souvenir shops in every one. All I could think was my God, how awful! How utterly commercial!
Through another series of rooms, the Vatican Library- which you can only look into through behind a locked door, the Secret Archives Room and the Secret Seals Room each inaccessible and yet each had a store inside. I almost lost it when I read a sign that said “Designs only available here” -I felt like I was back in Mexico in a mercado, expecting next to hear “Special deal for you today!” All my eyes could suddenly see was big fat capitalism; the rich getting richer, the poor staying poor. I flashbacked to the halls before the Sistine Chapel- indeed there had been vendors in each hall, I had even bought a second guidebook from one; but at the time I was oblivious, not bothered at all… What, no Pez Pope candy dispensers? I would later hear from a cousin about an item I had not seen (good thing, as I surely would have lost control!), the Popenopener: a bottle opener with the head of the pope! Now come on already! Isn’t that considered sacrilegious? Hey kids! You too can have the Pope pop the top off of your pop! Get one while you can! This, the richest country and religion in the world, how much do they rake in daily there, seriously? All I could think was I want my money back, NOW! I was disgusted. And starving because of it (anger makes me really hungry). We stopped on the way out for a large piece of pizza, which at least was not totally overprices at €2.50 per slice, the size of a plate. I already knew the closest restaurants were outside of St. Peter’s to be totally overpriced from our experience the day before, so I swallowed my pride and then the pizza; my refusal to give any more money to the Vatican would just have to wait a few more minutes. The pizza was very good, by the way…
For more information:
The Vatican Museums: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html