Doesn’t happen too often – but how good is it when it does – that something so exceeds your expectations that the dull thud you hear on experiencing it all is the sound of your own jaw dropping to the floor.
The Vatican Museum has joined that elite personal collection.
What’s even better is that it’s all such a surprise. Just following a simple arrow pointing to Sistine Chapel cunningly leads you on a journey of such richness and wonder, that when you do finally arrive at the home of one of the great artworks in the world, you’re almost – but thankfully not quite – overwhelmed by what you’ve already seen.
Attempting to describe the treasures on display would be a pointless exercise in listing superlatives. I loved the 17th century Map Room, the insane opulence of its ceiling offset by the simplicity of the wall maps of ancient Italy stretching so far you feel the room’s builder must have needed to allow for the curvature of the earth.
How satisfying to see our home town Cafoli depicted on the map of Aprutia – Abruzzo as was – and its near-neighbour Guardia di Gallo. Better-known now of course simply as Guardiagrele.
Though you might have set off at a brisk trot to reach the Sistine Chapel as quickly as possible, you find yourself slowing down as each Museum gallery exceeds the last.
And that’s good, because when you arrive at the Sistine Chapel’s unassuming entrance, your pace will be a pleasing dawdle.
However many times you might have seen it on television or in books, nothing prepares you for the reality of the Sistine Chapel.
Begun by Pope Sixtus IV at the end of the 15th century, the Chapel was already sumptuous enough even before its two most famous additions, the ceiling; and the painting of the Last Judgement behind the altar, which were commissioned by Pope Julius II in the earliest years of the 16th century.
Calling on the sublime talents of Michelangelo for this work hardly seems the most difficult of choices ever made, but it was in fact a brave one – and even more courageous and enlightened of Pope Julius to subsequently staunchly defend the fruits of Michelangelo’s efforts from fierce criticism – including that of blasphemy for his depiction of God with dirty feet.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – is of course the magnet that draws the crowds that queue round the block in high summer.
It doesn’t disappoint.
Calling anything ‘the best’ or ‘the greatest’ always invites endless argument, so let’s just call Michelangelo’s depiction of The Creation on the ceiling ‘iconic’ and leave it at that.
There’s so much else at which to marvel; so many more wonderful works to enjoy. The rest of Rome will still be outside when you emerge, so make your visit as leisurely as it can be. It’s really worth it.
Neither is the Sistine Chapel the last stop on your visit to the Vatican Museum.
Not that what follows is in any sense an anticlimax, but it’s too often ignored in the rush to get round the corner to St Peter’s; or back on the coach; or to the Colosseum or the Forum.
There are more wonderful treasures – including some blissful stained glass – before you finally get funnelled through the inevitable ‘retail opportunities’ at the end of your tour. I defy you to buy nothing.
While you browse, you can ponder how Michelangelo would react to seeing The Creation reproduced as a fridge magnet. And yes, I did buy one.
A little basic information…
- The Vatican Museum is open from 0900-1800 Monday-Saturday. The ticket office closes at 1600.
- Admission for an adult in 2011 costs €15. Which is worth every penny. You’re strongly advised to buy tickets online, which, especially in summer, will save you endless queueing.
- The Museum’s closed on Sunday, except the last Sunday of each month when it’s open from 0900-1400. Last entry is at 1230 and admission is free.
- Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit.
- The Museum’s also occasionally closed at other times during the year – take a look at the Vatican Museum website for more information.
- The Museum has a refreshingly relaxed attitude to photography. No flash – but take pictures wherever you want. Except inside the Sistine Chapel.
- A tip. When you go, take a small pair of binoculars. You’ll be the instant envy of everyone else in the Sistine Chapel and you’ll see the ceiling it as Michelangelo saw it.