Vatican City

Vatican City is a sovereign state inside the city of Rome. In addition to its religious significance, it also has impressive museums, rooms covered in frescoes by the greatest Renaissance artists, and is an architectural showcase. I made the mistake of visiting there on the Saturday of the Jubilee, when all of Italy was there. I went back later to see things without the crush.

Starting with the obvious, St Peter's Square and Basilica.

Inside St Peter's Basilica is Michelangelo's Pieta, behind a glass wall. I know the glass serves a purpose, but you can't really appreciate sculpture unless you walk around it. After the Pieta are some shots of the interior of the Basilica. It is appropriately impressive. For some reason I couldn't get the tunes from "Jesus Christ Superstar" out of my head while I was inside.

The famous Vatican Swiss Guard. I wouldn't want that job. I prefer casual, conservative clothes.

By the time of the Renaissance the Church was an avid collector of art, current and ancient. I may be confusing cause and effect here; perhaps the Church developing an interest and tolerance of art was a precondition for the Renaissance. I'm out of my field here, I shouldn't worry about it. Anyway, while digging foundations for buildings in Rome and the rest of Italy, many Roman and some Etruscan statues were uncovered and sent to the Vatican. Michelangelo, who considered himself an architect and sculptor, not a painter, spent many hours studying these statues to learn the ideal human form before painting the Sistine Chapel. The Belvedore Torso shown below was used by Michelangelo as a model for Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Laocoon Group, a Roman copy of a Greek statue, shows the difference between Classical Greek statues, with subjects presenting remote, noble facial expressions, and the Hellenistic period, showing human emotion, often extreme human emotion. More important, it is an incredible sculpture. This sculpture depicts an event in the Trojan War, when Athena sent a serpent to devour Laocoon and his sons to prevent him from warning the people of Troy about the Trojan Horse.

The next statue had an interesting life. This is a bronze depiction of Hercules that was discovered intact with some of its original gold plate. The statue had been struck by lightening and the ancient Romans, being very superstitious, buried it to prevent the statue from bringing bad luck. Have you noticed how bronze statues often needed a peculiar bit of luck to survive? Hercules was struck by lightening, Marcus Aurelius was the subject of mistaken identity, and many of the Greek statues in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens were recovered from the sea after being lost in shipwrecks. Until a couple of centuries ago, when the industrial revolution made the extraction and purification of metals cheap, all metals were valuable. So back when people didn't have the luxury of letting metal go to waste, when there was a change of leaders or religions statues that were no longer in vogue were melted down for other uses.

Here is the Vatican's somewhat overwhelming hall of statues, and a quick review of those that I thought were interesting: Asclepius, god of medicine (you can tell by the snake); Venus Felix; Hermes; the River God Tigris on top of a sarcophagus; the River God Nile; a detail of the company of the Nile; the always popular Artemis; Athena (I liked the light effect on this one); and Perseus with the head of Medusa

I don't know who the people below are, but I'm impressed by the work. You may notice there are statues of men partying with boys, but no men partying with women. As I learned in Naples, men partying with women was a popular theme in ancient Rome, but the resulting art was a little to erotic for most museums, especially the Vatican museums. You may also notice that the male statues seem to come in three variations; fig leaf, genitals, and nothing down there. Centuries ago one of the Popes decided the genitals were offensive so he had fig leaves attached to cover them. Later attempts to remove the fig leaves often removed more than just the fig leaf, so the decision was made to leave the fig leaves on the remaining statues. They felt it was better than removing everything. That would certainly be my choice.

In addition to the statues, the mosaic floors of Roman villas were sent to Rome for use in the Vatican. In many parts of the Vatican museums the visitor will walk on two thousand year old mosaics. Not the mosaics below though, they were roped off. Some things are too beautiful to walk on.

Going back before Rome, we have the famous Etruscan piece: Mars of Todi. I don't know how it got that name.

The next two pictures are of the Gallery of Maps, one on the Jubilee weekend and the other on the following Tuesday. Notice a slight difference in attendance?

In the Gallery of Tapestries are some fine but gruesome sixteenth century tapestries depicting the Massacre of the Innocents.

Outside of the Sistine Chapel are the Papal Apartments. These have incredible frescoes painted by the greatest artists of the day. The following were done by Raphael and his students. The first picture shows most of the apartment. The next shows Constantine's vision of a cross the day before the battle that led to his eventual victory in one of Rome's civil wars. This was the vision that inspired him to legalize the Christian religion after he became emperor and to eventually convert to Christianity. Following that is a zoom of a dwarf in the corner of the vision picture. I couldn't figure it out, and the otherwise knowledgeable guide couldn't explain it--why did Raphael put this dwarf in the picture? Any art historians out there?

Continuing in the same apartment is Constantine's victory in battle, and the Dispute of the Sacred Sacrament. I don't remember the details about the debate, it was one of the big philosophical questions of early Christianity. They had some big philosophical questions to settle; was Jesus the son of Yahweh, the god of the Jews, or a different God? How do we explain that Jesus is divine and the son of God and right up there with God, but not a God? They really wanted to keep Christianity monotheistic. There were some tough issues to settle in the early days of Christianity, and they didn't all deal with persecution by pagan Rome and persecuting the pagans after Christianity got the upper hand. I believe it was a difference of opinion on the latter question that led to the split between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths, with the mutual excommunication of all followers of the other religion. Once again I'm out of my field; any religious scholars out there?

Last is my surreptitiously taken shot of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Photos aren't allowed, so keep it to yourself, ok? Actually no photo can begin to give the Sistine Chapel justice. You have to stand inside that incredible work of art to appreciate it. Go there someday, it is definitely worth it.

After one week in Rome I caught the train to Florence. It is a beautiful city, but unfortunately I wasn't in the best of shape to enjoy it.

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