I would defy anyone to stay in Rome for the first time and not visit The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Yesterday was chosen as “the day” for our papal pilgrimage, and we prepared ourselves for the onslaught of tourism that we knew we were going to encounter. Visiting the Vatican is an exercise in sacrifice from the very beginning (how appropriate for a Catholic institution), as the museums are so vast that there is no hope of seeing it all, especially with a two-year old. We were forced to plan ahead and pick what was essential and non-negotiable, and what would have to wait for another time.
So along with legions of other visitors clad in their photographic vests, expensive SLR’s and audio guide earpieces we slowly picked our way through the detritus the Catholic Church has accumulated from almost 2000 years of wealth and power. Egyptian mummies, Greek statuary, tapestries, maps, tea –sets, all were wonderful but it was the finale that we came to see. The Sistine Chapel is the Pope’s personal little praying space (when it is not filled with hordes of hungry gawkers like me) and is something to behold. Ol’ Michelangelo spent four years on his back with paint dripping in his eyes (you know the story) to complete this little number. There is so much to look at that it brings to mind an overdone graphic novel, which in matter of fact, it is. Michelangelo wanted to account for all Christian history up to the point of Jesus… on the ceiling. Nine scenes from the Bible, a shitload of prophets, and Jesus’ ancestors are all depicted wonderfully (except for their hands – but we will get to that later). Pretty ambitious stuff, don’t you think? To top it all off, Michelangelo did almost all of the work himself, instead of outlining the pertinent facts and then handing it off to assistants (a sort of Renaissance paint-by-numbers) which was the habit of the day.
Twenty years later Michelangelo came back and did another bit of work in the Sistine Chapel. Behind the main altar, unavoidably dominating the field of vision of anybody sitting and listening to his papal-ness preach, Michelangelo painted a huge vision of The Last Judgment. No longer triumphant or uplifting, this fresco is grim and, to be honest, a little scary. I’m sure that idiot at the World Dove Outreach Church in Gainesville, Florida would love to have such a scene playing out on the wall behind him when he begins to thump his Bible on Sundays. Demons and angles take flight to draw the dead from their graves. No one is smiling (not even those going to heaven), and those that are condemned to hell are being dragged down to a bunch of Dick Cheney-looking devils who are waiting by their waterboards – Sorry I just made that last bit up. It is unsettling to say the very least.
From the relative smallness of the Sistine Chapel, we moved into St Peter’s Basilica, the home of Catholicism. Unbelievably, while vast and impressive, it still somehow retains an air of intimacy… not sure how that works but I bet there are several PhD candidates working on the answer as we speak, bless them! Throngs of people line up to have a go circumambulating down the nave and into the vast expanse of Michelangelo’s dome. Nuns; “What do they wear under the habit?” Priests; “Is he staring at that altar-boy?” Sun-burnt and sweaty tourists clicking cameras and asking inane questions like, “So, heating this place must cost a fucking fortune!” and pilgrims coming to pay their respects. Although how they can retain a sense of penitence when there is a guy standing there saying, “Micheal Angelo, isn’t he one of those rapper guys? I didn’t know he also did interior decorating?” is unknown. Through all this, the dome is the object that draws your gaze. Looking up it is easy to be boggled by the numbers, 448 feet high, 60,000 worshipers can fit in here… 500 steps to the top, bugger! On the right hand side as you walk in is one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s Pietà. While there is no denying that is a really nice model of a broad holding a dead guy, it has always been the hands that bother me. Michelangelo just could not get hands right. Even on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you know – where God and Adam pinky-swear, the hands are jacked-up – all veins and long creepy fingers and knocked-up knuckles… ungh! Not for me! Other than expected mangled digits, the Pietà is very cool and very, very sad, which I suppose was the whole point in the first place. And for that little comment I am sure I will be among those going to the Dick Cheney devils when Judgment Day arrives.
Like Michelangelo, Raphael got a bunch of work from the church in those days, and it was one of his paintings I really wanted to see. In fact, while Michelangelo was up on his scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was working on the Pope’s personal apartment down the hall. Not content to just give him three coats of ecru in a semi-gloss, Raphael undertook to cover the walls and ceilings of several rooms in an array of topics every bit as staggering as those in the Sistine Chapel. One of these, called The School of Athens, has been one of my favorites since an intoxicated lecturer at LaTrobe University showed it to me fifteen years ago. Meant to sum up everything that was going on in the Renaissance, The School of Athens depicts major thinkers from Ancient Greece (and a few others) in a huge wall space twenty feet across. In the center stand Plato and Aristotle. Plato points to the sky as if to say, “Hey bro, the answers are all in ideas and free thinking.” While Aristotle, Aristotle (he was a bugger for the bottle – sorry I had to say that) gestures to the earth saying, “Yo it’s all empirical man, concentrate on the facts, forget that hippy shit.” Off to the left side, Socrates (SO – Crates) counts his arguments, “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.” Anyway, the perspective of the painting is astounding. Architecture, floor design, even other figures depicted in the painting all are arranged to draw the observer’s gaze to the two central figures. Apparently one day, while popping out for a smoke, Raphael dropped by the Sistine Chapel to check up on Michelangelo. Standing there looking up at what was being created on the roof Raphael must have grudgingly said, “Good on ya mate, she’s a bueat!” Shortly thereafter Raphael added one more figure to his “School of Athens”, a depiction of Michelangelo sulking in the bottom of the painting.