Wednesday, February 3rd
“What‽”, you exclaim, looking at the date, “You’re over a month behind‽” Not to worry, gentle reader. This entry will go quickly — it’s mostly just me standing and looking at things and being snarky. Then, I’ll finish Rome, cover Florence in a day or two, Split will be a day, and by that time I’ll be in Zagreb. Trust me: after Rome, my days are much less packed.
So, Wednesday was my day to visit the Vatican. Or, more properly, Vatican City, which is actually a country, commonly billed as the smallest country in the world. (The whole question of what makes a country a country is fascinating; the short version is that there is no single, “official” list, only a bunch of lists kept by different groups for different purposes. You don’t have to go any further than Taiwan to expose the incongruities in these systems. Hell, you probably don’t have to go farther than the indigenous American tribal nations, but that’s another story.) Anyway, you can clearly see the boundaries of this country on my map of Rome, which I re-insert here:
Go straight north from where I stayed (the star towards the lower left), and you’ll see the walled outline of the country, surrounding a park, the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) and the Vatican Museums.
I had heard how crowded these places get, so I went online to see if I could buy advance tickets rather than showing up to wait in a long line to buy them (and then shuffle in, mooing and lowing with the rest of the tourist herd). I’d read something about getting in as early as 10:00, but it appeared that I could buy tickets to get into the Vatican Museums at 9:00, so I did (roughly $30). Not being sure what that really entailed (Was there a line to pick up those tickets, or a line after? Did I really enter at 9:00, or was that ticket pickup time and actual entry was still at 10?), I planned to arrive closer to 8:30; Google suggested that it was a 35 minute walk, so I set out at 7:45. (I’d been advised that, once I got in, I should run-not-walk straight to the Sistine Chapel, so as to be able to view the space and ceiling before the maddening crowd arrived, so trying to be at the front of the line seemed important.)
Walking to the Vatican
This walk very nearly resulted in my untimely demise. Not even joking, there. Google directed me around that big park north of where I was staying, and on the map you can see a sharp green corner of road cutting through the park at its eastern edge. This was a tiny Roman equivalent of Chiang Mai’s Loop of Death: a heavily trafficked corner that seemed to never stop moving, 1 narrow lane each direction, that I was expected to cross at the very tip, walk slightly westward along for a small block, and then continue straight north to the Vatican. I stood on that corner watching for an opening for a minute or two, when the traffic petered out in the west-to-east direction. So I looked east, and in maybe 10 seconds or so the east-to-west direction opened up and I started to step forwards to cross, glancing back west as I did so… and just caught myself in time to not step in front of an oncoming truck. It seems that, in those few seconds that I was watching east, traffic had picked up again from the other direction, moving hell bent for leather, and my momentary lapse in full-on traffic paranoia was nearly the death of me. The inarguable moral of this story? Never. Stop. Being. Afraid. (I should have NSBA tattooed on my right arm, to match the “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” on my left arm. But I suppose that the right arm would be a natural corollary of the left, so it’s kind of redundant. Just as well; leaves room on my right arm for the planned portrait of Rupert Grint, not the sort of image you want to crowd with silly aphorisms.)
After that, my certainty crystallized that Google was giving me Bad Advice here, and so I took a slightly more circuitous route, walked 2 blocks further east, and turned north where there were more crosswalks and sidewalks and less Mortal Peril. This led me past some Roman residences that were perhaps less picturesque than the normal tourist spots, but probably more representative of general Roman life:
I walked past apartments and rain-soaked parks, through delightfully little traffic, and was soon rewarded with a view of my destination:
I avoided a busy road by passing under it, through a convenient metro station outlet (probably even more convenient if I’d been riding the metro), and started walking along the border of the City. You can see on the map, where a thin white road (that I would have been walking along the whole way, if I’d been more more of a thrill seeker) comes up from the south to intersect a larger white road (the Via Gregorio VII) and the southeast corner of Vatican City. That’s the intersection I crossed under, and the large semicircle bend that you’ll see in the east edge of Vatican City is the curve around St Peter’s Basilica, shown here:
I continued walking around the curve, and stopped in for a Fortifying Pastry at a local shop. I should note that an English speaker has a real advantage in Europe. I’d taken a few Pimsleur audio book lessons in Italian before I left New York, to get a handful of basic words, and a lot of it was super easy to understand. It’s hard to grow up in America, raised on a diet of mob movies like the Godfather and New York crime dramas, without learning a lot of Italian words, capiche? So that gives you a surprisingly good base. And since English is based on both romance and teutonic languages, you can make educated guesses at most signs anywhere in Europe, and kind of feel your way around pretty well. For example:
Honestly, I don’t even know why I bothered with Google Translate:
Anyway, so I got my breakfast pastry and ate it while I continued on around the outside of Vatican City, until I got to the entrance to the Vatican Museums on the north side. There were a few tour groups lining up there, and various guards and people standing about, but I saw a sign that (with my advanced language skills) seemed to suggested that people who’d already purchased their tickets could go in, even though it was only about 8:35 am, so I did. Which was excellent timing, because I got to see the Pope:
Walking Through The Vatican
I went up some stairs, showed my ticket e-mail to an attendant, they gave me an actual printed ticket, and I had the run of the place. The signs directed me either up an escalator, or up a long, circling ramp filled with displays of sailing ships from different cultures. I took the road less traveled by, and looked at the sailing ships, which was a long series of displays like this:
What I was expecting based on the introductory signage: Phoenician traders, Viking longboats, Chinese dhows, etc. What I got: a set of ships from southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries, in little dioramas of their tribal cultures. It was, well, a bit odd; like there was a message here that I wasn’t quite getting. The vibe I kept getting was something like “Here are the tribal sea cultures of places that we ‘civilized’.” It was a little off putting.
Anyway, I got to the top of the ramp, where there were maps available and audio guides to rent, and I rented one, and then started to wander. As you can see by reading the Wikipedia entry, the Vatican Museums hold several areas considered to be different museums, with 54 galleries between them all. In practice, what this mean is you’re wandering about a really giant place, sectioned off into a handful of areas that have been given different names but otherwise have little to distinguish one from the other. It’s like talking about New York boroughs. Ok, I’m sure that they matter to people who have lived there for generations — and there are certainly differences that you could point to between the areas — but to the casual visitor it’s just one big thing with lots of little areas within it. So I’m just going to call the whole thing the Vatican (which seems nicer than referring to it as the VM). Maybe if they had provided a coherent map that made the different museums clear, I’d feel differently. But I found not one but two different foldout maps, and they were both nigh-incomprehensible. They were both like the London Underground map, which shows you how all of the railway lines connect, but gives you no idea where the stations are in relationship to the city above.
I think these maps were supposed to show me the flow through the galleries, but what they actually did was cause me to wander around the vaguely-central area for about 1/2 an hour, looking for signs directing me to the Sistine Chapel and trying to map galleries to their positions on the maps, until I eventually fell into the track that led me there. For a guy like me who has loved maps his entire life, It. Was. Maddening.
Thankfully, the combination of the early hour and it being out-of-season for tourists meant that the place really wasn’t very crowded, and my wander down the main hallway leading to the Chapel was an unobstructed one, filled with scenes like this:
Later, around mid-afternoon, I went back to some of these rooms, and they were packed with people making their slow, shuffling way to the Sistine Chapel. Boy, am I glad I got there early. It’s like riding the Alice In Wonderland ride at Disneyland: if there’s no line, it’s a delightful, cute little ride and a fun time. If you had to stand for an hour to get in, you’ll want to take you own life afterwards. (Damn it, that’s foreshadowing. Sorry, I’d better get right to it….)
The Sistine Chapel
When I finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I was one of maybe a dozen people in it, wandering about and staring at the walls and the ceiling.
How best to describe the Sistine Chapel? Well, the ceiling was painted by Michelangelo, and the walls by other artists. But in structure, think of a smallish church made up of one room, with a really high ceiling, a simple podium at one end and an open partition about 3/4 of the way back, with some smallish windows at the top that don’t let in a huge amount of light, and a bunch of paintings on the walls and ceiling. For festive events, like electing a new pope, they bring in chairs and tables, but generally it’s just an open space. Not sounding super impressive? Well, here’s the thing.
(A) Google Images, once again, wins hands down on actually seeing these pictures. You get them fully lit instead of dimly viewed, and detailed as if you were standing inches away from them instead of 20 feet below craning to look upwards. Like, here’s the Wikipedia entry on the ceiling, with explanation. Super detailed and helpful. But, actually being there looking at them? Ok, cool to be there. Definitely. Glad I went. Blown away by the artistic experience? Not so much.
(B) Look, on a good day I can pencil sketch a very modest landscape that wouldn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities. Don’t ask me to draw people or animals; once a year I used to sketch the Chinese New Year’s animal on the white board of my office, and I was modestly pleased with some of them, but they were hardly serious efforts. What I’m saying is, I am hardly qualified to criticize anyone’s art. And I hate to say, “Well drawn!” because that’s super tepid. They’re really well drawn. But, when all’s said and done, it’s a bunch of paintings about a bunch of people pretty much just standing around, sometimes floating, and sometimes pointing at each other. Is there a bunch of myth and metaphor behind them? Yep, you betcha. Would it be more moving if you felt spiritually moved by those particular myths? Almost certainly. Would those pictures be instructive in a pre-literate society? Sure. Does not in any way change the standing around/floating/pointing part of it. They’re impressive as examples of representational art from the 1400s-1500s, and considered influential to Western Art as a whole, so, that’s cool and all. But 500 years later, they’re not super riveting. I’d much rather look at a Rembrandt: the emotional depth and character that he captures from people may well be unequaled, even 350 years later. He’s riveting. Or, looking at a great Japanese landscape painting gives you a sense of mood and beauty and peacefulness that you rarely find elsewhere. Or, modern images of space, or of fantasy landscapes, can convey a sense of wonder and delight. The Sistine Chapel is a bunch of well-rendered people in quasi-historical dioramas, and there’s no getting around it. There we are.
But, as I say, I’m glad I went. The audio guide saved it, IMO, explaining much of the imagery and how it was designed to interrelate Old and New Testament imagery, adding some level of interest to the dioramas. But still, it’s like the Mona Lisa. You look at it and say, “Yep, that’s a smallish picture of a lady sitting. Now I’ve done it. And, oh, look at all this other cool stuff that the museum has, let’s spend a few hours looking at that.” The Sistine Chapel pulls the marks in, and then they stay to see the rest of the art, and buy scaled down reproductions of The Lord’s Suffering for their mantlepieces at home.
Places In The Vatican Other Than the Sistine Chapel
I entered the Vatican at around 8:35, and I didn’t leave until around 4:15. So, nearly 8 hours in the Museums, which is a bloody long time even for me. There’s admittedly rather a lot of it, but if I put it up against, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I don’t know that New York would suffer from the comparison, so I’m not sure why I stayed quite so long. Unlike with the Met, I knew I’d probably never see the Vatican again, so anything I wanted to see I needed to see in this trip. And a lot of the religious art is pretty detailed (as with the Sistine Chapel), so you can spend a while staring at those details. (On the other hand, after your 7th or 8th Annunciation, you do start to walk past them a bit faster, so maybe that’s a push.) Also unlike New York, I had no one to see once I left, so nothing encouraging my departure other than weariness.
That weariness did start to kick in around lunch time, and I spent what seemed to be an interminable time walking around the Vatican Museums lunch room, looking at food that seemed vaguely unappealing and overpriced — not terribly uncommon in museums, but you’d think the Vatican would do better. By this time the crowds were getting a bit larger, the lunch room was fairly busy, and the only place that had anything I wanted turned me down. Well, not exactly, but I went up to the food display to do my usual point-at-what-I-wanted, and the counter person directed me to the cashier first: apparently, I was supposed to tell the cashier what I wanted, pay for it, and then go pick it out. But I didn’t know what the name was for the thing I wanted, and there was a line that I didn’t want to hold up with my fumblings, and after wandering about a bit more I just gave up, headed out to a courtyard, had an Epic pork bar from my emergency stash, and felt better afterwards. In truth, this is one of my biggest problems when eating while touring; by the time I break for food, I’m too hungry to feel like overcoming the language barriers and end up taking minimal, easy solutions and revisiting familiar places instead of trying something new. It’s a lot easier for me to eat out when I’m not already hungry, but that’s a great way to end up eating 5 meals a day and blowing up like the blueberry girl in Willy Wonka. But, admitting to my own failing here, their whole system down there still seemed weirdly awkward. How do they expect foreign tourists to order things from the cashier that they cannot name or discuss? I don’t have a clue. Oh well, saved myself some Euros.
As I mentioned (and showed some of, above), there are many other galleries in the museum, and there were several museum stores, chock full of art reproductions in various sizes; jewelry of various degrees of religiosity (from 0-∞); scarves; papal calendars, post cards, and refrigerator magnets; umbrellas; etc, etc. Interestingly, while I saw many, many souvenirs featuring popes, they were 70% featuring the current Pope Francis, 29% featuring John Paul II, and about 1% featuring the last Pope, Ratzenberger — no, wait… Benedict née Ratzinger. And by 1% I mean that I saw exactly 1 item with his picture, I think it was a postcard, and I’m guessing it was leftover overstock from before he abdicated. This is a Pope, mind you, who is actually still alive, but you wouldn’t know it by browsing the Vatican’s own stores. I’m sure they’re just stocking what sells, but what a condemnation! That your own stores stock your predecessor’s tchotchkes, and your successor’s, in bulk, but can’t and don’t attempt to sell any of yours except a leftover postcard. I don’t think they’ve had a Pope that unpopular since Clement XIII, and that’s saying something! (FYI, most of the Clements sucked. Picking Clement as your papal name seems to be a subtle way of declaring that you’re about to be a huge dick, and everyone better just get used to the idea right from the start. Pretty sure the Vatican stores have historically burned all their Clements stock the very hour each successor was elected, and sprinkled holy water on the ashes.)
Anyway, I did take pictures of those other galleries. Here are some of my favorites, with notes.
BTW, I now totally want the walls and ceilings of my next place painted like this. Maybe I can hire art students to do it. Except I am totally have them do it using Dogs Playing Poker. Watch. Me.
Ok, this hall got under my skin, and I’m about to get a little rant-y here, so feel free to skip down a bit until you see more pictures. It won’t take long. But obviously this little blog isn’t as much about the places I’ve been as my experiences in being there, and this was my reaction.
Here’s the thing. I’ve talked to several folks who have been to the Vatican, and reactions vary. Some people think it’s just super impressive. Some people see it as a plundered treasure trove of corruption and greed. Some people keyed in on the supremely ostentatious display of wealth and power designed to impress upon the viewer that they should feel humbled before the Church, God’s appointed leader of the world. I’ve never spoken to a devout Catholic who has been here, but I’m prepared to assume that it could be a very moving experience for them.
For the most part, I wandered these halls and just appreciated them for what they were. Often impressive, often beautiful, sometimes a bit overwrought, sometimes a preservation of artifacts from Catholic and non-Catholic cultures that I was glad to have preserved, sometimes a seemingly never-ending repetition of imagery from a religion that I am not a participant in and had little resonance for me. For the most part, it was cool to be there and see the stuff, and I left the questions of the place of the Catholic Church in the world and in the world’s history on the side, and just looked at what was.
But every once in a while, as in the hallway above, I would get annoyed — and here, I got annoyed to the point of anger. The Church has quite a few galleries of pagan art and artifacts — art and artifacts from cultures that they worked hard to infiltrate, to co-opt, to stamp out, to persecute, and to destroy. They literally burned and tortured people who believed in the things that these statues represent. Hell, they burned and tortured people who believed the same things that they did but not quite the same way that they officially declared those things should be believed. And now they have the unmitigated gall to put these artifacts on display, with bland commentary about their historical origins, completely divorced from how those cultures became “historical” in the first place instead of alive and independent and vibrant contributors to the diverse fabric of humanity, and they have presented them as a part of the Church’s demonstration of wealth and power. And, once or twice, they had little plaques describing how they nobly believe in the preservation of all of humanity’s art, and how the “myths” of these cultures “foreshadowed” the “true” story of Christ the Redeemer, and how they somehow represented prophetic visions of the far better truth that was fulfilled in the Catholic Church.
I’m sorry, but Fuck. You. I have zero objection to Christ’s teachings. They’re awesome. I have zero objection to the belief that he’s the Unique Son of God and the Only Redeemer for Mankind’s Sinful Nature; it’s not my personal belief, but who cares about that? It could be right, how would I know? But to have an institution that has actively fucked over, in sometimes hideous ways, a hundred independent cultures and how many countless hundreds of thousands of individuals, destroying their original ideals and doing their damnedest to replace them with the Catholic monoculture under pain of imprisonment, torture, and death, then to hoard the ruined remnants of those cultures and prop them up in little cases and declare how awesome it itself is for being generous enough to display what it has destroyed? O. M. G. Fuck. You. So. Hard.
For the most part, I ignored all of that and just looked at interesting things. But sometimes it bugged me. Sometimes a lot. In direct proportion to the degree to which it seemed like the Church was dancing on the graves of its defeated rivals. When it was just doing its own thing, displaying its own faith, I was fine. When it was putting up little plaques abstractly discussing its victims and inviting you to appreciate the elegant artwork it had confiscated from the cultures it had destroyed, or to admire the techniques used to represent false gods and, wow, how great is it that we’re past all of that nonsense and heretical idolatry… if you have any sympathies with those older cultures, or empathy for their peoples, it was bloody rage-inducing. And took considerable letting-go-of to move on.
Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about that. Shortly after that hallway, I found an out of the way cafe, and had a bit of pizza-sandwichy thingy and some hot chocolate, and felt a bit better. So I’m going to walk away now, and have a little chocolate in present time, and some tea, maybe read a bit of webcomic, and go on with the blog later. In the mean time, have some cute animal friends!
Getting On With It
I’ve mentioned that a lot of the Vatican art was referencing a mythology that doesn’t really resonate with me. Hardly surprising, really. What is surprising is how little it seems like the art celebrates its own myths. For example, the Madonna and Child occurs in a huge percentage of the paintings that I saw, and I almost never saw one where they seemed happy to be there.
This was remarkably typical, and you should bear this in mind for my future posts, because I saw a lot of this sort of thing in the Italian museums. I’ll reference back to it later, when I run into them.
The other thing I ran into was a lot of disembodied baby heads. Don’t worry, it’s not as creepy as it sounds… no, wait, it’s exactly as creepy as it sounds:
They had an abstract art section; I took a few pictures there, and this one’s a keeper:
Obviously, there was a lot more art in the galleries than I took pictures of or included here. But you can only include so much, and this is quite enough. By this time, it was 4:15 pm and I’d been walking and standing, largely without interruption, for about 8-1/2 hours, and I was done. I still hadn’t seen St. Peter’s Basilica, or walked around the streets inside Vatican City, but I figured I would have to come back another day to do that. So I left.
But, the exit was next to the entrance, on the north side of the city, and I had to head south. Rather than take the same route back that I had come, I decided to continue west around the outside of the city and curve back from the other direction — a longer route, but one that would allow me to have walked entirely around a country. You don’t get many chances to do that, and I was not passing this one up! So I walked, all the way round to my original starting point on the southeast corner, completing the circle. For the record, most of it looked like this:
Once I got back to the southeast corner, I followed the original route that Google had recommended to go home, determined to conquer the Intersection of Near-Immanent-Demise. It turned out to still be more absurdly hazardous than it ought to be, but it was less rush-hour-y and I made it across without dying (as you may have already deduced). And the route was a good choice, because I passed some cute shopping/dining neighborhoods, a convenience store where I picked up some fruit and an Italian beer, and a supermarket where I picked up some great veggies for salads, and fruit and crackers, and a different beer, and cheese. I also passed this:
The grocery store did give me a chance to try out the convenience store Italian beer, Peroni. When my host, Max, saw it, he was rather guarded in his comments, and said it was kind of like American Miller beer. That was sufficient warning all by itself, but, in fact, he was being generous (which he later admitted). I got a few sips into it and had to pour the rest out; it was vile. Miller-lite vile. Coors-vile. I still shudder, remembering it. Thankfully, the supermarket beer, Mastri Birrai Umbri Cotta 37, was an excellent replacement: sweet but not too sweet, fruity and tasting of apples and grain. Much better. And Max told me about a couple of great places for beer, that I visited later in the week.
So, I ended off with a nice salad for dinner, and a great beer, and some Youtube, and a sense of accomplishment at having checked the Vatican off of my list and circumnavigated an entire country on foot. So, overall, an excellent day.