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Falls Church, Virginia
December 11, 2003
The Vatican Museums
We woke up to a sunny and clear day despite the foreboding forecasts of rain, which is
not at all uncommon in late November. After some light breakfast in the hotel lobby, we
walked over to the Manzoni stop to make our way over to the Vatican Museums via the Metro.
Note that if you are going to the Vatican Museums before going to St. Peter's, be sure to
exit the Metro at Cipro Musei-Vaticani instead of at the Ottaviano San Pietro stop. Also,
it is very strictly enforced that all visitors to the Vatican wear appropriate clothing
(no shorts, short skirts, tank tops, etc.), so bear that in mind when setting out for the
day, and when packing, if you're the type to throw a pair of shorts and a toothbrush in a
bag and jump on a plane.
As another aside, you shouldn't be at all surprised if the subway trains come to a stop
at a station and the conductor comes along to let everyone know they'll have to find a bus
or a taxi instead - breakdowns in the system aren't uncommon, as we found out a few days
later when returning to the Vatican to take a trip up to the dome. The train came to a
stop at a station and none of the doors opened. After about 30 seconds, there was a
collective sigh of resignation and the riders nearest the doors just reached up and pulled
the emergency handle to open the doors. After several quips from the peanut gallery about
the marvels of Italian efficiency and organization, we were tromping up the stairs of the
station exit with about 200 other people to find ourselves competing with the 200 other
people for taxis. We let out our own collective sigh and just walked a few kilometers,
shopping along the way, before we were able to flag down an absurdly small taxi to take us
the rest of the way across town to St. Peter's.
We arrived at Cipro station and walked about 300 meters to the entrance of the Vatican
Museums to pleasantly find that even though there was quite a line to get in the building,
this was only because everyone was awaiting the official opening time. Once the doors were
opened and the line filed in, we were able to make our way through the museums at leisure
and never once had to deal with crowds. This was probably thanks to a combination of
visiting in the off-season and arriving first thing in the morning before the major crowds
of tour groups arrive. You'll have to go through some metal detectors and put your bag
through an x-ray machine, but the guards really didn't seem overly thorough - maybe the
alarm that nearly everyone walking through set off was just to signal that there was no
problem, or maybe they were simply relying on prayer. In any event, I wouldn't expect much
of a hassle. Once through security, if you're getting there first thing in the morning,
you'll find yourself waiting in a pack of bleating humanity for the velvet ropes to come
down so that everyone can rush up the stairs to wait in line for tickets (only individuals
- group sales are conducted down in the aforementioned bleating humanity area after you
clear the ineffectual, though perhaps pious, security screening). Student tickets are sold
at the booth to the far right. Once through this final hurdle, you proceed up an escalator
to find that it isn't really as crowded as it first seemed and you'll be able to wander
around without that sensation of an elderly Japanese woman's elbow in your ribs that
reminds you that you're on vacation. Keep in mind that this was our experience on an
off-season morning - by midday when we were retracing our steps through the entirety of
the museum, having missed the exit from the Sistine Chapel that we really should have
taken (see below), I did in fact get a chance to catch a few elbows in my ribs as
thank-yous for trying to duck and dodge my way out of the sight-lines of other tourists'
You should keep in mind that since you are going to be spending most of your time in
the Vatican Museums with your neck craned skywards, it wouldn't be a bad idea to treat
your neck to some stretching in the morning. Or, for that matter, to bring along someone on
the trip that isn't averse to giving neck rubs at the end of the day like I did. (I highly
recommend the latter of the two options.) Also, you might want to tote a small monocular or
set of binoculars along so that you can enjoy the distant detail on the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel. However, I forgot my pocket monocular at the hotel and enjoyed it
completely nonetheless. Absolutely vital would be bringing your own guidebook and map of
the museums, as they have none to give out at the ticket counters or the information
booths that are in the bleating-humanity area after security. Throughout the museums they
have small shops that sell guides and the like if you happen to leave yours behind.
Our self-guided tour of the museum took us first to the Gallery of Maps, then to the
Rafael Stanze, and finally to the Sistine Chapel. Since we only had a few days in Rome and
could glimpse what we feared could be our only day of sunny, warm weather through the
windows, we only hit the highlights in the museum, where, if you had the time, you could
literally spend days on end. The great thing about the path of our tour was that with each
step, the artwork and environment continued to increase in terms of sheer magnificence. I
won't go into the details of the specific pieces of art in the museums here - the
guidebook you'll probably be carrying will do them more justice, but what follows are my
general impressions on the different parts of the museums.
The Gallery of Maps is a very long hallway covered with large maps from periods in
Vatican history. Depicting scenes and events from the maps directly below each respective
piece, the ceiling paintings that run the length of the hall are the real artistic treat
of the gallery - so don't forget to look up. While the maps themselves are not per say
incredibly impressive artistically, one can't help but be taken in by the hall's overall
grandeur. There is a feeling of closeness and immediacy to the gallery and the art therein
that both the Rafael Stanze and the Sistine Chapel lack to some extent because, impressive
and beautiful as they are, one can't help but feel somewhat more detached just from the
greater physical distance from the artwork alone.
Proceeding out of the Gallery of Maps, you are taken into the beginnings of the Rafael
Stanze and then onward to the Sistine Chapel. As gorgeous as the massive works of the
Rafael Stanze are, they only get more beautiful the further you go. For utter beauty and
vibrancy, I have to say that much prefer the Rafael Stanze to the Sistine Chapel, which I
found hard to completely take in because of the lighting and distance from the work. Not
to say that I didn't love the latter - I was overwhelmed by its grandeur and magnificence -
but the two are fundamentally different. The Rafael Stanze lets you consider and take in
the beauty of each piece in each room, whereas the Sistine Chapel completely envelops you.
A very important hint for fellow travelers -- If you are planning on going to St.
Peter's Square and Basilica after leaving the Sistine Chapel, you should use the small door
on the right instead of the main one on the left as you walk toward the back of the
chapel. It says that it is for tour groups only, but in reality anyone can use it (the
guards, if they are even there, won't question you), and it will save you from either
having to walk back through the entirety of the museum you just came through or exiting
the museum and walking around the outer walls of Vatican City to enter St. Peter's Square
from the front. They strictly enforce the rule of no photography of any kind being allowed
in the chapel, and talking is forbidden as well (though, as you'll observe from the din in
the chapel, this rule is hardly enforced).
I loved the Vatican Museums - every single moment of them - and only wish that I had
days and weeks on end to enjoy and explore them in their entirety.
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Towards the beginning of the tour on the lower level is an inner courtyard that can't be missed. A good way to find this place is to follow one of the large tour groups that's entering when you do. From what I detected, every group stopped here first as the inner courtyard walls are lined with maps, details and other added information for spending your day within the Vatican Museum. Possibly you, too might find this helpful or link-up with a group and tour guide speaking your language to catch all the extra trivia details they're always so well versed on.
Amid the maps and information, the walls are also lined with benches perfect for resting tired feet and fuzzy minds...hopefully while soaking up the warm Italian spring sun as I did. Whether sitting or ambling around, the views are impressive as works of art fill the exterior...second only to the interior! Most notable are the humongous pine cone, which used to be part of a fountain at St. Peter's, flanked by two bronze peacocks which were pirated away from the Mausoleum of Augustus. Throughout this journal, I've also referenced how ego contributed to the building AND downfall of Rome, but here you'll find the biggest head of all...literally! The colossus of Octavia, mounted against a wall, towers above the meager spectators below.
Another lesser resting place, but just as doable if needed, is an outdoor terrace just of the Pinacoteca Wing which is also near the small eatery and restrooms within the Museum. Here there are benches and shade trees while you can enjoy limited elevated viewing of the expansive Vatican Gardens and back part of St. Peter's.
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Begin your visit by arriving before or shortly after the doors open at 8:45am, every day except Sunday. (Be prepared to wait in line outside for up to an hour. The line, though long, moves quickly.) Pay your entrance fee of 6 euros and head inside.
Many guidebooks contain excellent walking tours of the museum's many rooms. If yours is somewhat lacking, buy the audio tour in your language of choice. We used Rick Steve's Rome, which was informative and helpful.
The highlight of the museum is the many works of Renaissance art by masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and da Vinci. Don't miss the Raphael rooms, with the magnificent School of Athens, a sort of "Where's Waldo" of Renaissance Italy.
Plan at least 30 minutes for the world-famous Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo's masterwork is breathtaking and stunning, far more than can ever be conveyed in a book or on a slide.
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Elsewhere, bring high-speed film to photograph the works of art without a flash.
Don't miss the Laocoon and Bernini's David for excellent sculpture.
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