Today was dedicated to going to EVERYTHING Vatican, both expected and unexpected. We spent some time after breakfast getting caught up on journaling and posting photos, and then we set out with the plan of seeing St. Peter‘s Basilica in the morning, then taking an early lunch break, and going to the Vatican museums with our skip-the-line online tickets at the designated time at noon. That didn‘t quite work out—we got to the piazza of St. Peter‘s and realized that every Wednesday when the pope is „home“ he gives a little bulletin at 10 am. So we didn‘t get to go into the cathedral, but instead got to see the pope (VERY far away) telling people about his recent visit to Romania. We didn‘t stay for the many translations (into French, German, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, I believe), but we CAN now say we saw the pope speak.
We then made our way through the phalanx of „official tourist guides“ (aka scammers) who sell people tickets in addition to their Vatican Museum tickets for the „special tour“ of St. Peter‘s (which can of course be visited WITHOUT any tickets) and walked a little bit back into the Prati, the quarter north of the Vatican area where our guest house is, met with a police marching band (undoubtedly parading toward the Vatican in connection with the pope‘s Wednesday update), and eventually found an outdoor cafe where I finally had my first Italian caffe latte, and where we had some croissants and a cookie (instead of lunch) and watched the busy people at the street corners. The architecture in this late 19th century neighborhood is distinctly Roman (with the roof gardens at the top of the apartment buildings, some pseudo-antique features, and beautiful yellows and oranges for stucco colors) but the layout is like that of Paris, so it all felt vaguely familiar. We hung out until about 11, then made our way over to the Vatican and were waved in, with ALL THOSE OTHER PEOPLE, at 11:30. I had been warned about the throng (hence the on-line tickets) but wow, was it crowded. The logistics challenge for this much traffic in a museum is enormous; the solution is basically the Disney approach: give the masses a specific one-directional path with a few possible detours and do extra ingress control at the very crowded areas. It was always a relief to be in a courtyard or one of the rare less traveled places in between phases of choc-a-bloc traffic. The doors were usually a challenge as tour groups and individuals filed through in a never-ending stream. (Well, it ends every day at 6 when the museum closes, I suppose.) The Sistine Chapel was of course the most crowded of all locations, and the constant shouting by guards to be silent and not take pictures (pretty pointless on both counts) made it about the least sacred-feeling religious space I have been to. All that aside, it was breathtaking to see some of the most famous masterpieces of Western art, many of which were surprises because I have typically not memorized where certain works are, and would then be stunned to see a favorite from an art history class—especially among the 100 Vatican highlights that are marked (for the fast track, I suppose) there were of course many old friends.
There is no possibility to give a short account of this visit for an aspiring art historian with an ambition to remember things (this is after all part of my research), so here goes with the long version, which might turn into an even longer version once I go back to add more museum history, which is of course part of what I need to take into account. The Parcours started with the museum of Egyptian and ancient Mesopotamian art, which we only glanced at cursorily—but we were intrigued by a little cuneiform tablet in a “sleeve” that looked for all the world like a smartphone in a case. (Mark thought it looked more like a candy bar with a wrapper.) Then came the collection of all things Etruscan, including the Greek vases from the Etruscan tombs that (as I learned in the museum) were thought to be “Etruscan” until Winckelmann made the connection to Ancient Greece. We now know that virtually all of them were exports from Greece and it’s our great good fortune the Etruscans liked Greek art so much—almost all those beautiful black-figure and red-figure vases in the world’s museums are from those tombs. The Vatican does own some of the all-stars, and we did get to see a super-famous vase of Achilles and Ajax playing at dice, by Ezekias. But they also had the fabulous “home-made” Etruscan bronze art, including the famous Todi Mars, which is really quite beautiful—and also much smaller than I thought, maybe 4 feet tall.
We left the Etruscans behind for the prized collection of classical statues that the popes started to assemble in the early 16th century, and that people have come to see and write rhapsodic poetry and art history about ever since then. The first stop was one of the Roman copies of the Apoxymenos, the “scraper” by Praxiteles, and then what used be the Belvedere statue court, with several pieces still exactly where they were in the 1510s, when the court was built for these new finds from Ancient Rome and the display was first set up. The throngs were super thick, because every tour guide takes his or her group to the Laocoon, which is of course amazing. Its history, including where it was found in the early 1500s, and the most recent discoveries about when the three sculptors that created it actually lived and worked are super fascinating, but I just can’t go into all of that. Whether it’s a Hellenistic original or Roman commission of a copy of that work, but created by Greek sculptors, the expression of pain on Laocoon’s face is amazing. Note to self: I need to read Lessing’s essay on the Laocoon! But there was also the representation of the Nile, and the Apollo Belvedere—just nuts to see all of this. One of the niches (I believe the one that now has an 18th century Perseus with the head of the Medusa by Canova) used to have the Sleeping Ariadne in it in the 16th century, when it was still known as the Cleopatra, above a fountain. And of course this is the statue about which I know more than any other in the Vatican Museum, and which I basically came to see more than any other work, both for my own gratification and as part of my research—it plays a central role in a scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with the heroine of the novel standing by it, but not looking at it, and because of that, I had written a paper on its entire history last semester. So I knew that it was later moved from the courtyard into a room called the Cleopatra Room, and was then moved to where it is now. But the Vatican museum website, which I had consulted several times, didn’t actually spell out where that was, and so I was confused. I wasn’t seeing it, even though I was in the Museo Pio-Clementino, where I knew it was supposed to be. But for the moment, I let it be because I wasn’t 100% sure where it should be, and moved on. So we went past a whole bunch of additional ancient sculpture, including the Belvedere Torso–the “Archaic Torso” of Rilke’s poem! And so many other poems! Michelangelo loved this piece (more long stories) and I can totally see why—the muscles, the twisted body, the idea that posture can speak all on its own—it’s all there. Then through a tapestry-covered corridor and a another one with large map frescoes on the walls—all with sumptuous ceilings and the works. Every pope had to add a few more gems.
Eventually, we ended up with the Renaissance artists—specifically, Raphael’s Stanze (a series of chambers) for Sixtus, of which I again only knew the most famous highlight, namely the School of Philosophy (aka the School of Athens) and of Theology (or the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament)in the Stanza della Segnatura. Mark had to endure my whole mini lecture about Plato and Aristotle at the center (also the vanishing point for the perspectivally rendered buildings) of the School of Athens, and the “hidden” possible portraits of Michelangelo, Raphael himself, and Leonardo-as-Plato. The Parcours should have led by the chapel of Nicholas V, with frescoes by Fra Angelico, but I didn’t see a detour or a pathway that indicated this, so I assume it is closed to the public. Instead we were in for a surprise, because as “filler” in the former rooms of the Borgia popes, some still lavishly decorated, the Vatican opted to display its modern art. I fully expected this to be kitschy Christian art of no particular artistic value, but I was sorely mistaken—and I had ignored that some 20th-century artists were quite religious and/or some curator’s taste overrode possible issues of irreligiosity. So there were a Munch, three Dalis, a very funny Botero with a fat little cardinal in a huge green garden, some Chagall pieces and the designs for Matisse’s chapel in Vence in France. One day, I need to see that chapel. Matisse’s simple line drawings and cutouts blow me away every time. Even an early sketch from Francis Bacon’s Velazquez Pope series was there—that really surprised me.
Then we arrived, with throngs of people including those who used a shortcut to basically see just this one site among all of the thousands of artworks, at the Sistine Chapel, where we were regularly yelled at, as I’ve already mentioned. While I was giving Mark another mini lecture on the two halves of the ceiling frescoes and the difference in time and style between them. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see this before the restoration, so dark as to be almost not visible, and I really loved the bright colors, trusting the restorers to get it right. Mark shot several forbidden photos from the hip and was never once caught, so I now have several Sybils and even a couple of images from the Last Judgment. I will have to read up on some more of the comments by women writers, but Eliot didn’t like all that masculine muscularity. Generally, Michelangelo was appreciated much more as a sculptor than a painter in the 19th century, and of course, the whole question of whether he was really always a sculptor, even when he painted, and whether that was why these women thought he was “wrong” or whether it has to do with his obviously male models for his figures is something I have to find out more about from guidebooks and the like.
Once we were out of the Sistine Chapel, I knew that “only” several specialized museums were ahead, including the gallery of paintings, and I became worried about where to find “my” Ariadne. I asked several times about her whereabouts and was directed back to the Pio-Clementino, and only the last guide said she was in the Sala d’Animales, and that he was not sure whether she was visible from our path. We went back there and saw that a small group of tourists with a guide was in the Sala, past the ropes, but we could not see the Ariadne. There was a second room that we could see the group wander around in, but neither the left nor right side was visible. At this point, I began to get really upset, partly because I was already pretty tired and partly because I became increasingly sure that this is where the Ariadne was. One of the tourists got close enough to ask; he was a young American and said he had no idea why they were getting this special tour. When Mark showed him the image of the Ariadne on the phone (while I was trying to wipe away my tears and not make a scene), he actually had to walk back and look to see whether the sculpture was in the room he had just come from, that was how much he cared (he gave us a thumbs up, which added to my frustration). When the group returned to the path after an eternity, we asked their guide, who said that no one could get in without a special tour, and she didn‘t know how people got those tours, but that they were $300. That didn‘t exactly make me feel better, and I was getting very weepy but tried to keep my act together. I explained that I had come especially to see the Ariadne, and that I had no idea based on the website that she couldn‘t be seen; what could I do? Actually, I only explained part of it; Mark explained the rest because I was on the verge of losing it, and at the same time, the guide explained to the guard what was going on. The guard listened carefully and told me to hang on while he called his boss. Whoever that boss was actually came and joined us; they discussed more things in Italian, and then told me that the area was off limits but that they would give us TWO MINUTES, and only for her. So Mark and I went through the room with the animal sculptures and into the room where she was, in her niche on the left. I looked as hard as I could in two minutes (which is ridiculous since I can’t really imprint things on my retina) and Mark took 29 photos. I truly have no idea what else was in the room, for example across from the Ariadne, but I was so grateful I got to see her. After all that time I spent learning about her last semester, including the complicated history of her plaster casts and her shifting exhibit space, I would have been heartbroken had I not gotten to see her! But the memory will be about standing there with her, not about what I could actually see in this short time. So I am glad I do have photos from new angles that I didn’t see before.
Once I had recovered (now from tears of joy) we still went to see another gallery of Roman statues, busts, and sarcophagi, including some impressive veristic pieces, including an old woman with a very sunken face. There was also a Nile that looked familiar, with putti/Cupids playing with a crocodile, and a copy of a sculpture I discovered in my Greek sculpture class last spring—Silenus cradling the baby Dionysus. That one reminds me so powerfully of my dad—something in the pose (not to mention the beard!) and the rapt attention to the baby he is holding. And other incredibly famous pieces: two wounded amazons and the Augustus of Primaporta with his cuirass are key. There was also a polychromous version of the Augustus that was interesting to see. Always still hard for me to think of these in color, although I know that was how they were displayed.
Then we wrapped up our visit in the gallery of paintings from the Middle Ages through to the late Renaissance, the Pinacoteca—and again, there was too much! There were several pieces by Giotto, a few Raphaels (as always, more appreciated by Eliot than by me, but while the Madonnas didn‘t rock my socks off, an Ascension of Christ had another Michelangelesque twisted female figure—Raphael trying to do the Sybil-like figura serpentinata, and not quite getting there. There was one lone Bellini to complete the Bellini / Mantegna exhibition, and a couple of Judiths with the head of Holofernes for my collection of women chopping off heads, one by Cristofano Allori and one by Artemisia Gentileschi’s father. I also got to see the deposition by Caravaggio and I made a point of looking at another presumed Eliot favorite, a Madonna by Sassoferato, a baroque artist whom I had never heard of–even more sickly-sweet than Raphael. But then we called it quits—we spent 5 hours in the museum, although we did also take 30 minute break with coffee and cake in the courtyard cafe. That was of course not nearly enough time, but more than many people spend.
For good measure, we went from the Vatican Museums back to St. Peter and lined up to go inside (no entry fee, but metal detectors that cause a fairly fast-moving line to form). We walked around the enormous space, a kind of huge cavern encrusted with gold and with important sculptures everywhere. We dutifully wandered around with hundreds of others, looked at the enormous baldacchino and the statue of the pope with Death under a cloth at the bottom, both by Bernini. And of course at the Pieta by Michelangelo. There would have been so much more to see, but it is just overkill, and of course not really my thing at all. But the Pieta in its remote corner is beautiful, and all that gold was very glittery in the evening sun.
We then went home for a little rest, and I actually took a shower because I had gotten very warm at the museum among all those crowds of people. We barely had time to do a first run-through of the hundreds of photos Mark took today, and then we were off again, meeting our friend Rebecca (grad student in archeology in New York) and her boyfriend Chris (who is also an archeologist and art historian and teaches in the UK) for dinner. It just so happened that she was in Rome at the same time we were (she is leaving for a dig in Sicily this Friday), and he is in Rome this entire academic year, I believe. We had our first truly lovely dinner (pasta and pizza) and a great time talking about art, asking questions about the engineering of the Pantheon etc. and getting lots of advice about Rome, Florence, and good secondary sources for me to look at. We wrapped up the day with TOTALLY FANTASTIC gelato (after a lot of mediocre gelato so far), since Rebecca is a fabulous gelato connoisseur, and then said good bye about 10:30 and finally went home.
THAT WAS A LONG DAY. I still feel I need to extra days to process it.