Veni, vidi, vici!
Vatican City is, somewhat surprisingly, not part of Rome. It is its own independent city-state, created in 1929 when Benito Mussolini signed an agreement with the church stating that the Pope recognized Mussolini’s political power and Mussolini recognized the Pope’s religious power. It’s the smallest and richest state in the world.
Take A Tour Of Vatican City’s Museum
Vatican City is a treasure trove of artwork, culture, and traditions. The Vatican City Museum’s art collection is one of the largest in the world.
The Pinecone Courtyard is so named because of a giant pinecone sculpture in the courtyard you see above. The pinecone is a former Roman fountain that faces out toward the courtyard.
The giant fractured sphere in the center of the Pinecone Courtyard is a bronze statue that appears golden in the sunlight. It was designed by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, who is known to build enormous spheres with layers of complexities. The sculpture is called Sphere Within A Sphere and it is 4 meters (a little over 13 feet) in diameter. It was created as a gift to Pope John Paul II.
The Apollo statue was found in the 2nd century. Look closely at his face and you’ll see some similarities to Jesus’s face in the Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel, and also to the face of David. Michelangelo liked to copy this ancient statue’s face, and thus there is a connection between ancient art and Renaissance work.
The Laocoonte scultpure is the oldest piece of artwork in the world at 1900 years old. It was found buried in the Roman grounds. The details of this sculpture are incredible down to the tiny bones in Laocoonte’s toes, his veins, and even wrinkles. It shows detail and perfection even from 1900 years ago when there were no machines to help sculpt this statue.
The damaged body sculpture in the Vatican Museums was carved in the 1st century BC. From a small inscription on the body, art historians believe this was probably a sculpture of Hercules.
The entire room above is well-preserved. The floor is 1700 years old and depicts Tritons, sea horses, sea dragons, and other mythological creatures. It came from the ancient Roman baths. The fountain in the center is made from Egyptian pottery. In the back, the bronze statue of Hercules was made for Nero. The only thing not original on Hercules is the fig leaf making him decent.
The room above is dedicated to the first Christian emperor Constantine, 1700 years ago. There are two coffins in this room: one is for Constantine and the other is for his daughter. The floor is only 300 years old.
Above is a bust of the first Emperor Hadrian from the 1st century. In ancient times, statues were made of white marble and dyed to be vibrant colors. Over time, the dye has faded and worn off, and all the ancient statues are now white.
The Gallery of Tapestries represent the life of Jesus Christ with the adoration of shepherds. All of the tapestries were designed by Raphael and designed to be hung on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries on the left were woven in Brussels, Belgium. All of the tapestries on the right were woven in Italy. Look closely at the 300 year old ceiling, above. Is it sculpted or painted? This is one of the many optical illusions of the artwork in the Vatican Museums. The shadows were painted on to make the ceiling look sculpted. The entire ceiling is a painting (fresco), and no part of it is carved, even the center piece or the columns on each end of the hall! Another optical illusion in this room is in the Resurrection of Christ tapestry. It was designed by Raphael and woven using the technique of shifting perspective. No matter where you are standing, it appears as if Christ is looking at you. As you walk by, his eyes seem to follow you from one side to the other! Visit my YouTube page to see the (shaky) video of Christ’s eyes following me through the hall.
The Gallery of Maps is the largest gallery in the Vatican Museums. It is 500 years old and painted by Italian and Flemish painters. Imagine painting maps of Italy’s regions without Google or GPS! Imagine doing it 500 years ago when the people weren’t as sure of the geography as we are now. (The ceiling in this hall is both painted and carved, no optical illusions here.)
Raphael and Michelangelo were rivals, although Raphael was younger than Michelangelo by quite some years. While Michelangelo was hired to paint the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was hired to paint the pope’s apartments, which we now call Raphael’s Rooms. In the living room (sala di costantino), it could take a whole day to see all the detail in the Million Bridge War. (The bridge still exists, by the way – over the Tiber River!) The War happened in 312 AD. Constantine is painted in the middle riding a white horse. The enemy is riding a black horse. Christianity was legalized after this war; a broken statue in front of Jesus Christ depicts the victory of Christianity over the Greek religion.
In Pope Julius II’s library, one wall is a religious fresco, one wall is a scientific fresco. The School of Athens is the scientific fresco, and is also the painting used to represent all the artwork in the Vatican (in fact, the tickets to gain entry into the Museums show a small portion of this painting). In this picture, Plato is wearing a red robe with his finger up, and Aristotle walks in blue next to him. Plato is pictured with a da Vinci face, and Aristotle is pictured with a Michelangelo face. Euclid, father of mathematics, is shown drawing on a blackboard. Raphael also painted his own face in this picture, but only his face wearing a black hat. Can you spot him?
An interesting side note: this painting actually has graffiti on it from years past (such as 1546, etc.) Though it is graffiti, restorers won’t erase it because it is historic and part of the painting.
The religious painting of the library is shown above. It shows Jesus Christ, the holy spirits, the gospels. It is a representation of the Trinity. Over the clouds, you will see saints, prophets, popes, priests, etc.
The Sistine Chapel was built for Pope Sixtus IV in the 1400s as his private place to pray and a new place to hold conclave. Conclave is still held in the Sistine Chapel today, although the chimney many people think exists in the Sistine Chapel is only temporary; if conclave isn’t going on, the chimney isn’t brought in.
The lateral walls were painted by many Italian painters, including Boticelli, but Michelangelo only did the ceiling and back wall. On one side is the life of Moses, and on the other side is the life of Jesus Christ.
Michelangelo painted the ceiling when he was 33 years old from 1508-1512 (it took him 4 years). He was a sculptor first, and he was insulted and ashamed to have been called upon by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling, so he created an optical illusion to make it look carved. The Creation of Adam is a masterpiece that eventually cost Michelangelo is vision. He spent 4 years laying on a scaffold with wet paint and ceiling dripping into his eyes. There was no artificial light during this time, so he painted by the little daylight that came in through the windows or by candlelight. It was a huge feat, and 500 years later we are still appreciating Michelangelo for this creation. Unfortunately, it’s little known that the ceiling is not entirely original. Frescos are painted into the wall itself, and become part of the wall. I can vouch that old walls (especially in my Spanish house) fall off easily! There is a small portion of the ceiling, where man’s finger is touching God’s finger, that fell off. It has been fixed to its original version even if it not as original as the rest.
Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement on the back of the Sistine Chapel at 65 years old. He painted his own face into the picture as a zombie because he was suffering and unhappy (he was gay in a time when that was unacceptable, and no one understood his vision. In fact, he burned many of his drafts before he died so no one else could try to create his visions!) He painted all the people in the picture naked, which offended a certain cardinal. The cardinal organized a campaign to have clothing painted on the naked bodies, which angered Michelangelo. Michelangelo knew that the cardinal was a child molester and accused of other obscene things, so he painted this cardinal into the bottom of the painting (representing Hell) biting off his genitals. After Michelangelo died, the pope hired another painter to censor the painting and paint naked clothes on the bodies. When the painting was cleaned of dirt and grime and dust, the restorers took the clothes off people to restore it to its original form as Michelangelo would have wanted it. (A fresco is painted while the material is still wet, so the wall absorbs the paint. After it dries, it’s it can easily be wiped away without affected the wall itself.)
Photos are not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. While it’s true that flashes ruin the artwork, the reason for the “No photos!” shouts from the guards is a little less romantic. When the Chapel was being restored, a television network in Japan offered a $4 million donation in return for exclusive rights to the photography and video of the restored art. I don’t believe that one entity should have sole control over something so beautiful, so I snapped some photos without anyone realizing. I love iPhones.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter was crucified upside down 64 years after Jesus Christ for being a Christian. His original name was Simon, but Jesus changed it to Peter because in Italian, “Pietra” means stone. St. Peter’s Church was built in the 1500s, and his tomb is under the main altar. St. Peter’s Basilica is Italy’s largest and most spectacular church. By law, nothing can be higher than St. Peter’s dome.
La Pietra is one of Michelangelo’s early sculptures. Now, it’s considered good luck to rub the foot of the statue of St. Peter for a blessing and good luck! The church is free to enter, however you must make a reservation to visit the necropolis underneath the church. Unfortunately, the day before Easter, the basilica closes early. This is the day we chose to visit Vatican City. St. Peter’s Basilica closed at 2pm, and we got there at 2:03pm, so we did not get to see the inside. Have no fear, we have another trip to Rome all set up and I will update this section once I have seen the inside!
Update: My second flight to Rome got cancelled due to a fire in the airport so I never did get to see the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. I did however get rerouted to Brussels for the night and spent the night in the airport all alone, which prompted James and I to make a music video to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.”
I have to add a little comment about the Vatican (Swiss) guards in here. They dress like jesters! The blue, red, orange, and yellow uniform is a distinctly Renaissance appearance. They are Swiss soldiers between 19-30 years old who have served at foreign European courts since the late 15th century. The Papal Swiss Guard was founded in 1506 and is the only Swiss Guard that still exists today. Swiss Guards are Catholic, single men with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military and have been awarded certificates of good conduct. After the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the guard has become less ceremonial and more of a bodyguard. They use traditional weapons like a sword, as well as modern weapons like guns.
If you want to photograph the Swiss Guards, do it sneakily…they will yell at you if they see a camera pointed at them!
Vatican City has been the site of many movies. First, Angels & Demons is my main reason for visiting St. Peter’s Basilica. However, the Godfather III was filmed in St. Peter’s Basilica and Eurotrip was filmed in St. Peter’s Square.