When our tour group of 25 showed up for our 8 am reservation at the Vatican Museums, there were already hundreds of tourists in the line for individual, no-reservation tickets. Their line snaked around the wall of the Vatican and disappeared into the horizon. This although the museum didn’t open until 9. I can’t imagine how long the first people in line had been there. We, with our tour group reservation, skipped that line and breezed on in, through the security scanners and into the lobby.
My BFFs and frequent History Tourist companions, Patricia and Kathie, and I decided to celebrate a mutual milestone birthday with a gelato tour of Italy. And if that meant seeing some art and history along the way, then all the better. Unfortunately, Kathie had to drop out at the last minute, but Patricia and I made it, so you’ll be getting a long series of Italy posts over the next few months.
I’d been to Italy several times before and always done my own thing. But this time, I wasn’t in the mood to haul myself from here to there, so I decided that a guided tour was the way to go. Don’t judge.
The Vatican Museums are a collection of museums — I counted 26 museums and other exhibit spaces on their website — within the walls of Vatican city. Started by Pope Julius in 1506, the museums display art that has been collected by the Popes through the centuries. While it’s hard to put a figure on exactly how many pieces they own, it’s said to be the largest art collection in the world.
We only saw the museums/collections that lead the way to the Sistine Chapel. I wasn’t as interested in the individual works of arts as I was in the building in which they were housed. The museums are located in former papal apartments, in the papal palace, and the walls, ceilings and floors of the room vie for attention with the art work. And often win.
As we made our way to the Sistine Chapel, we caught glimpses of the 54 acre Vatican Gardens, created by Pope Nicholas II in 1279. We didn’t have the time, but they can be seen with a two hour guided tour (by reservation only) for 33 euros. That price includes entry into St. Peters and the Vatican Museums.
The Sistine Chapel is the chapel in the Apostolic Palace. The palace is where the Pope usually lives (although the current Pope, Francis, has chosen not to live in the Palace but in a smaller guest house on Vatican grounds). Our tour guide wasn’t allowed to speak inside the Sistine Chapel. Neither, actually, was anyone else. “Silenzio!” a guard would say each time the hushed whispers began to crescendo.
So the guide gave us a brief overview of its art and history before leaving us to wander the chapel on our own. “Meet me under drunk Noah in 20 minutes,” she said. The major theme of Michaelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the chapel is the Biblical book of Genesis and three of its panels deal with Noah, of flood fame. Noah became a vigneron after he survived the flood, and on the ceiling of the chapel is a scene where Noah is asleep, naked, after having imbibed a little too much of his own product.
There are no photos allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so you’ll have to google “Drunkenness of Noah” to see naked Noah. Years ago, to fund a restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican sold exclusive rights to photograph and video tape the chapel to a Japanese television station. The Japanese deal has long since expired, but the ban remains, less because it’s supposed to be a sacred space — it is still a functioning chapel and it’s where the cardinals meet to elect a pope — and more because hordes of tourists jostling for camera angles ruin the touring experience for everyone. Many of the most popular churches in Italy — St. Mark’s Venice, the Duomo in Florence, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi — have the same restriction.
We came out of the Sistine Chapel and into a passage way that connected the papal residence to our next stop: St. Peter’s Basilica.