Sunday, April 3, 2011

Buongiorno: The Vatican

In the morning The Inn At The Spanish Steps proved its worth: the breakfast room has a terrace looking out over picturesque Roman rooftops. There are red sun umbrellas, potted plants in bloom, the sun shining...was there a reason I had to go sightseeing? Why not stay right here?

Oh yes...I remember...Rome. There is all of Rome to see in just a few days. I walked to The Vatican along the narrow Via del Babuino lined with upmarket designer shops, deserving better than the narrow confined sidewalk (a metre wide, if that) and hemmed in by tiny Smart cars and Vespas. I paused at Chiesa All Saints because I had read about operas performed there concert-style, in costume. Indeed they have Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ on the current bill, but sadly not during the few days I am in Rome. *sad* The interior of the church – I peeked in – was about creaking floorboards, complete emptiness, and recorded plainsong echoing faintly. There is a church in every block in the centre of Rome. Sometimes two or three. I was to recall the attractive plain and empty interior of this one later in the day. (I was later told that this church is protestant – no self-respecting Catholic church would allow itself to be used for concerts.)

The Via del Babuino emptied into the broad and self-consciously grand Piazza del Popolo, where several more churches fronted the great cobble-stoned piazza, traffic was obliged to ‘go around’, crowds rested on the fountain base and I got my bearings for the next stage of the journey. This involved crossing the Tiber, getting rather lost in the precinct around the Vatican, but finally meeting my pre-arranged guide, whose name turned out to be Manuel (that’s a Spanish name, not Italian, as I’m sure you noticed; but Manuel was definitely Roman).

A fair bit of waiting about and queuing then went on while we got ourselves inside the Vatican Museum, and indeed inside the Vatican City itself, which is a self-contained city state, about 140 acres and 700 people, the smallest state in the world. (It even has its own gTLD: .va -  It has only been a state since 1929, declared as such for political advantage in uncertain times. Nevertheless, it has of course been the seat of considerable political power in times past. All this was to be revealed as we made our way through one of the largest, richest museums in the world. Actually, Manuel and I only had four hours, so we couldn’t possibly have covered every corner of this vast collection; but hit the highlights, we did.

The current entrance to the Vatican Museum is through a 21st century portico, commissioned in the time of Pope John-Paul II (he who is on the beatification list as we speak, and thus on many posters around town, especially this bit of town). The new entrance is handsome, and the entrance hall spacious. It was filled – I thought – with tourists, but Manuel said it was ‘practically empty’ compared to high season. (Memo: don’t visit here in high season).

A Muse - isn't she beautiful?
Our first stop was in a square grassed courtyard where the sun was shining...on a strange bronze monument which appeared to be...yes, it oversized pinecone. That would be why this is called The Pinecone Courtyard. The object in question is said to be from ancient Roman times, and was the first of many, many examples I was to see of objects from the ancient times which had been picked up, dusted off, and re-set in splendour within the museum of the popes. This is, I should point out, a ‘good thing’, since many of the treasure-troves of antiquity had lain mouldering through the long Dark Ages of the Goths and Vandals when the great Roman Empire ‘fell’ (I put that in inverted commas, because it was more of a gradually dying out). But - come the Renaissance! – lots of bits and pieces were found, appreciated, given a wash down and brush up, and put on show. And here they still are, in the Vatican Museum.

The pinecone, according to Manuel, signifies regeneration; it is flanked by two bronze peacocks (a vague nod to the Phoenix) and a couple of bronze lions. These are indeed treasures, dating from times BC. It is rare for anything bronze to have survived, because such items were very prone to be melted down, usually for armaments.

We entered then the Belvedere Palace, which houses some fine Roman statuary, modelled (like most Roman statuary) on Greek statuary. Here’s something to bear in mind as we walk around: the huge importance of Greek Classical times to Roman times, and thus to us. Because let’s not kid ourselves: Roman architecture and art has absolutely permeated so much of what we live with and look at today. Well, especially in Europe and America. Columns? Capitals? Facades? Statues of muscular naked people?  Roman, via Greece. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they seem to have been mightily impressed with what they took over. They even adopted their gods, giving them new names but otherwise not changing much. The Roman appreciation of Greek statuary was absolute: most Roman statues are copies of earlier Greek ones; which is a matter of good taste for which we have to thank the Romans. Then came the Renaissance (the Renaissance is mainly what the Vatican is about) – and Michelangelo painted and sculpted his magnificent human figures by closely studying the anatomy of...Greek statues.
The Laocoon

The Belvedere is a round palace used by various popes to house and entertain their guests (including Leonardo da Vinci on his one fairly brief visit to Rome: he was more of a Florentine/Milanese kind of guy). In the round courtyard there are two particularly well know Roman-after-Greek statues. One is an Apollo (catchily named the Apollo Belvedere), about which the guidebooks (and Manuel) wax lyrical, calling it one of the most beautiful statues ever made (I suggest a visit to the Archaeological Museum in Athens); and the other a very interesting figure called the LaocoƑn (1st century BC copy of an earlier statue) showing a Trojan priest trying to warn everyone about the Trojan horse, but being squashed by entwining serpents for his pains. (My guide book – the usually reliable Rough Guide – claims that this is “perhaps the most famous classical statue ever”). Both statues are splendid to see, but their particular importance is because Michelangelo and many other Renaissance masters also thought them splendid to see, and were heavily influenced by them.

The Belvedere Courtyard also includes some massive Roman baths – actual bathtubs, on a spa-party scale, made of pink granite. The reminded me of nothing so much as a mid-twentieth century bathroom reno job in Sydney. Inside the Belvedere, in a large rotunda modelled on the Pantheon and seeming only slightly smaller, was a particularly enormous, shallow bath in porphyry, the most precious of the marbles, which was the bath of the notorious Nero.

Nero's Bath
I pause here to consider Nero – I think we need to, distasteful though he apparently was, because he is rather pivotal in the history of the Roman emperors. In fact, the Colosseum was built in part to obliterate the sorry memory of Nero.  His full (imperial) name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus and he ruled from 54 to 68. He was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors, being descended from a family that included (through too many convolutions to explain here) from characters such as Caligula (a cousin), Claudius (his uncle) and Agrippina the Younger (his mother). Many of these have been accused of dastardly deeds, and so has Nero, in particular that of fiddling while Rome burned in a great fire in 64 (fires in the wooden-built plebeian areas of the city were probably common). History has been particularly hard on Nero, painting him very blackly even amongst a very black crew of emperors (and despite the fact that fiddles were not invented in his day). This may be partly because one of his worst crimes is said to have been matricide; or possibly because he was also known as an early and enthusiastic persecutor of Christians.

After the fire, he built a massive palace for his personal use called the Domus Aurea, fragments of which remain today (behind the Colosseum). The massive complex included palaces and pavilions, and a 30 metre high statue of himself, known as the Colosseum of Nero. Possibly the Colosseum itself gets its name from this, since the Domus Aurea was razed to build the Colosseum, which stands were Nero had a rather beautiful artificial lake. In his heyday, Nero liked to sing and play the lyre and write and recite poetry. He performed publically, which was rather unusual and might account for him being known for ‘fiddling’. Generally his reign was politically and militarily productive – he brokered a long-lasting peace deal with the Parthians, for example – but towards the end there was quite some trouble in the outlying reaches of the Empire. Remember that at its height, the Roman Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the British Isles, and from North Africa to northern Europe. There was some trouble over punitive taxes and bad memories of Nero’s cruelties, and a rebellion left him deserted by everyone. In 68 he killed himself with the mob at his door.

Looking UP
Galleria delle Carte Geografiche
But let’s return from this digression to the great porphyry bath in the Popes’ Belvedere, and look now at more of the Vatican Museum’s treasures.  Having regretfully to miss the Etruscan and Egyptian treasures, and the long halls of classical sculpture in the Braccio Nuovo and Museo Chiaramonti, Manuel and I descended to three long Renaissance galleries stuffed with treasures. In each of them the ceilings are rabid with dense decoration – paintings and gilding, stucco work and putti, trompe-l'oeil and colour. Now began the ‘cricked-neck’ syndrome that marked this day for me. Everywhere were treasures around, and even more sumptuous treasures above. The Galleria dei Candelabri is full of statuary (including, of course candelabra); the Galleria degli Arazzi is hung with a large and precious collection of Belgian tapestries; and - my personal favourite – the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche has walls painted with frescoed maps of Italy of the day. Interestingly, the maps of the south are what we would call upside down: the artists took Rome as the centre of the universe, and looked out from there northward and southward. I looked with interest at the upside-down maps of Naples and Sicily, my destinations in the next few weeks; each showing little painted volcanoes merrily erupting smoke.

Don't you agree?
The Vatican is of course, and has always been, the home of the popes. There have been 266 popes, from St Peter to Benedict XVI. Benedict, the incumbent, naturally lives here today, and Manuel pointed out to me the green-shuttered window of his office on the top floor of a newer building at which he appears briefly on Wednesdays to fling a benediction to the crowd below gathered in St Peter’s piazza. He also gives a small mass or blessing ceremony on Sundays, from a shaded temporary platform set up in the piazza, fronted by thousands of plastic chairs for the faithful. I’m told that the outdoor set-up is in place from March through the summer; in winter the ceremony takes place in an indoor space somewhere nearby. This is a tiny gripe, and of course the place is a working church, but I must say that the sea of weathered grey plastic chairs rather detracts from the magnificent proportions of Bernini’s wonderful piazza. Perhaps packing them away after the Sunday business would provide employment for some of the poor North Africans who have sought (and continue, as we speak) to seek refuge in Italy. Just a suggestion. It would save them selling cheap bracelets in the vicinity, perhaps.

The Raphael Rooms: a small example
But to return to popes past: I invite you now to consider Pope Julius II, pope from 1503 to 1513, at the height of the Renaissance flowering. On a tour of the Vatican Museum you can visit four rooms which were occupied by Julius II, as living rooms and state rooms. One was his library. The distinction of these rooms is that Julius had them decorated by Raphael, and if you thought your neck was cricked already, wait until you have given these rooms the attention they command. If the riot of colour and decoration is not enough, try considering each of the paintings covering the walls and ceilings, because each is a masterpiece in itself. Raphael died in 1520 (and is now entombed in a sepulchre in The Parthenon) before the rooms were finished, but his pupils completed them. They are all frescoes – painted on fresh plaster so that the paint soaks right in.

Wonders underfoot, too
I should also warn you not to forget to look down from time to time (as indeed you will want to do to ease your aching neck muscles), because many of the floors throughout the Vatican Museum are exquisite examples of Roman mosaics, found elsewhere and transplanted into the Renaissance buildings. This has allowed them to be preserved in a glorious state – I am used to seeing sad little fragments of Roman mosaics carefully cordoned off; here they are complete, strong, vivid and walked all over, as they were originally meant to be.

Pope Julius II is remembered rather fondly, partly because he succeeded Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia of ill repute. The Borgia apartments may be viewed below those of Julius, and today house contemporary art works from the Vatican collection – yes, they’re still collecting. The best pieces amongst this not very impressive lot are by Dali, Chagall, Bacon. Julius II was a great patron of the arts, and not only did he have Raphael paint his rooms, he also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508, for which act alone his name should be remembered.

The Sistine Chapel is an exciting place to visit for a number of reasons, but for me the chief amongst them is to view ‘The Creation of Adam’, which forms the centrepiece of the several scenes from the story of creation which fill the ceiling. If my neck and back were not already overdue for the chiropractor, the Sistine made sure they were. One could be crippled for life, viewing the Vatican. The official rule in the Sistine Chapel is ‘no photographs’. Manuel told me that this was “for copyright reasons” (always interesting). He told me that a Japanese company had paid for some or all of the restoration work and in return had been granted exclusive rights of reproduction (good luck with that). On the day I visited, the guardians were not stopping the happy snappers from clicking away at the spectacle around them

'The Creation of Adam'
The ceiling – so famous, everyone must have heard of it – was restored in the 1990s. I recall seeing it when I visited in 1993; but I also recall that the end wall of the Chapel was shrouded in scaffolding and plastic. On this visit, Michelangelo’s other contribution to the Chapel, ‘The Last Judgement’, painted about 20 years after the ceiling, was revealed. And what an Hieronymus Bosch ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ sort of thing it is. The vivid bright skyblue background leaps out – surely Michelangelo painted it in a little more subdued tones? (there’s some commentary that says the restorers overdid it). The writhing figures of those descending into Hell are on the right; and the only slightly less gory figures rising from their graves, shedding skeletons as they arise to Heaven, are on the left. In the middle stand figures holding the books with the names of those for left and those for right. The book of those who are to go down is three times the size of that for those who are to go up.

'The Last Judgement'
And here’s a fascinating story about the massive fresco: Michelangelo painted it with figures in all their naked glory. Hardly anyone except God himself and a couple of angels had any clothes on. It only  took three months for the work to be censored. Yes, the pope of the day (Pope Paul III) had to get in another artist (forever anonymous, I think) to paint little pieces of cloth and strategically placed bits to cover everyone’s, er, bits. We know about this because while the masterpiece was still as the mater intended, other lesser artists came in and made copies. At least one of these is still extant – I saw it later in the Palacio Farnese – and shows in smaller scale all the writhing figures looking even more wretched in their nakedness.

Before Manuel and I plunged into the Sistine Chapel, we paused for a coffee and a rest (both sorely needed) and explanations. Often, talking in the Chapel is discouraged, so a good guide explains it all before you enter. Today, the slap-dash guardians we luckily encountered weren’t enforcing this rule either. Nevertheless, Manuel was a mine of information and he had pictures, including one of ‘The Last Judgement’ in its original state.  He also told me about the use of the Sistine Chapel when it is not full of tourists. It is actually the Pope’s private chapel; on the walls are hooks where some of the great tapestries can be hung when it is in use (perhaps it is dank and cold in the winter). When a pope dies, all the catholic cardinals (there are 120 odd of them) gather to elect a new pope from amongst themselves. In they all file to the Sistine Chapel, where extra wooden benches are put up for them. All the furniture has to be brought in when the Chapel is used; otherwise it is kept clear to stuff in as many tourists as possible (which is nice of them). It can take days or weeks, or longer, for the conclave of cardinals to finish their voting. At the end of each day, they send up a smoke signal to the waiting faithful watching from St Peter’s piazza, to indicate whether a decision has been reached: black smoke means no; white smoke means yes. There are some interesting rules and rituals about this procedure, including that cardinals over 80 years old are no longer allowed a vote. Generally, a two-thirds majority is needed for a new pope. Everyone involved is sworn to secrecy about the proceedings, on pain of excommunication (a real career-downer that would be); and special precautions have been taken to prevent bugging of the Sistine Chapel. During the deliberations, all these cardinals, who fly in from around the world, are housed in the Vatican City in hotel-style accommodation.

Despite the length of this post, I haven't even taken you into St Peter's Basilica yet...I warned you that the Vatican was an overwhelming place.

Raphael's 'The School of Athens' - my favourite
Another whole post needed for this alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment