by Philip Greenspun

Home : Travel : Italy : Vatican

St. Peter's

The Creche outside St. Peter's during Christmas 1995 One of the last cathedrals in the world to be built, it is also the largest, reflecting the unlimited ambitions of Renaissance Man. Consecrated in 1623, the cathedral is exclusively decorated with mosaics and sculpture. There are no paintings in the cathedral, even though a lot of the mosaics look remarkably like oil paintings.

Michelangelo designed the dome, which is relatively easy to climb these days because an elevator gets you halfway to the top. Michelangelo also contributed the Pietà, a statue of Mary holding the dead Jesus completed in 1499, when Michelangelo was 25. An Australian tourist attacked Jesus's foot with a hammer in 1972 and the statue now sits behind glass. You might do better to examine the replica in the Pinocoteca of the Vatican Museums.

Bernini did the colonnade that embraces visitors to St. Peter's. His intent was that people would be greeted by surprise when they stumbled upon the vast courtyard after wandering through the narrow streets of the quarter. Mussolini, attempting to curry favor with the Church, bulldozed a vast avenue right up to the colonnade in the 1920's. [Note that Hitler did something similar with Unter den Linden in Berlin.]

Vatican Museums

The circular staircase leading up to the Vatican museums. It was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932 The Vatican Museums, from St. Peter's Remarkable first for being open on Mondays and closed on Sundays. Remarkable second for the ceilings. Not the Sistine Chapel, but random ceilings throughout the hundreds of rooms formerly occupied by Renaissance popes. Every ceiling is decorated with dozens of fine paintings. There is none of that "motel textured white paint" stuff here.

These are some of the best collections in the world and they show just how much great stuff you can accumulate when you have almost all of the money in the world for centuries. The only thing in modern times remotely comparable to the Catholic Church's absolute dominance of the world is Microsoft's monopoly. Unfortunately, although Bill Gates has bought the electronic rights to nearly all of the world's art treasures, he doesn't seem to have the refined taste of the popes.

Sistine Chapel

Inside the Sistine Chapel, where one isn't supposed to take photos (though I didn't know that; I though they just didn't permit flash) When you're looking up at the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, note that Michelangelo's style changed quite a bit from 1508 when he started to 1512 when he finished. He started the ceiling at the back and worked toward the front. The flood panel, second from the back wall, contains lots of figures, most of which are barely recognizable from the floor of the chapel. Michelangelo realized that he needed to paint fewer and bigger figures and the last panels (God dividing Light from Darkness, Creation of the Sun and Moon) reflect that growth.

At the very front of the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo's huge fresco of the Last Judgment, completed in 1541 after seven years of unassisted labor. There is no separation between people who are going up to heaven and those who are being sent down to hell. Everything is a swirl of motion. Biagio da Cesena objected to the use of nudes in the fresco and earned an appearance as the infernal judge Minos for his pains, as well as a pair of ass's ears. Unfortunately, Biagio da Cesena had the last laugh because Pope Pius IV hired Daniele da Volterra to cover all the genitals with loin cloths.

When you're done with the Vatican Museums, walk out the door and jog to the right then half a block down Via Santamaura to the Fonzi Bar (#23), run by the Fonzi family since 1910. They have a <i>tavola calda</i> with good vegetables. If you take a left out of the bar and then another left you'll eventually come to a nice ice cream shop on your left.

Random Practical Tips Arrive early. The last entrance is at 1 pm most of the year and 4 pm July through September. Skip the modern art collection. Most of it is unbearably ugly after you've seen the older works. When you're done with the Vatican Museums, walk out the door and jog to the right then half a block down Via Santamaura to the Fonzi Bar (#23), run by the Fonzi family since 1910. They have a tavola calda with good vegetables. If you take a left out of the bar and then another left you'll eventually come to a nice ice cream shop on your left.

The Pope's Backyard

This is about as much as most people are going to see...

The backyard of the Vatican, as seen from atop St. Peter's. Tourists aren't permitted to wander among these gardens and small buildings, just the Pope and cardinals. The backyard of the Vatican, from St. Peter's

Castel Sant'Angelo

I walked into a tobacco shop in Rome to buy bus tickets. The owner told me that there was, regrettably, a strike. He asked where I was going and said that he had to go downtown anyway to get some stamps at the central post office. He gave me a lift on the back of his moped all the way to Castel Sant'Angelo (Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, later a fortress for the popes, location for Tosca's last aria). When two men share a moped, the one in back is supposed to clutch the bike at his sides, never wrap his arms around the one in front. I found this out later and then understood why people were looking at us a little funny I was staying at a friend's house some distance from the center of Rome. I stopped in the local tabaccheria and asked for four bus tickets. The proprietor explained that the bus drivers were on strike today so that there was only limited service. He asked where I wanted to go. I said "Castel Sant'Angelo". He said, "I have to go into the center; I'll give you a ride there on my Vespa."

Sergio only had to go to the Post Office to stock up on stamps for his shop, but he dropped me off right at the door of the old tomb of the Emperor Hadrian. It was completed in 139 AD, incorporated into the Aurelian Wall in 271 AD, visited by the Archangel Michael in 590 AD (hence the current name), connected to the Vatican in 1277 via a secret escape route for the pope in times of trouble, used as a military barracks and prison in 1870, and served as a launching pad for Tosca in Puccini's Tosca. Now it is a tourist attaction that gets three stars in the Michelin guide. I'm not really sure why because there isn't so much to see in the huge fortress, but the view from the top is worth the price of admission and the climb. You can enjoy the same view and a snack from the tables at the bar, about three quarters of the way to the top.

Castel Sant'Angelo A ceiling inside Castel Sant'Angelo An elevated walkway leading between Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican, used by popes in times of trouble State of the Archangel Michael, atop Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. This is by the 18th century Flemish sculptor Pieter Verschaffelt. Legend has it that in the year 590, the Archangel Michael appeared above the castle. Now he appears above the castle all day ever day. Cannon balls stacked up inside Castel Sant'Angelo (and me)