Art Divine: Touring the Treasures of the Vatican
by DB HILTON
The author visited Italy in April of 2000.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. —Michelangelo (1475–1564)
The end of this year will bring the worldwide Jubilee 2000 celebration to a smashing close. All over the world churches, basilicas, and cathedrals have been spruced up in anticipation of the throngs of crowds drawn to such events. Nowhere are the restoration efforts more apparent than in Vatican City — the physical and spiritual seat of Roman Catholicism.
An Artistic Haven
A collection of structures dating as early as 54 A.D., the smallest sovereign state in the world (less than 110 acres) was founded in 1929 when Italy recognized by treaty the right of the Holy See to full powers and exclusive rights over Vatican City and its contents. With a population of just over 900, including the Pontiff, John Paul II, and the 146 members of The Sacred College of Cardinals, Vatican City serves as the administrative center of the Catholic Church. It is also home to one of the world’s most extensive — and priceless — fine art collections.
Our four-day art tour of the Vatican centered primarily on the collection and features of St. Peter’s Basilica, though it would also take us to such hallowed sites as the Sistine Chapel, and through the Vatican Museums and Grottoes. Dazzled by the exquisite work of such legendary artists as Bernini, Raphael and Michelangelo, we experienced the artistic and spiritual magnetism of works that have inspired the world for centuries.
Adding to the drama and fun of the visit was our accommodation in one of the many convents and religious houses in Rome now using a portion of their properties as hotels for guests. If perky visions of Sally Fields in The Flying Nun or Whoopie Goldberg as Sr. Catherine in Sister Act in swirling black habits and starchy white collars come to mind, be assured that such characters really do exist, and they are running a small hotel at Domus Aurelia, the Ursuline convent in Rome — an easy 15-minute walk from Vatican City.
The sisters at Domus Aurelia were both attentive and friendly, and the prices were a bargain in a major city like Rome at $60 to $80 a night. Buzzing from outside to gain entrance to our accommodations, we would watch with amusement as a sister would alight from the sitting room, zip across the small lobby floor and hit the desk buzzer to let us in. “Buon giorno, Buon giorno!” was accompanied by lots of nodding and smiling, as our Italian was equal to their knowledge of the English language ... virtually nonexistent.
Bridging the Gap
Our language gap proved a minor hurdle, though it created some humorous situations. For instance, it took me two mornings to figure out that doppio cappuccino was not a double shot of espresso, but rather two single cups. The sisters smiled their approval when I finally asked for cappuccino doppio, as they must have thought me rather strange carrying two cups to my table each morning.
A scenic 15–minute walk from the convent brought us to the awe-inspiring St. Peter’s Basilica, a 614-foot-long, 459-foot- wide (at the transept) and 450-foot-tall (at its highest point) structure, originally dating back to 324 A.D. The “new” St. Peter’s (burial place to St. Peter, the first Pope) was begun during the early Renaissance period (16th century) after the original Constantinian basilica was demolished, its former grandeur reduced to mere ruins after repeated sackings, wars, and neglect.
Over the next 120 years, and through the reigns of several popes, St. Peter’s was erected using the talent of some of the most renowned Italian artists and architects, among them Donato Bramante, Raphael (Sanzio), Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, Michelangelo (Buonar-rotti), Carlo Maderno and (Gian Lorenzo) Bernini. The Basilica holds treasures to be seen and experienced by any lover of great art, and leaves visitors with the hope that great accomplishments are possible at any age, as artists Michelangelo and Bernini proved.
Building the Basilica
At first impression, the exterior of the Basilica has an administrative feel, which is due in part to its style. The word basilica is actually an architectural term, referring to the rectangular design used by ancient Romans for the buildings housing their legal proceedings. As early Christians increased in numbers, they moved from celebrating services within their homes to these readily available legal structures. Thus the word basilica was assimilated into the language to mean “church.”
The exterior design of the church has a long and varied history. Its original design was by Donato Bramante, appointed by Pope Julius II in 1506. It was Bramante who arranged for the demolition of the old Constan-tinian structure — a spectacular sight according to historians — and who originally planned for the Basilica to be designed in the shape of a Greek cross.
A Master’s Vision
Michelangelo, who took over in 1547 at age 72, then conceptualized much of the central portion of the church (as well as created The Pietà, most of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and even the Swiss Guards’ uniforms). His vision of the vaulted domed interior (representing the heavens) was completed 33 years later by Michelangelo’s pupil, Giacomo Della Porta.
Other important Vatican architects included Bernini, who, in addition to heavily influencing the interior (the Basilica’s Baldacchino, Cathedra of St. Peter), was also entrusted with the design of the piazza leading up to the Basilica in 1656.
Designed by Bernini, St. Peter’s Square is shaped like an immense ellipse (1050 feet long and 787 feet wide), welcoming visitors in the way it embraces you. 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters of travertine marble encompass the area in an oval design, though standing at the center of the square gave the impression that we were looking at a single row of columns.
Our entrance into the church through Vico Consorti’s bronze Holy Door with its depictions of Man’s sin and redemption was both a solemn and inviting taste of things to come. Once inside, we were struck by both the simplicity and grandeur of the interior. Permanent seating did not exist in the early churches, as it was the custom to stand for services (no dozing through sermons here). Thus the Basilica has the appearance of a great hall, and today, temporary seating is used only when masses are celebrated within the central interior.
The poetic sight of formal priestly attire (a common sight in Rome) also lends a romantic feel to the church, as you are frequently greeted with the sight of white cossocks and purplish robes sweeping across the complex marble floor pattern. Modern audio speakers are tastefully installed alongside the columns, carefully matched to the coloration of cream and gray travertine marble.
Yet there is enough gold gilding to reflect even the minimalist light within the interior. The bronze, twisted columns of Bernini’s Papal Altar, the Baldacchino, reflect light from the lead glass windows in the cupola above. And the only stained glass window — an orange, gold, red and bronze sunburst surrounding a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, high above Bernini’s Altar of the Chair of Peter in the apse of the church — screams for your attention with the slightest bit of light behind it. Bronze cherubs dance and play all around the glass, golden sunrays beam onto the Basilica’s walls, and everywhere light reflects off of the bronze clouds they rest on, drawing you to the serenity and innocence it all inspires.
Inspiration in Marble
Marble is also ever-present throughout St. Peter’s, and the marble art in the church is astounding. Michelangelo’s The Pietà embraced us on the right as we entered through the Holy Door. The sight of Mary tenderly cradling her son’s body after the crucifixion was simple and timelessly moving.
Also breathtaking, Arnolfo di Cambrio’s inspirational statue of St. Peter Enthroned has been sculpted from the blackest of marble, and has St. Peter ensconced in a gray travertine marble chair, all the while clutching the keys to the Holy City. The statue is so powerful that generations of pilgrims have worn the left foot by touching and kissing it for luck, blessings and devotion.
Bernini’s Monument to Alexander VII was created when the sculptor was 80, and its gold, cream, ochre and grayish green marble images, symbolic of time passing and the inevitability of death, catch you off guard. It is a massive structure set high above one of the doors towards the rear of the left transept. Remarkably the folds in the perfectly sculpted fabric by Bernini seem touchable and pliant, breathing life and emotion into a medium so hard to the touch. The figurines carved into the dense unforgiving marble seem to breathe as though their chests rise and fall in perfect natural rhythms to your own.
Some of the Basilica’s treasures are not so immediately evident. We enjoyed a visit to the Vatican Grottoes (the crypt), a series of spectacular chapels located directly below the main floor of St. Peter’s. Arrive by opening time and you may be able to enter many of them (masses are celebrated for small tour groups by visiting priests early in the A.M.). We were able to enter the Clementine Chapel above St. Peter’s tomb prior to closure. These are places most see only through the iron gates. The crypt also houses the sepelcrums of famous popes who helped shape Catholicism, such as John XXIII (1963) and Paul VI (1978).
The Roman Necropolis (the sub-crypt below the Vatican Grottoes housing some of the original 1st-century Constantian foundations) is also a must-see treasure of the Basilica, as it is a dynamic excavation in progress. For a glimpse of the laborious work involved in restoring marble edifices and ancient antiquities, this tour is essential. There is also a quiet wonder in viewing the graffiti wall and actual tomb of St. Peter. Excellent commentaries from the American College tour guides include interesting facts such as the early family customs of bringing picnic lunches to the crematorium burial sites below, and “sharing” food and wine through portals built into the burial slots.
Climbing the 362 steps of the Dome also offers an experience (and view) of Rome not to be missed. On a clear day you can see as far as the Alban Hills, and below, the city gently unveils its treasures at your feet, as street after street is laid out before you. At 450 feet high (from floor to ceiling) and three times the height of the Statue of Liberty, the Dome can be seen reaching to the heavens from almost any vista in Rome. Indeed, the grandeur of the Dome is best appreciated from a distance, as views from the close proximity of St. Peter’s Square — itself an immense façade of 376 feet wide and 149 feet high — distract you from its impressive size. Arrive by opening time to avoid crowds, and before the day’s heat sets in. This is heart attack city, so don’t plan on climbing if you are not in good shape.
Art for All Time
The Vatican Museums, an extensive collection of centuries of art and antiquities donated and bequeathed to the Vatican, is also a mandatory stop. If you love fine art, enter The Pinacoteca (the papal collection) after you finish the main tour. I recommend the self-guided green tour, as the four hours cover the major highlights. Purchase a good guidebook of the museums before you arrive (check out the Vatican bookstore to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica), as what the Vatican Museums sell are poorly designed.
Here is the disappointing part: The Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar walls are indeed beautiful, but the chapel is dim and crowded. Be prepared for the rowdiness of the crowd, even though silence is requested. The guards are constantly screaming “Silenzio!” and this is a great distraction. And come prepared with opera glasses or mirrors to be able to really appreciate the ceiling in this minimal lighting.
Now that the crowds will be gone from the official Jubilee year celebration, enjoying the newly restored facades and interiors of St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the magnificent artworks of the Vatican Museums, will be even more enjoyable. Vatican City has more than enough beauty and inspiration for any art lover.
For more information, contact:
Domus Aurelia (Suore Orsoline): The rooms are mostly twins with private bathrooms and small balconies. There are also modest suites available. All are welcome in this ’60s-style building, but guests should be respectful and leave their party hats be-hind! Tel: 011-39-06-636-784; Fax: 011-39-06-393-764-80; E-mail: email@example.com
To book reservations for the Roman Necropolis (sub-crypt) of St. Peter’s Basilica, allow at least six weeks advance notice, and offer several date choices, as tours are limited to groups of 12, about 10 times a week. Contact Ufficio Scavi, Fabbrica di San Pietro — Tel: 011-39-06-6988-5318; Fax: 011-39-06-6988-5518; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rome Tourist Board: Lots of great information for tourists (and they are English-speaking). Information Office — Tel: 011-39-06-488-99-255.
. . . Or Read:
Vatican, Edizioni Musei Vaticani (Ats Italia, $7.50): A very good overall guide to Vatican City and available in the Vatican bookstore.
. . . Or log on to these Websites:
www.vatican.va: The official Website of the Holy See (in several languages).
www.santasusanna.org: Inside information on the Vatican, visiting Rome and how to obtain tickets for papal audiences and masses.
www.bedandblessings.com: A guide to convents and monasteries throughout Italy offering lodging for visitors.
www.nerone.cc: The insider’s guide to Rome.
Photo: Linda Crean:::::::