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  • Day220

    Citta del Vaticano

    July 6, 2016 in Vatican City ⋅ 🌙 75 °F

    While we've been in Rome, we've been staying just a few minutes' walk from Vatican City. This means we cross international borders almost everyday on our way to sight-seeing. The past two days we finally spent some time in this vastly foreign country (spoiler alert: it's not that different from Rome, and there are no border control or permanent barriers around much of the city). Yesterday we spent at least three hours in St. Peter's Basilica, an extremely ornate and beautiful place of worship and piece of art. We had downloaded an audio guide from Rick Steves on the internet ahead of time so, with headphones, it was like we had our own private tour. Rick's audio tour gave extensive background on St. Peter's Square and the Basilica, including pointing out historical, architectural, and artistic points of interest throughout. We only wish we had found his free guides earlier in our trip because he has many for all over Europe - we've already downloaded a few for the next couple countries. Anyway, some of the highlights were as follows: Bernini's stunning architecture based on Michaelangelo's original design, Pope John XXIII's very well-preserved remains (his was a popular area for pilgrims paying homage), Michaelangelo's Pieta - his first commissioned work for the church, the original crucifixion and burial sites of St. Peter, and the way the natural lighting comes through the windows and skylights to create a heavenly space. You don't have to be a practicing Catholic to appreciate the history and the artistic significance of this place.

    Today we spent six hours exploring the Vatican Museum. The extent of the collection and the history housed there is astonishing. If you ever go, we definitely recommend getting advance tickets for an earlier entry; the lines are long, there are several days worth of things to see, and there are fairly reasonable cafeteria options within the museum when you need a lunch or coffee break. We didn't get to at least two of the galleries we wanted to see, which is a shame, but we still saw so much! The other thing is that the crowds were out of control; most rooms with significant pieces were filled wall to wall with people and tour groups. We elected to share the usage of a rented audio guide (Rick Steves doesn't do one for the whole museum) instead of going with a guided tour, and we were both happy with the freedom that allowed. We both really like museums though, so no hate to the tour guides that just hit the highlights! However, for the positives (and it was mostly positive, trust us!).... We saw the Sistine Chapel!!! It was amazing! Rick Steves has a 30 minute tour of the room that was excellent. (I promise this is not a Rick Steves advertisement, just want to give credit to him and help other travelers find this free resource.) The creation of the Sistine Chapel is extremely interesting. Michaelangelo changed his plan halfway through, so the figures at one end of the ceiling are of a different size than at the other end. To create a fresco involves a painstaking process of quick action painting before the freshly spread plaster dries. Imagine this 40 meters up with your head craned up (he didn't lay flat on the scaffolding as is often portrayed but stood the whole time), working on small portions each day. For years. It's an amazing feat in itself. Not to mention how beautiful the artwork is - Michaelangelo was seriously skilled! You have likely seen pictures of one part of the fresco (where God reaches out to Adam to give him life); just think about how quickly he had to do that, how perfectly it had to be painted, and the pressure of having to start the entire section over if there were any mistakes. It is really amazing to think about and to see in person. There were also several rooms of original frescoes by Raphael which were equally beautiful and astounding. We've now seen a lot of pieces by three of the four ninja turtles (Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo....We're still looking for more of your work, Donatello!). We also can't let this post pass without mentioning Raphael's Transfiguration, Raphael's School of Athens, the statue Laocoon and his Sons, the contemporary wing which includes work by Dali and Matisse, and that nearly every room was decorated floor to ceiling (inclusive) with frescoes and mosaics. We could go on, really, it was that amazing.

    As the conscientious and justice-focused people we are, the one-sided portrayal of the church wore thin on at least one of us after two days of religious art and artifacts. There is a lot of goodness created by the church throughout history, but, as one would expect, the darker sides of the history were completely ignored from what we could see. This is not unusual for any entity to portray themselves in the best light, we just wanted to acknowledge this cognitive dissonance. It can be hard at times to hold the Christian ideal of service to others at the expense of one's own possessions, while also seeing the extravagant statues and homages to many of the popes, primarily funded by their own fortunes. Again, no one blog post can cover all the factors at play here, but we do want to recognize the multifaceted impact the church has had, and continues to have, for many persecuted groups. (Not to gloss over the fact that the early members of the church were persecuted for their faith in the past, as well.)
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