Sunday, July 3, 2011

Entry 103 6.30.11

Entry 103, June 30th, 2011, 10:48pm (ship time GMT +2)

Today was a day that I've been looking forward to on the itinerary for a while – the day that I set aside to visit the Sistine Chapel.

Awake at 7am, off the ship as soon as they opened the gangway to crew. Sprinted to catch the train – we had a sound check at 6pm and I had a feeling that I would need all the time I could get. It was good that I did this, as you will see later on.

When you visit the Sistine Chapel, you're really visiting the Vatican Museums. The chapel is the masterpiece of their collection, of course, but over the past thousand-odd years the church has accumulated a vast collection of artwork, statues, and other assorted bits and pieces. Don't bother trying to get there early to beat the rush – you won't, unless you're staying across the street and wake up at 5am to get in queue. I arrived at 10am and already the line was stretched down three streets' worth of sidewalk. It was going to be more than two hours' wait, standing in the hot Italian sun the entire time.

I struck up a conversation with two nice Irish guys ahead of me as we waited it out. There were a wide array of street vendors and hawkers preying on the herd of tourists. The big business was selling guided tours of the museum, where a company has already bought a block of tickets for a certain time, allowing anyone who buys in to skip the line. They're probably legit (or most of them are, at least), but not for me at thirty five euros a person! That's more than fifty dollars each, and you'd still have to pay admission. No, I decided to stick it out.

If you ever do go to the museum, go later in the day. There was no line when I left at 4pm, although it may close at 5:30 so maybe that's not much help.

I did finally get into the museum at around noon. Already my plans to return to the restaurant of the perfect pesto were looking more and more improbable, and I was glad that I hadn't made plans to meet anyone there. Admission (eight euros) and an audioguide rental (seven more euros) set me back a bit, but I'd been budgeting for this and it was not unexpected. It really wasn't very much, considering that I was visiting one of the most famous examples of human artwork in history.

The museum began with a collection of Greek and Roman statues. After crossing a grassy plaza, I found myself in a long gallery packed with more ancient marble than I'd ever seen. Statues, busts, tombs, headstones, anything with a carved representation of the human form – they filled the gallery, organized into groups of smaller pieces divided by the larger statues. Many were damaged, a few repaired (as was the fashion several hundred years ago), and some had clearly been rescued from gardens and fountains. There were hundreds of them, the gallery was longer than a football field.

And that was just the beginning. Soon I found myself in other galleries designed by other popes, also filled with Greek sculpture and Roman copies. I got a few pictures of the more famous pieces – the Trojan priest and his two sons being devoured by sea serpents, a particularly famous nude of Achilles, a massive bronze and gilt statue of Hercules that had been struck by lightning, and the torso of Ajax contemplating suicide. I spent at least an hour working my way through these rooms, packed in the mass of people so tightly I could barely move.

There were a pair of fascinating side galleries as well, one of Egyptian and Mesopotamian art and the other of Etruscan and ancient Greek. These areas I sped through (although I did see an actual mummified human being), already beginning to run short on time, but there was easily as much material there as there was in the main galleries. The Etruscan one in particular was totally deserted, as it wasn't on the main track towards the Sistine Chapel. It's too bad, as the Roman considered the Etruscans their superiors in many areas, such as pottery and hydraulic engineering. Each of these areas could have been a museum by themselves.

From here we were led into a covered gallery that stretched for hundreds of yards from the outer Vatican buildings to the inner ones. As it is the middle of summer, all of the shutters were thrown open and fragrant breezes from the palms of the papal gardens were constantly wafting through and enticing us. Here I found a series of huge tapestries (two stories tall, and even wider than that) made by hand in the 16th century detailing different scenes of biblical history, followed by a series of similarly large frescoes (more than twenty in number) mapping the Italian peninsula and its various districts. This was followed by more statues . . . I could've spent more than an hour here as well, but again time was becoming a consideration.

From here, the herd was routed through two different popes' series of chambers, all decorated with massive frescoes by a young Raphael. The most memorable of these, of course, is the school of Athens, which surprised me from behind in one of the last chambers. The area was so packed that it was difficult to get a good picture, but for me I was just amazed to see the real thing “in the flesh,” so to speak. It would have covered an entire outside wall of the house I grew up in . . . but I did get a good picture of Raphael's self portrait, snuck in amongst the various historical and mythological figures on the steps. Cheeky bugger, he's breaking the frame and looking directly at the viewer.

Again, I could have lagged here for quite some time (that much work by Raphael, all in one place!) but I was swept along with the herd. People were getting a bit upset that they had to walk through all this “garbage” to get to the chapel . . . art is supposed to evoke emotional reactions, I suppose, but I doubt that this is quite what the painters of the High Renaissance had in mind . . .

Next, we were routed deep into a labyrinth of rooms below ground were another museum's worth of art was collected. This was all modern art, commissioned by Pope John Paul in the 70's as an effort to heal the schism that had developed between Christianity and the modern artistic community. It was an interesting idea, actually – he met personally with several dozen of the top artists of the day in the Sistine Chapel and asked them to create art on the theme of sin and redemption, saying that anything would be accepted regardless of the traditional limitations that Christianity had place on art. There were a lot of strange and excellent pieces there, but most of the galleries were blocked off. I discovered that this is the Vatican's method of crowd-control in the Sistine Chapel: they open up or close off other sections of the museum in order to increase or decrease the length of time that it takes to get there.

At this point I had been standing in line for two hours and then wandering through the museum for another three, and so emerging into the chapel proper was something of a relief. There are no pictures allowed in the chapel, so you won't be seeing any of those, but the virtual tour on the Vatican website is an excellent substitute. Also, it is filled with security guards yelling “no photo!” and “silencio!” (this second one seems a little counter-effective) as well as crying babies, tired grumpy British people, and oblivious tourists wandering around smacking into each other as all their heads are looking upwards. Itwas packed when I got there; I was lucky to find a spot to stand.

How do I describe the chapel itself? Well, there are its physical dimensions – about the size of my middle school gymnasium (it was supposedly built to the same size as Solomon's crypt). Twelve tall windows provide lighting, while the floor is divided into two different sections by a bit of tall grating. The ceiling is vaulted, and the walls generally plain and flat to serve as a canvas for Michelangelo's frescoes. On the side walls are scenes from the stories of Moses and Jesus (predating Michelangelo's involvement with the project), while one of the end walls shows the last judgment (somewhat jarringly, as Michelangelo was instructed to cover a few of the Moses/Jesus scenes that were already there to paint it). The ceiling contains the book of genesis and portraits of different prophets that foretold the salvation of man. In the center of the ceiling, of course, is the famous scene of Adam reaching out to God, their fingers nearly touching.

But that doesn't really describe it at all. In fact, I'm not sure that I can describe it – perhaps the best I can do is detail a few examples of Michelangelo's genius.

The people, first of all. Their flesh rolls in fat, is taught with muscle, and shines with perspiration. Michelangelo's characters look real – you can feel their vitality, their struggle, their pain, and their weariness. They are so strong that they could reach right off the walls and touch you. Whatever sensation he painted is mirrored in your own body upon viewing the frescoes. If they're fighting, your hands clench, if suffering, you begin to sweat, if triumphant you feel yourself glowing.

His use of perspective is so subtle and yet so daring that I didn't notice several of his tricks until several minutes into viewing the chapel. Not only did he cover the variously curved existing ceiling with a painting that becomes coherent when viewed from below, but he added his own architecture to the existing system! This is what I didn't notice at first – columns that aren't real, alcoves that don't exist, all sorts of little tricks that make the ceiling expand larger and larger.

Michelangelo's work also reveals an astounding depth of knowledge about religious history and iconography. Everywhere I looked I could see references to the history of Christianity – the deaths of the Saints, scenes from “The Divine Comedy,” famous figures from philosophy, etc. I kept finding little references to other stories in his work, and I'm not even that well versed in mythology. A scholar of Christianity would find hours and hours worth of material to study there.

But did it lead me to any moments of revelation? Did I feel uplifted, like I was basking in the glow of a supernatural being's word made physical here on earth? Did I look up and see infinite wisdom stretching above me? In a word . . . no. I was in the presence of beauty and immense genius, certainly, but not a path to self-knowledge. Perhaps if I was more personally invested in the Christian mythology I would have found it more moving on an emotional level, but I'm not.

Does that mean that it was a disappointment? Absolutely not. The Sistine Chapel is one of the crowning achievements of humankind, a testament not only to the faith of millions but the staggering genius and artistic vision of one man. As a human being, it was important that I see the chapel at some point in my life. But will I be returning again and again, seeking more wisdom from Michelangelo's work? Probably not.

A brief anecdote will illustrate how I felt about the situation. On my way back from the chapel, I found myself buried in more marble statues, surrounded by aristocrats and emperors. There was a window open in the long gallery; I walked to it, thankful for the respite from their frozen Roman gazes. The window opened onto the Vatican gardens – the rear exterior wall of the basilica was visible, along with several rolling hills covered with palms and cypresses. On a distant patio, waiters were setting thirty or forty tables with fresh white lines and sparkling glassware. A gentle breeze brought the scent of warm grass, palm fronds, and a flower I didn't recognize to my nose, while the soft tinkling of silverware mixed with the splash of a series of fountains situated around the grounds. It was so pleasant that I stayed there for several minutes, ignoring the exploits of generals frozen forever on the sides of sarcophagi all around me. I found more beauty in that warm summer breeze than I did in all the combined efforts of a thousand sculptors. This is a good thing to know about myself.

So perhaps the chapel did inspire a bit of self-knowledge after all?

Regardless, the entire expedition took several hours longer than I had originally expected. I barely caught the train back to Civitavecchia, and then sprinted from the station to the ship (protip: piers are a lot longer than they look) to get back just in time for sound check. It was a close thing, I was a sweaty mess by the end of it.

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