“This mark of apostasy, over all others, applies to the Roman Pontiff. Nor is the required burden of proof difficult to establish. For the Pope, as the head and founder of this catholic apostasy, has verily defected from the faith of Christ: partly through errors and innumerable heresies introduced in dogma; partly through superstitions ordained in rites; partly through idolatry firmly established in cult worship.”
-Francis Turretin, Whether it can be proven that the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist
On our last full day in Rome, we have booked tickets for the biggie; the Vatican museums. ‘Museums’ is quite right, as there around twelve of them lumped together, with one ticket and one day for the whole complex although you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of seeing the lot. We are up early and our Airbnb host spots us having a quick breakfast in Checco er Carettiere, coming over to check that we’re having a good time. We hurry along the riverbank, and up Mussolini’s Via della Conciliazione. With Italy taking over the Papal States, the Popes had behaved as if under house arrest until the Duce cut a deal that recognised the Vatican City as a sovereign state, and demolished an entire ancient neighbourhood to build his celebratory boulevard that approaches St Peter’s. People say that before those days, you would have to burrow through a maze of narrow alleys before stumbling out onto the great surprise of St Peter’s Square. To replicate the effect these days, I suppose Padua or Orvieto are of more use than Rome.
There are vast, vast crowds from all over the world descending on St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning address, which slows us down a little, and as always I forget just how long it takes to walk around to the right-hand side of the micronation for the museum entrance. By the time we get there the queues are colossal, but having advance tickets we can happily skip these and enter at 9am on the dot. It is more like getting into an airport’s departures area than getting into a museum; the masses of people, the detector gates and the bags through the scanner, then a long row of passport control-style booths where staff exchange your printout for a turnstile ticket. As with the Uffizi, there are lots of Chinese people shoving you out of their way.
The suggested itinerary ends at the Sistine Chapel. We want to ignore the official advice and start there, but it takes a while to find our bearings. The Sistine is at the end of two implausibly long corridors filled with treasure. When we finally get in there, it seems quite crowded (there are bench seats along the walls, and a place only comes free every now and then) but the crowd is at most 5% of what the place will hold by 1pm. Go first thing in the morning and you will be able to move, breathe, see, and enjoy the Sistine Chapel. We stay in there for 90 minutes, which is as long as it takes to see everything properly. I have nicked the pictures from Google Images as I didn’t take my own. I look at Michelangelo’s ceiling first; the popular conception is that all of it is taken up by God and Adam touching fingertips, but it is one of nine relatively small panels. Three deal with God’s creation, three with Adam, and three with Noah. The fall of man is rendered particularly painful as we begin with God creating light and end with Noah drinking too much and exposing himself. The very grand storyboard is surrounded by Sibyls and Old Testament saints.
On one wall is Michelangelo’s almost-as-famous Last Judgment, filled to the brim with rippling muscular bodies. It strikes me as excessive, but it is realistic; the people are a bit paunchy, and not at all like Barbie dolls or Action Men. Some very intrusive pieces of cloth cover genitals; Daniele de Volterra was apparently ridiculed for inserting these after a cardinal had objected that so much flesh made the chapel seem like a ‘public tavern’- Michelangelo used his image for the judge of Hell. At the centre, Jesus holds his hands aloft and looks like a stressed tour guide trying to sort out the chaos of the Vatican museums.
The side panels would be the star attraction in any other church in other city, but Michelangelo’s universal themes make them seem like small fry here. One wall tells the story of Moses, the other Christ. We get three Botticelli, three Perugino, and some Signorelli and Ghirlandaio. These are normally right up my street, all of them vibrant crowd scenes that feel as grounded in the city as Michelangelo is focused on the heavens. Botticelli and Perugino throw in some ruined Roman temples and triumphal arches (with their lettering still gilded). Away from his urbane Florentine banking families, my beloved Ghirlandaio seems out of place.
The Red Sea panel is a particularly striking one, with a rainbow in the sky, ash raining down and cavalrymen drowning. Some of the panels get quite experimental, showing four different time frames. There are three Christs in the Temptation, the windows in the Last Supper look onto the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one panel shows three Moses (whose hair changes from white to black in the following panel). I suppose these people would all be directing movies if they were alive today. An African priest by the altar is offering to bless anyone who will get up and pray with him, but I don’t want to betray my people. By 10:30, the crowds really have found their way into the Sistine Chapel and we say a reluctant farewell. As Goethe put it, “without seeing the sistine Chapel one has no appreciable idea of what man is capable of achieving.”
Beside the Sistine Chapel are the famous Papal apartments, starting with the rooms Raphael painted for Pope Julius II, which being on the route to the Sistine are far, far too crowded to properly enjoy and it’s only back at home, as I now review my photos, that I can fully savour them.
The topics are wide-ranging, but the School of Athens is so Pagan and un-Christian that I want to punch the air and scream ‘FUCK YEAH’ when I recognise it.
There is Leo I turning back Atilla the Hun (instead of begging on his knees, which I’m sure is what actually happened), the crowning of Charlemagne, a fire in Rome’s Borgo, and some other fairly obscure subject matter. As a fresco painter whose figures seem animated and alive, Raphael is undeniably brilliant.
The Raphael Rooms were Julius II’s response to the Borgia Rooms, where his hated rival Pope Alexander VI had based himself. As if embarrassed by the Borgia notoriety, the Vatican have filled these with a collection of modern art on religious themes; Van Gogh, Matisse, and several Italian modernists.
God being merciful, only two rooms are on the ‘Sistine Chapel This Way’ circuit, and the rest are blessedly free from stampeding masses. I largely ignore the modern art and look at the lovely frescoes by Pinturicchio; lush landscapes, saints and apparitions, with Lucretia Borgia depicted as St. Catherine. It’s interesting to see Rodrigo himself kneeling before a holy happening, as he does above. Is it insincere showiness or has he been painted as blacker than he was by historians with a grudge?
There’s a doorway with his papal title carved into the stone at the top which I insist on being photographed under, although it takes ages for the doorway to become vacant.
After joining the queues to grab a perfunctory panini at the cafe, we decide to plunge into the Pinacoteca, which is a pretty vast museum in his own right. It starts with C12th altarpieces by unfamiliar names from central Italy, before giving us Giotto and Lippi.
Most galleries dispense with medieval painting in the first couple of rooms and its an usual treat to get room after room after room of it.
When we do make it as far as 1500, it feels like the party’s finally over, but then we get a huge hall showing three Raphaels (one he painted at 19, one whilst he was dying).
Still to come are Crivelli, Caravaggio, Bordone, Titian and all sorts of excellent things. Unusually, it doesn’t begin to sag until the C19th.
By the exit is a room of Orthodox icons where even the C19th stuff looks Byzantine. We sit outside in the sun for a while afterwards, taking in the surreal sight of the very familiar St Peter’s dome in front of very unfamiliar leafy trees.
Next, the sculpture galleries of Pio Clementino. After lunch the crowds are, improbably, even worse and we seem to be the only visitors to the entire Vatican not in a guided tour of 30+ people, which means that moving even one metre or two takes the best part of a minute. The tours take up the entirety of wide corridors, cause bottlenecks at every doorway, want their photo taken in front of every piece of art, and there are so many people that the Vatican manages at once to be the best and worst museum in the world. The only moments of levity come from Americans; one guide is asked about a statue of St Sebastian and assures the group his body is covered in “stab wounds”, another asserts that “Catholicism is not Christianity, it’s totally different. Christians worship Jesus, Catholics worship the Saints”.
The Pio Clementino has some of the most important sculptures in history (a gold Hercules, Laocoon, the Belvedere Apollo & Belvedere Torso) but having gorged myself on so much world-class painting my brain can’t really process or fully appreciate it anymore. When Laocoon was found during excavations, they immediately recognised it from Pliny the Elder’s description and sent for Michelangelo.
As if carried by the wave of people, we glide past emperors and goddesses, and finish off by doing the long corridor with the Map Rooms.
These were painted by a monk in the C16th. Covering the entire Italian peninsula, they do go on a bit, but it is lovely to examine detailed big maps of every province of Italy, spotting where we’ve been and all the towns we’ve loved.
The maps are decorated with charming details; people on ships, pastoral scenes in corners, maps or ‘postcard views’ of key cities, with drawing pins painted on as if it were all a gigantic scrapbook.
Eventually -finally- we escape after using the Vatican postal service to send postcards, descending the famous spiral staircase, then catching a bus and tram back to Trastevere and a much-needed drink at San Calisto, followed by pizzas at Dar Poeta. Having been in there from 9am til 5:30pm, we couldn’t have done much more to get our money’s worth.
The next day, we have a fairly late flight so there’s a weird few hours of that limbo period where we are still walking around Rome despite having mentally left and begun thinking about returning to the rat race. We scurry up to Piazza del Popolo, where southbound visitors passing through the Porta Flaminia in Aurelian’s walls would have got an imposing first glimpse of Rome, with an Egyptian obelisk sitting between two identical twin churches.
Tucked in to one side of the main gate is a third church, Santa Maria del Popolo, which for all the church overkill of our stay in Rome I didn’t want to leave without seeing. This place has a queer and implausible origin story about a walnut tree planted over Nero’s grave that the crows started hanging out in. People said they were being harassed by demons when they passed, the tree was felled and the Pope exorcised the area before building a church that, in the 1470s, was rebuilt in very early Renaissance style. As an Augustinian monk, Luther stayed here on his visit to Rome.
Inside, there are three areas on which most interest is focused. The Cerisi chapel, to the left of the altar, has a pair of dramatic Caravaggios, the crucifixion of Peter and the conversion of Paul, either side of a very counter-reformation and cherubic Assumption by Annibale Caracci. At his Road to Damascus moment, Paul has been thrown from his horse, which dominates the frame even as we see it from behind. This is presumably so that Caravaggio can show a giant horse’s arse to the Caracci painting in the middle.
Elsewhere, Pinturicchio makes a welcome appearance in the Della Rovere chapel to the right of the entrance, with an Adoration and a life of St. Jerome.
Across the nave is a rare piece of architecture designed by Raphael; the Chigi chapel for the prominent banking family. With elaborate marbled monuments under a dome (such as mosaics, Bernini statues, and funerary pyramids- everything comes back into fashion eventually) it has the feel of a miniature church-within-a-church. On its outside is an over-the-top C18th monument to a Chigi princess who died young, which gets labelled ‘the last Baroque tomb in Rome’ and about which Stendhal wrote scathingly.
Pastificio Guerra is located in the general vicinity, so we know where we can turn to for a cheap and filling lunch.
After eating, we walk around to the public gardens of Villa Borghese to soak up a last bit of Roman sun, and meet a fellow Briton, and fellow Italophile.
When the city crowds get too much, the park is a good refuge. The people renting bikes do a roaring trade in four-man pedal buggies, but it’s not too difficult to walk further in and find a quiet spot to yourself.
Back to Trastevere to pick up our suitcases and lug them onto the tram and airport train, but there’s just time to linger over a last glass of frascati whilst getting in some people-watching at Da Biagio. Ci vediamo dopo, Roma.