How a LivItaly Tour Brought History, Art, Faith and Culture to Life.
Pamen our extraordinary LivItaly tour guide, was describing the magnificent ceiling 63 feet above the exquisite inlaid marble floor, while, directly behind us, a massive heart-stopping scene of salvation and damnation loomed over us as if preparing to suck us into its tumult and terror. We Were sitting behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by the breathtaking result of Michelangelo’s gifted hands and religious passion.
On a hot, humid mid-June afternoon in Rome, Simon, Otto and I met Pamen by the gates of Vatican City. LivItaly Tours specializes in small group and private tours in cities across the country. Although our tour had a maximum of six, there was only one more couple on our Vatican Sistine Chapel Tour. We knew we would be visiting the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. What we were about to learn was the tremendous power, and unrivaled artistry that lay behind the heavy bronze gates of Vatican City.
The Vatican Museum
What ever you might know or have read about the exhibits in the Vatican Museum, unless you have seen its stunning collections and felt its strong pull drawing you in, nothing can prepare you for the experience. And if you are fortunate enough to be in the company of a knowledgeable and passionate guide such as Pamen, the powerful effect of what you see will be increased ten-fold.
To describe everything we saw in the museum would be impossible, so here are a few highlights to whet your appetite.
First, second and third century Mosaics composed of tiny tiles, colossal statues in bronze and marble, life-like paintings and fascinating ancient artifacts all hold a prominent place in my memories of the museum.
The Gallery of Tapestry, however, along with Pamen’s detailed and graphic descriptions, stands out as one of the most arresting exhibits I’ve ever experienced, Even though I couldn’t touch the tapestries, they resonated with me on a much deeper level.
The tapestries were hung on opposite sides of a long room. One entire side displayed works designed by Rafael. The artists made their drawings, or cartoons as they were called, for the purpose of being woven into tapestries by Flemish weavers. It took the weavers up 25 years to complete one of these works, and Rafael, who died at 36, never saw the culmination of his efforts.
As Pamen began describing the Rafael tapestries, my interest level, already on high alert, crossed into the red zone with the nativity scene woven in silk, silver and gold thread. I could picture the holy family in the center of the scene, the angels and shepherds acting out the familiar story under a blue sky. As we moved down the line of Rafael tapestries, Pamen continued her narrative, describing one vivid scene after another. Then we arrived at three tapestries depicting Herod’s soldiers obeying the emperor’s order to seek out and murder all male infants to assure the baby Jesus would never grow up to challenge him. The desperation in the faces of the mothers struggling to same their babies, the razor-sharp knives of the soldiers, were burned into my consciousness by Pamen’s words. This was a brief moment of one mother sharing her revulsion with another.
One of the largest tapestries was of the Resurrection. Pamen described how as we passed from one side to the other, the eyes of Jesus appeared to follow us.
At one point during the tour, Pamen drew our attention to a large window looking out upon a spectacular view of Rome. Past popes selected this particular spot for their palace in order to control the city. It would be no surprise if the cooling breezes we felt wafting through that window might have also factored in the decision.
With Pamen’s help, I was permitted to touch a number of the items on display. A large pink granite bath with a drain hole in the bottom was decorated with stone lions. She had remembered a remark I had made earlier about how much I enjoyed running my fingers over carved lions, and so took the time to direct me to them where ever possible.
A much larger bath had been carved out of a single mammoth block of now-extinct Egyptian purple marble. It felt cold and smooth to the touch as my hand trailed its perimeter in order to get a sense of the size of this behemoth. It had steps to assist the bather’s. ascent into the tub, and might well have served as a swimming pool for the average Roman male who stood just under five feet. So much for any illusion we might have had of tall hulking ancient Romans. They were brilliant, brutal and short.
Another exhibit focused on animals carved out of colored marble. They had once graced the homes and gardens of ancient Roman families. The floor was a mosaic of tiny black and white tiles depicting a garden scene with flowers and sunbursts And a painted daytime sky on the ceiling hung cheerfully above it all.
An entire room was dedicated to an exhibit of late 16th century maps of the Italian regions before unification. They were perfectly sized to scale, and detailed down to mountains, rivers and small villages. These maps comprised the war room for the popes of the day.
This was a mere fraction of what we saw the day we visited the Vatican Museum. The official website will give you more information and photos, but I maintain, there’s nothing to compare to the experience of being there.
The Sistine Chapel
On my first visit to Rome in 1975, the Sistine Chapel was undergoing a restoration. If it was in my nature to be bitter, I would rail at the injustice of not having been able to see this marvel when my vision might have taken in at least some of the details. Instead, my preference is to focus on the details in Pamen’s description and the sensation of having been in the presence of a greatness that remains centuries after Michelangelo’s death.
The Sistine Chapel is located in the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the Pope. It measures 134 feet in length and is 44 feet wide. The chapel was named for Pope Sixtus IV, who celebrated the first Mass on July 15, 1483. It is the private chapel of the Pope, and where the drama of the Papal conclave unfolds every time a new pope is elected.
The Sistine Chapel is generally associated with the genius of Michelangelo, but Renaissance painters such as Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli painted frescos depicting the lives of Moses and Christ, as well as papal portraits.
It was not until 1508 that Michelangelo entered the picture, so to speak. His contribution? The magnificent ceiling, with its vivid colors injecting life into the Creation and other scenes from the Old Testament. The ceiling, which had been commissioned by Julius II to replace the original stylized blue sky and gold stars that had been badly damaged, was completed in 1512.
But that was not the last the Sistine Chapel would see of Michelangelo’s gifted hand. Between 1536 and 1541, he painted the glory and horror of The Last Judgement upon the wall behind the chapel’s altar. It was this painting that towered over us as Pamen relayed its story.
Jesus, Mary, and the saints sat on clouds, while angels blew their trumpets to awaken the dead for the last judgement. Once more assuming their earthly bodies, the saved prepared to ascend to heaven. As for the rest, demons had a field day making sure they made it safely to hell.
Michelangelo’s depiction of hell was an excellent representation of Dante’s Inferno. Of course there was fire. Demons pushed the damned, with horrified, desperate expressions, down into hell and otherwise amused themselves committing the kind of acts that landed them there in the first place. This was the stuff of which nightmares are made.
Trying to take in the Sistine Chapel in the short span of time we had was impossible. But for me, the privilege of standing in this space where the footsteps and prayers of popes echo through the centuries, and, where the hands of masters created timeless beauty, was more than enough for me.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Dominating Rome’s skyline is the massive dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the second tallest building in the city. Occupying 5.7 acres, everything about this iconic structure is Enormous. But, as they say, size isn’t everything. This church is not only the largest in the world, it is also the most revered, remarkable and renowned in all of Christendom.
Consecrated on November 18, 1626, this basilica replaced an earlier church built in the fourth century during the rule of Constantine the Great. Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini all played major roles in the design of the stunning structure we see today.
St. Peter’s tomb is believed to lie directly beneath the high altar. Many Popes, and prominent individuals occupy the 100 tombs in St. Peter’s.
The church is 730 feet in length, 500 feet wide, and stands an imposing 448.1 feet high. The outer diameter of the dome measures 137.7 feet. These are merely numbers, however. When you stand on the exquisite marble floor of the basilica, and realize the two tiers of sculptures that seem life size are in fact approximately 36 feet tall, you can begin to fathom the vastness and scope of St. Peter’s
Once we had gained a sense of perspective, the multitude of art treasures surrounding us consumed our attention for the duration of our visit.
You’ll find few if any paintings in St. Peter’s, but painstakingly assembled mosaics abound. One such mosaic is an interpretation in tiny tile of Rafael’s Transfiguration painting, which hangs in the Vatican Museum. Had Paman not pointed it out, we would have taken it for a painting.
Although many well-known artists are represented in the basilica, the works of Bernini and his students appeared to dominate. His twisted decorated bronze columns, holding up an ornate baldachin, or canopy, above the Papal Altar directly beneath the dome. The four sculptures, supporting the symbolic Chair of Saint Peter and the sculpture of Constantine the Great are just a sample of Bernini’s contribution to St. Peter’s over a span of 50 years.
Michelangelo’s Pieta was one of the main highlights of our tour. Carved from shiny white Florentine marble, this masterpiece shows mother Mary sitting holding the tortured body of her son. With one hand she appears to be preparing to give him up, while the other hand tries to hold on to her child. Although deeply moved, thankfully I cannot relate to her pain. However, any mother who has experience the crushing devastation of having lost a child surely can.
Almost as if to lighten my somber mood, Pamen took me over to see two curly-haired chubby-cheeked cherubs holding an orange basin of holy water. So adorable were those winged babies, it was all I could do to remember that you can’t pinch marble cheeks.
We concluded our Vatican tour in St. Peter’s Square. Designed by Bernini, it is a meeting place for the faithful to congregate on Sundays and high holidays to pray and be blessed by the Pope. The Egyptian obelisk, fountains and other architectural features of this beloved space may be familiar to anyone who watches TV or movies, but the sensation of being present in St. Peter’s Square could never be transmitted electronically. You just have to go there.
Before we knew it, the tour had come to an end. We had gone way overtime, and were all hot, tired and in need of a cold drink. But for a brief moment in time, Pamen had transported us to a world where history, art and religion combined to awe, inspire and teach in ways found nowhere else on earth. This was the Vatican in all its mystery and glory.
Vatican & Sistine Chapel Small Group Tour – maximum six
Duration: three hours
Cost 89 € – includes all tickets with no waiting in long lines
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Disclaimer: Our phenomenal tour of the Vatican was complimentary, and we are most grateful for LivItaly Tours’ generosity. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.