I’ve been to Rome many times, and when visiting I always take the inevitable trip to Vatican City to catch a glimpse of one of the richest king’s castles in the world – St. Peter’s Basilica. From an historical standpoint, it is an amazing site to see, especially the underground tombs of the Popes. Over the years, due to the realities of the world we are living in, security has tightened and entrance has become more restrictive in Vatican City, as it has all over the globe.
This is why every time in the past I have visited I have avoided the Vatican Museum. The queues can easily stretch for blocks and last up to two hours. It is almost as bad as “It’s a Small World” at Disney World but to my knowledge you can’t buy a hat with Pope ears on it. If you venture to the Vatican Museum by yourself, be prepared to wait for quite some time to get to the entrance and pay the €16 entrance fee. If you don’t mind paying a bit extra, you can join one of the many tours that promise to “skip the line” and get you in right away.
These tours are a trade-off. Indeed there is a separate entrance for tour groups and in fact you do “skip the line” as advertised, but you do have to wait for every technologically challenged tourist to figure out that their headset is not working because they have not turned it on, or put the earplugs in their ears. Further, you may be subjected to corny jokes from the tour guide, and basic questions posed to the tour group such as “who can tell me who the current Pope is?” If we are at the Vatican, I think we know, and if we don’t, we don’t deserve to know.
Another trade-off is the price. You will pay anywhere from €15 to €30 more than the entrance fee for the pleasure of the tour group, so if approached or when searching, be sure you haggle to get the lowest price. However, if you are the kind of person that likes to understand the minutia of what you are looking at, it may be worth the price to you.
After going through the process of entering the Vatican Museum, which involves a quite confusing layout of ramps and stairs, you begin your journey through the many historical halls. My favorite was the Pope Pius VIII hall with its walls lined with antique murals of maps. The crowning glory of the museum, and its most famous offering is of course the Sistine Chapel.
According to the Vatican, “the The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere [pontiff from 1471 to 1484] who had the old Cappella Magna restored between 1477 and 1480. The 15th century decoration of the walls includes: the false drapes, the Stories of Moses and of Christ and the portraits of the Popes. It was executed by a team of painters made up initially of Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli… The work on the frescoes began in 1481 and was concluded in 1482. On 15 August 1483, Sixtus IV consecrated the new chapel dedicating it to Our Lady of the Assumption. Julius II della Rovere [pontiff from 1503 to 1513], nephew of Sixtus IV, decided to partly alter the decoration, entrusting the work in 1508 to Michelangelo Buonarroti, who painted the Ceiling and, on the upper part of the walls, the lunettes. The work was finished in October 1512 and on the Feast of All Saints [1 November], Julius II inaugurated the Sistine Chapel with a solemn Mass.”
Upon entering the chapel, it really does feel like an ancient chapel, dark and gray, and, under constant threat of the Vatican guards, relatively quiet and devoid of photography, which is forbidden. Well, mostly. As I was cattled in and stood within a mass of people, I had to laugh at the many people I saw with iPhones taking covert images of the room and its famous ceiling. The iPad mini is particularly good for this purpose. They were all very proud of themselves, and we all knew what they were doing. The Vatican guards do mean business though. I saw one ask a woman to delete a photo she had taken with her camera, and didn’t leave her side until he actually saw her delete it.
After spending time marveling at Michaelangelo’s work, it was time to go. This was when the real fun began. The crowd was packed in, pushing and shoving its way to the exit like a crowd hoping to get the one cheap Playstation available at a 4am holiday sale at a Walmart. It got worse from there. The crowd, which I would estimate to be in the hundreds of people, was asked to exit through a single door no wider than an economy class airplane seat and no taller than approximately six feet. After that, we had to wind our way through a tiny corridor for quite some time. Had someone yelled “fire” or “look, its George Clooney” it would have been a disaster. It was like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube, except there was nothing minty fresh about it.
Still, the Sistine Chapel is something of a must see, if for no other reason than to experience the juxtaposition of the order of the art against the chaos of the experience.