"When I indulge in self-reflection, as I like to do occasionally, I discover in myself a feeling which gives me great joy. Let me put it like this. In this place, whoever looks seriously about him and has eyes to see is bound to become a stronger character: he acquires a sense of strength hitherto unknown to him. His soul receives the seal of a soundness, a seriousness without pedantry, and a joyous composure. At least, I can say that I have never been so sensitive to the things of this world as I am here. The blessed consequences will, I believe, affect my whole future life. So let me seize things one by one as they come; they will sort themselves out later. I am not here simply to have a good time but to devote myself to the noble objects about me, to educate myself before I reach forty."
-- from Travels In Italy by Goethe
This brief passage on Rome was among the many reading materials and handouts given to us at the beginning of our stay here; as if to emphasize its value, it was printed in large type and took up an entire page of its own. And now I'm getting it. We woke early on Tuesday, October 28 to converge on the Vatican as a group, complete with explicit directions and maps to enable us to beeline straight to the Sistine Chapel before it became inundated with the typical daily overflow crowd. Now as I walk with my rommate Beau shortly after dawn and meet up with others on the Lungotevere Gianicolense (one of the many names for the winding streets which run along each bank of the Tiber river), I am completely open to the full-on Total Immersion Schooling method which Rome and Italy demand. Let me seize things one by one as they come; they will sort themselves out later. Indeed!
A quick glance at the newspaper stands this Tuesday morning shows that this would in fact be the ideal place for us, as opposed to anywhere, say, in Seattle or the United States.
"LUNEDÍ NERO A WALL STREET" screamed the Italian headlines, above a picture showing a stock trader screaming something of his own during what appeared to have been a very bad Monday indeed for the New York Stock Exchange, far from our world of Michelangelo and Italiaidea and group critiques. Even though I still wasn't able to read most of the stories inside, the newshound in me grabbed a copy of the paper out of habit, and for possible incorporation into future schoolwork.
Walking along Via di Porta Angelica, as I often have done while heading this way to Hackers for email or just to investigate neighborhood sights, one cannot avoid the street market which has built up over the years to cater to the flood of tourists washing over this neighborhood. Tabletop vendors sell t-shirts with various images of Vatican masterpieces -- mostly you see the fingertips of Adam and God almost touching -- for £It. 5000 (5000 Italian Lire, about three dollars) each. Other vendors, and in many cases the same vendors, sell plastic crucifixes, rosaries, and nearly anything else for which they think someone might pay good money to own. For your added convenience, a string of exchange offices line the nearby storefronts so that you'll have plenty of spending cash (not that you'll get a good exchange rate...). But at least this free-marketeers dream takes up only one side of the street. The other side consists of a tall fortress wall which surrounds the entirety of Vatican City and tilts slightly away from the street, a remnant of the days when the Vatican found the need to repel invaders as efficiently as Rome or any other empire. Today, the Vatican welcomes the daily invasion and offers a reasonable entry fee for those wishing to take part.
We gladly paid our entry fee and, following the Sistine-oriented instructions given to us earlier, went up the beautiful spiral staircase (pausing briefly near the top to look down and admire its intricate structure and detail); walked briskly down a single long hallway, larger than many entire museums I've been in, every wall covered in intricate tapestries depicting scenes throughout the history of the life of Christ, the Papal States, and indeed the World itself; along another hallway, equally as large, devoted to nothing but maps of the Old World;
...and into the Sistine Chapel (no cameras allowed, thankyewverymuch).
Which I'm hoping you don't need for me to describe in great detail, seeing as how its freshly-restored color and depth left me as short of adjectives as I've ever been in my life. I will, however, take advantage of this opportunity for a Very Special Episode of...
Let me say first of all, that all the pictures you have and ever will see of the Sistine ceiling cannot adequately prepare you for the fact that it seems to be only about 50 feet above your head when you first see it in person.
Owing to its masterful and intricate decorations which cover every available space from floor to ceiling and more, the room also has a deceptively malleable sense of size and space. We made the right choice by coming here first as early as we could. Even with the small number of people in the room with us, it seems very nearly as full as a room can be and still be confortable enough to move around and enjoy everything there is to see. I can't imagine how this room could be as equally stunning at the height of the tourist season in mid-summer.
Let it also be known (and we did know this beforehand, so that we wouldn't be caught by surprise) that the Vatican's "one-way" traffic control system inside the Vatican Museums means that, should you leave the Sistine to venture on to other rooms, you will have one heck of a long walk trying to find your way back in. So soak up as much of it as you can the first chance you get, before leaving to visit other rooms.
The restoration of Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes and "Last Judgment" has been completed, but the cleaning job continues on the works which fill the walls on each side of the chapel, depicting events in the lives of Moses and Jesus. The Last Judgment features a scandalously nude and beardless Jesus heaping eternal scorn upon the unfaithful, and even St. Peter, keeper of the keys of the church whose ground we stand upon, is seen naked and begging for mercy. Well, they were naked, until Pope Paul IV in the 1550's decided that it just Wasn't Decent and commissioned Daniele da Volterra to partially cover the bodies, earning Volterra the nickname "Il Bragghetone," or "the pants-maker."
We had entered from directly beneath The Last Judgment, although it had been painted above what was originally the exit door so that it would be the final image seen by anyone leaving the chapel, a reminder of what was in store for them if they didn't observe the lessons taught while they were there. And there we all stood, our necks craning sideways and upward (the Vatican frowns on visitors lying down on the floor to get a good view up), trying to absorb in minutes or hours what had taken years to create and could take as long to fully understand and describe.