As a kid, my mother thought I might benefit from some religion and, since the only one she was familiar with was Catholicism, that’s where I’d start. Her approach? One, outsource the whole thing to St. Patrick’s Church. Two, make sure I had a dollar for the basket at Sunday morning mass.
It was our ‘buck for the basket’ ritual every Sunday morning. Around 10:30 I’d jostle her awake. “…get my pocketbook…” she’d mumble from the hangover-friendly comfort of her bed. I’d hand it to her from the bureau and watch as she fished a buck out of it before falling back asleep.
Around the age of twelve, it came time for confirmation — what I used to think of as the Catholic version of Bar Mitzvah — and I was ambivalent about the whole business. I told my mother it didn’t feel right making a life-long commitment to something one had his doubts about. To her everlasting credit, and the fact that she wasn’t much of a church-goer herself, she respected my decision.
Fast forward many years later (…we’ll skip just how many…) and I found myself wandering about the Vatican to see how all those dollar bills I’d tossed in the collection basket had been spent. And, I’m happy to report, they’ve been spent very very well! I’d almost be so bold as to say the Catholic church might likely be the world’s greatest collector of art.
Now, I know this subject is as touchy as a pocketful of nitroglycerin, so I’ll leave the critical debate about the ethics of the Church as art collector to others. But the truth is, after visiting the Vatican Museums I was grateful that this priceless treasure trove of art and antiquities has been preserved through the centuries for future generations to wonder at. As empires came and went and revolution, war and social upheaval rewrote the map of Europe countless times, the Church not only shepherded its flock, it also shepherded away some of western civilization’s greatest art. There’s something to be said for that, no matter what one may think of the Catholic Church.
It’s impossible to see everything in the Vatican Museum in one day. You could visit every day for a month and probably not see everything. It’s that vast. There are twenty-six individual museums that comprise the Vatican Museum, not counting St. Peter’s Basilica. So, where to start?
My advice is to go with a guided tour. Two reasons: First, you get to skip the lines, which, on the day I was there, snaked around St. Peter’s Square. Second, they take you through what’s generally considered the best of Vatican Museum. The only downside is they tend to move people through quickly. Third, the guide can explain things and answer questions.
Most tours start with what’s called the ‘New Wing’ which is part of the Chiaramonti Museum. Here you can stand face to face with the First Century, AD, statue of Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and, later, first emperor of what would become the Roman Empire, which replaced the Roman Republic, after Julius Caesar’s assassination in the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BCE.
Walking through the rest of the Chiaramonti Museum is like walking through two-thousand years of Western Civilization. A long loggia is lined with busts and statues of Roman emperors and other notable citizens. This was followed by the ‘Octagonal Court’ housing one of the most famous sculptures anywhere, the ‘Belvedere Torso’ dating from the First Century BC. This sculpture inspired artists through the centuries, particularly Michelangelo and Raphael.
Next, we shuffled into the Pio Clementino Museum and the ‘Round Hall’ — a great place to sit a moment if you can. The floor here is composed of Roman mosaics from the Third Century, AD, while niches in the walls feature statues such as the 2000-year-old gilded bronze ‘Heracles’.
Map Room, Vatican Museum
At the Hall’s center, sits a red porphyry basin almost forty feet in circumference, that once adorned a public space in ancient Rome. Staring at this massive basin sculpted and polished by hand I thought, this is what people can accomplish when there’s no TV to distract them!
As I mentioned earlier, there’s not a lot of time on a guided tour to sit and soak up the history before you’re shuffled along. On this particular tour, that was fine because I was eager for the grand finale: the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica which I’ll talk about in the next post.