The next morning the taxi driver was on time and so were we. That was a good thing, because radio taxis start the meter when they get the call from their dispatcher, not when you get in the car. The driver was great, spoke English, and got us there without cheating on the fare. We heard that some try the trick of pushing the "tariff 2" or "tariff 3" buttons (for outside the town walls) instead of "tariff 1" which can triple or quadruple the fare. Pay attention, and say something if it's not set to "tariff 1".
We got to the meeting point at the bottom of the stairs on Via Tunisi, just below the entrance to the Vatican Museum, and saw all the large tour groups cuing up. We went for the extra bucks and got a private tour so we wouldn't get lost in a herd of sheep, and to go through faster because of my lousy knees. When I saw the size of some of the tour groups (especially from the cruise ships), I was glad we weren't part of the cattle following a tour guide, wearing an earpiece (it's so loud in the Vatican at times it's impossible for groups to hear their own guide without a headset) and following the colored flag on a pole.
After a half hour wait Marcello arrived... (we paid for an earlier entry time... now that was blown!) He spoke English with a slight Italian accent and as it turned out was born in Houston, Texas but moved to Italy when he was 13. Ciao-dy!
As we started up the stairs and toward the entrance we felt a relieved when Marcello led us past the flocks and into the entrance. He waved his tour guide I.D. ward casually and got us quickly past the checkpoints in the surprisingly modern interior of the entrance mezzanine. Even though it was very modern, we sensed no air conditioning! (It was hot). He started the tour by telling us the history of Rome itself and how the Vatican came to exist--informative but a bit dry--even though I had told him ahead of time to keep things simple but interesting for an 11 year old. Our bags went through the X-ray belt and we were on our way up and around and into the museum--at first by modern escalator, then by steps.
We went through hall after hall and saw more and more art, sculptures, tapestries, frescoes and became aware of the unimaginable wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, my childhood idols were there... Boteccelli, Raphael and Michelangelo. The tapestries were wonderful, but I've seen some in better shape and under better care in other museums, including the Cloisters in New York. I'll be honest, I thought some the frescoes that were restored looked flat and lifeless. Perhaps they cleaned off too much of the subtleties from the hands of the Masters.
There was even a section under the Sistine Chapel that contained a treasury of modern masters... Chagal, Mattise and others. What concerned me is the complete lack of climate control for all these treasures of mankind. There is no air conditioning and most of the windows were open allowing the pollution, humidity and heat of the day to permeate the exhibit halls. I was sweating like crazy after a while... imagine the tens of thousands of visitors they cram through there every day.... all that body heat, humidity, body oils, etc. They make 70 million dollars a year on Vatican ticket sales and they don't spend a dime on climate control? Shame on them. As a lifelong artist I was shocked at the lack of at least a minimum of basic care for the art and the architecture itself.
Pardon this rant... The unimaginable wealth and hoarding of the treasures the Catholic Church could be put to better use in helping the needy in the world. Selling off their Chagal collection alone could potentially solve the ebola crisis in Africa, for example. Much of the art in the lower chamber (I believe it's under the Sistine Chapel itself) has nothing to do with Catholicism or religion of any kind.
Anyway, the big moment came when we were about to enter the Sistine Chapel. Oddly, tour guides are not allowed to speak inside the Chapel. Because of this, guides need to explain what visitors are about to see before they even get close to the Chapel. Marcello briefed us in a dark chamber by pulling out a book and turning the pages as he explained what we are about to see. (The shorthand version). You'd think with all their millions in revenue the Vatican Museum would install a proper orientation exhibit to educate visitors before they enter... videos, slides, displays, etc. Heck, even our local canal barge museum has an orientation video before you take a ride on the canal, and the Crayola Factory in a nearby town has excellent, world class multi-media presentations! I mean, after this is the Vatican!
After Marcello finished showing us photos in his dog-eared art book, he led us through more rooms and then upstairs (no elevator... people with walking issues need to be ready for this) and into the crowded Sistine Chapel, saying he would meet us near a back door in 10 minutes or so. Ten minutes? When I was a young man, I heard of people spending all day, often laying on the floor with binoculars to soak in the wonder of the Ceiling. Ten minutes?
We were now on our own--with about 1000 or more other people from large tour groups... shoving Chinese, rude Italians and pushy Germans (forgive me, but I'm just pointing out my observations). After a little while we luckily found seats against a side wall (Knees to Babbo, "Thank You!") and sat gazing up at the magnificence of Michelangelo's genius. Lucas was surprised when he realized that the architectural details like moldings and columns were all Trompe-l'œil (tricks of the eye)... all painted to look three dimensional. He also liked the Creation of Man... the famous God touching the hand of Man scene. I loved the Temptation of Adam panel. The bright colors of the restoration of about 20 years ago brought out all the amazing bright colors of the frescoes. Before that, the frescoes were covered with half a millennium of candle soot.
Afterwards, we went outside and around to the front entrance to St.Peter's Basilica. The place is immense. You could almost fit Yankee Stadium inside. The art was mostly beautiful, the rest I found to be ostentatious. The grandeur is overtly in your face--majestic by design. The craftsmanship in everything is unbelievable, and a bit disturbing to thin of the enormous resources the Church spent to have them made by artists and craftsmen throughout history (instead of taking care of the truly needy?) The huge dome can easily fit the Statue of Liberty inside. Some sculptures and angels are huge. The marble columns are massive. The bronze doors are enormous. Amazingly, because of the crowds, the echoing chatter, the picture-taking and the signs warning of pickpockets in the Basilica, I didn't feel God here.
Marcello was still in his bore-them-with-obscure-details mode, Lucas was thirsty and hot, Lisa was hot and having a near melt-down, and my knees were out for the count and my sweat had dehydrated me beyond belief. I can imagine how many people collapse in this place from exhaustion and heat, but unlike Disney theme parks, I didn't see even a single defibrillator station anywhere.
We told Marcello we were going to cut this part of the tour short--Short? We were going over 5 hours! We said good bye to Marcello outside and above the Square and after a stop at the Vatican Post office to get Lucas some stamps, we headed off to find cooling refreshments. We waded through shepherds and their tourist flocks and several gypsies dressed as nuns looking for handouts, African hawkers selling cheap junk and finally saw The Line... of people trying to get through the security check and into the Basilica. It was six people thick and going from one side of St Peters to the other, where it then went into corralled switchback lines, zig-zagging back and forth. It looked like about 50,000 people trying to enter a single entrance to a major league baseball stadium. Incredible! I've heard the wait on line can be 3 hours long...
Now we knew for sure that our not so private tour was worth it just to avoid those hours on that unbearably long line. Was the Vatican Tour itself worth it? I'm not so sure. Of course, as an artist, a lifetime dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel was realized... but not in a way where I could appreciate the art in a meditative manner, as I did when I was a kid and would sit for long periods studying a painting I liked.
I didn't appreciate being swallowed up by the ever-rushing tour groups, effectively nullifying our "private tour". I really hated how poor the Museum is in terms of climate control and protecting these treasures... for example, walking through the bedrooms of the Popes, the beautiful ceramic tile floors have been worn clear through the top layers of color from the thousands of shoes walking on them. I saw graffiti around some windows. The 16 foot tall windows being wide open to the humidity and pollution was horrible.
And I really thought that visiting the seat of the Catholic faith itself--St. Peters--would be a more moving experience. It was loud, crowded, and we were in fear of pickpockets (even Marcello warned us). Perhaps they should treat this like a museum, too... and limit how many people enter at one time. It's a functioning place of worship, so anyone can walk right in (after the long wait in line). In general, I get the feeling that the Vatican will increase the number of tourists, making matters worse. Perhaps there is a marketing manager in a hot office somewhere setting new goals for 100 million dollars a year.
We bought some gassata (sparkling water) from a street vendor to cool down, then grabbed a taxi at the taxi stand across the piazza, and went back to our apartment to refresh ourselves. Snacks and a nap brought an end to this day of agony and ecstasy.
Click HERE to see some amazing High Resolution images of the Sistine Chapel!
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