Sunday, August 27, 2023

BFT23 - Doing the Vatican Rag

Somewhere in the Vatican is a giant box of dicks.

They used to be attached to statues in the Vatican Museum, but the ancient world had a much healthier view of the human body than the one the Catholic Church developed over the centuries and at some point in the history of the place there was a guy or team of guys who went through the vast holdings of sculptures in the Vatican Museum with a hammer – and, from the looks of it, sometimes a large-bore drill – and knocked them off. Sometimes they’d get replaced with a stone fig leaf to cover up the missing bits, and other times all you are left with is a two-thousand year old work of art reduced to a marble Ken doll. My understanding is that the person or persons responsible for all this didn’t just toss the now free-floating dicks into the sewer but instead put them safely aside for posterity to deal with which raises all sorts of questions that frankly I have no interest in addressing.

So there are now teams of conservators assigned to play “pin the dick on the Roman statue” and I’m not entirely sure how you would put that on a resume but I have this odd suspicion that it’s probably a prestigious sort of thing that would brighten up any art conservationist CV, especially if you kept statistics for your success rate (“Successfully matched 73% of the stone dicks I attempted to restore to statues, placing me in the top 5% of dick matchers”) because deliverables matter in the working world.

The collections of the Vatican Museum are so vast and so overwhelming that this is the sort of thing your brain latches onto just to keep itself anchored in some plane of reality. Or at least my brain did. Your mileage may vary.

Kim and I spent an entire day at the Vatican Museum on our first trip to Rome last year and it was definitely a place we wanted to bring Oliver and Lauren. In particular, we wanted them to see the Sistine Chapel, which is one of Kim’s favorite places in Rome. But the Sistine Chapel was crowded even when we went in mid-March and this time around it was High Tourist Season and would likely be even more crowded, which presented a problem.

The solution, it turned out, was breakfast.

You can buy tickets to an early breakfast at the Vatican Museum where you get in before the place officially opens and they feed you what turns out to be a very good meal right there on the grounds, and if you make a beeline to the Sistine Chapel immediately after you’re done eating you can see the place when it is just Regular Crowded and not Tokyo Rush Hour Subway Crowded.

If you want to do this, you need to get there early. We had the 8:30 breakfast slot, which meant we needed to be there by 8:15, and since we were relying on the bus to get us there we built in a few extra minutes. And since everything actually went according to plan we got there with plenty of time to spare and were the first people in line at the museum when we arrived.

Clarification: we were the first people in the 8:30 line when we arrived. There were was another line for a slightly earlier slot and there were plenty of people in that. So we waited and watched the crowd get in line behind us for our line and the people in the earlier line get let in ahead of us until it was time for us to be allowed into the museum itself, whereupon we went to get our tickets.

Because you don’t actually get tickets ahead of time for the Vatican Museum. You get ticket vouchers, which you then have to exchange for actual tickets at one of the windows once you get in – a long and involved process which in my experience usually requires you to stand in line behind people who aren’t really in line at least once – and then find your way to the Bistro, which is another long and involved process but generally more scenic in that it winds you through a fair bit of the entry area of the museum before depositing you, several staircases and multiple staff inquiries later, into a vast courtyard containing a number of sculptures of varying degrees of antiquity and abstractness, and a restaurant.

There’s the Pine Cone, which is in fact referred to as the Pine Cone. That’s the Bistro peeking in on the right.

And there’s the Orb, which probably has a much more serious name but which I like to think is just called the Orb.

The Orb rotates on its axis, and if you’re brave enough you can make that happen on your own.

We waited for our turn to eat, sticking as much as possible to the shady areas because it was already hot at that hour of the morning, and eventually they called our group to sit down. We all had reserved tables for what was described as The American Breakfast, probably because there were pancakes that you could get at a serving station alongside yogurts, fruit, and assorted accompaniments such as butter, jellies, and syrup. At the table they served coffee, water, and juice, and every table got a big bowl of scrambled eggs and potatoes and another containing bacon and multiple kinds of sausage, a plate of cured meats and cheeses, and some bread, all of which was delicious.

At this point I want to put in a plug for the Bistro at the Vatican Museum, and to all of the places we ate during this trip generally, but especially to this place. Oliver has a food allergy and we always need to be careful about where we eat, but this is especially important when traveling. I contacted the Bistro before we left and they reassured us that this would not be a problem – all we had to do was notify the server when we got there. And you know what? It really wasn’t a problem. We spoke with the hostess when we arrived and she went through what was and was not safe – most of it was fine, though the pancakes and bread were not – and she made sure that Oliver got the safe homemade bread rather than the possibly dangerous supplied bread. Oliver was very happy about that. “This is the first time I’ve gotten better stuff than you for a substitute,” he noted. So if you are traveling to the Vatican Museum and need to be careful about the food I highly recommend you eat at the Bistro. We were deeply impressed and grateful.

Fed and rested, we lit out for the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel is at the complete other end of the museum from the Bistro, and if you want to get there quickly you need to a) motor along at a fairly good clip, and b) speed blithely past vast quantities of priceless artistic treasures on the theory that you will in fact get back to them once you are done, which mostly we did. Lauren noted that she had never seen Kim move quite that fast before, dodging and weaving through the crowds, but Kim was a Woman On A Mission. You walk down long hallways, up staircases, and eventually your reach a checkpoint where if it’s crowded they reroute you up another set of stairs to go through a long (and gorgeous) exhibit of Etruscan artifacts, but if the guards decide that the crowds are acceptable you go to the right and on to the Chapel.

You pass through the Map Room when you do that, and this is perhaps my favorite part of the Museum. It’s one of those impossibly gaudy places with every square inch of space covered in Art, and along the walls are these giant maps of various bits of Italy. They’re not oriented in any particular way – sometimes south is up, sometimes north is up – but once you get your bearings you can find what you want.

And then you get to the Sistine Chapel.

It’s still a sacred space so you’re not allowed to take pictures or make noise, though they will let you slide on the noise bit at least for a while. You can stand there for as long as you like as long as you stand in the middle and not on the aisle paths that they try to clear for people. You’ve all seen the ceiling in some high school class or another, and the photos don’t really do it justice. What amazed me the first time and continued to amaze me this time is that there’s no real organization to it that I could see – it’s just giant Michelangelo masterpieces, one after another, with no particular focus for your eye or path for your attention to follow. There’s a divider on the ground about two thirds of the way back and another space on the other side for you to stay in, and after a while you just get saturated with it. There is only so much Masterpiece that the human mind can take in at a given time.

Kim and Oliver decided they wanted to stay longer than Lauren and I did, so the two of us hared off on our own after setting up a meeting time and place for later. They saw many things, some of which were the same as the ones Lauren and I saw and some weren’t. We did see them in passing at one point but didn’t manage to get their attention.

Lauren and I had our own adventures.

We practiced “speed-walking” videos down one particularly open corridor of artifacts, and then plundered the gift shop at the end of it. We asked one of the guards whether he lived in Rome or Vatican City, and he told us Rome – not many people actually live in Vatican City. We hit the cafeteria for drinks, and went back to the Map Room again just because we could, though we did have to cut some corners. By the time we hit the Sistine Chapel checkpoint the crowds were sufficiently thick that we were rerouted to the Etruscan exhibit, which Lauren had no interest in seeing and which I had already gone through in 2022, so we went up the stairs, made a U-turn, and came back down the stairs to the checkpoint and turned into the Map Room. Nobody minded. We spent several hours wandering through a great many spaces looking at the art and sculptures.

My favorites were these two, just because of the way the light hit them.


You can also find all sorts of windows to look out over Rome and the rest of Vatican City, so we did that too.

One of the things I most enjoyed was going to the gallery of sculptures that Kim and I had gone to when we first went to the museum in 2022, and finding the statue where we took one of my favorite photos from that trip.

They’d set up a barrier around that statue this time so we couldn’t recreate the photo, but I did get a picture of Lauren with the statue and then we did our best to recreate it with a different sculpture and this is the sort of odd little thing that will bring me joy for a long time to come.

We did join up with Kim and Oliver eventually, but by this time Oliver was not feeling very well so he and I headed back to the apartment for a bit while Kim and Lauren stopped at the Vatican Post Office to mail a postcard to ourselves and then headed over to the Basilica of St. Peter where they had a grand time looking at the place and Lauren bought some perfume from the Vatican gift shop, which you didn’t realize was a thing. Apparently they only sell it on site, and it is both pleasant and surprisingly inexpensive for perfume. Oliver and I went back to the Basilica a couple of days later so he could see it while Kim and Lauren did some shopping on their own and met us there when they were done, so eventually we all got to see it.

It is a place that needs to be seen, really.

Vatican City is its own sovereign nation despite being about the size of the average American Walmart. It has a population of less than 800 people, most of whom are men who have taken vows of celibacy so it relies on immigration to survive, as many nations do these days. There are no particular barriers between it and the city of Rome, which surrounds the place – the old Vatican City walls don’t cover the entire border between it and Italy, and the massive plaza in front of the entrance to the Basilica has only a low metal fence with plenty of entryways to mark the border. You will enter through the plaza, either through the long open road that leads directly to it or by walking around the wall until you get to the opening. You can do that freely and hang out by the fountains for as long as you want though there is no shade whatsoever and in late July this can get extraordinarily hot. So you go through the security line – a long and winding process that ends in a row of the sort of scanners you typically see at airports – and then reassure the guards that you are in fact up to the dress code, which is basically long shorts or pants, shoulders covered (they’ll give you disposable shawls if necessary), and nothing particularly controversial printed on your shirt.

Eventually you get to the Basilica itself, which is guarded by the most ridiculous looking soldiers you have ever seen but you don’t say anything because you realize that these guys could probably take you down in sixteen different ways before you completed saying whatever it was that you thought was so witty. Plus the uniforms really are charming in a way, and you have to admire that.

And then you go inside and it takes your breath away.

The Basilica is the largest cathedral in the world, a fact that they are at some pains to let you know. As you walk in, pay attention to the floor. There, inlaid into the marble flooring itself, are various notifications that all amount to them basically saying, “You know that other cathedral you thought was so big? It ends here.” This is a level of petty that can only be aspired to.

It’s an astonishing place, really. You walk in and see this.

Toward the back there is the baldocchino, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It’s about 29 meters (94 feet) tall and made of bronze, and it gets dwarfed by the dome above it. And behind it is the apse, which is a whole other level of artistry.

There was a service of some kind going on when Oliver and I were there, so the front of the Basilica was full of people and various celebrants and choirs were going about the mass while the organ played. On the one hand it was quite a thing to see the place being used as an actual church that way. On the other hand it has the acoustics of a train station and it was very difficult to piece together precisely what was being said. Maybe they still do these things in Latin – I don’t know. Couldn’t tell by me. At the end of it, though, they all marched out in an orderly fashion while the guards kept the path open for them. Oliver and I were trying to get from Point A to Point B at the time and were stopped by one of the guards so we ended up having a pretty close up view of them as they walked by.

The thing about the place, though, is that it is one of the grandest spectacles in the world as far as a building is concerned. You don’t need to be Catholic or even particularly religious at all to understand that this is a place designed to make you feel awe at the grandeur of it all and small in your perspective of the universe, and it works pretty much as advertised. For one thing, it’s astonishing even just as a building.

And it’s full of art.

Michelangelo’s Pietà is perhaps the highlight of the place as far as I am concerned, but I do have a soft spot for the one with the skeleton above.

At one point Oliver and I saw a sign for a tour of the tombs of the popes, so we followed a small crowd through a door and down a flight of stairs to a long hall full of long-dead popes or at least their marble sarcophagi and other similar items. You’re not allowed to take photos down there, which is a shame since these were pretty impressive – some of them are eight hundred years old. We walked through it all and then were deposited into a grotto outside the Basilica where we could get water and then walk back up the stairs and back into the building.

Eventually Kim and Lauren caught up with us at the Pietà and we wandered outside to the fountain, and then out into Rome to find dinner.


Ewan said...

I *adored* those floor markers. Cracked me up completely.

You are more adherent to prohibitions on photography than am I.

And fyi: there *is* a 'private tour' option for the Sistine chapel. Costs one's immortal soul, which (i) is pretty tarnished in my case and (ii) probably appropriate; but you get to enter an hour or so before everyone else, and it makes a huge difference.

Catholicism: fleecing the world for two thousand years.

I am way behind on many things, one of which is your blog. More to come, I expect.

David said...

You were the one who told me about the after the first time I was there, so I was looking for those floor markers this time. :)

I have a DSLR which makes it very obvious when I am taking a picture. I suspect if I had a phone camera that I could actually get to take decent pictures I might be more tempted. When we were in Prague (which I promise I WILL blog about soon) I'd get pulled aside in many places and told not to take photos but nobody with a phone got similar warnings so they just stood there openly taking pictures and I figured I could join in there. In the Sistine Chapel people were more circumspect.

I'll look forward to more!

David said...


My newfound arthritis is beginning to impact my typing, and even if I think I've typed a letter it now pays for me to double check, a habit I have not yet fully acquired.