The Retirees Go Abroad – The Vatican City

The Vatican City
Before relating our visit to this most unusual palace state I thought it best to give a general background to what is the Vatican. Here is what Wikipedia says:
“Vatican City State, a walled enclave within the city of Rome, with an area of approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of 842, is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world by both area and population.
It is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergy of various national origins. Since the return of the Popes from Avignon in 1377, they have generally resided at the Apostolic Palace within what is now Vatican City, although at times residing instead in the Quirinal Palace in Rome or elsewhere.
Vatican City is distinct from the Holy See which dates back to early Christianity and is the main episcopal see of 1.2 billion Latin and Eastern Catholic adherents around the globe. The independent city-state, on the other hand, came into existence in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy, which spoke of it as a new creation, not as a vestige of the much larger Papal States (756–1870), which had previously encompassed much of central Italy. According to the terms of the treaty, the Holy See has “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” over the city-state.
Within Vatican City are cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. The unique economy of Vatican City is supported financially by the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums, and the sale of publications.
Popes gradually came to have a secular role as governors of regions near Rome. They ruled the Papal States, which covered a large portion of the Italian peninsula, for more than a thousand years until the mid-19th century, when all the territory belonging to the papacy was seized by the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
For most of this time the popes did not live at the Vatican. The Lateran Palace, on the opposite side of Rome was their habitual residence for about a thousand years. From 1309 to 1377, they lived at Avignon in France. On their return to Rome they chose to live at the Vatican. They moved to the Quirinal Palace after work on it was completed under Pope Paul V (1605–1621), but on the capture of Rome in 1870 retired to the Vatican, and what had been their residence became that of the King of Italy.” (Source Wikipedia)
We travelled by Metro to Ottaviano on the A Line, this being the closest Metro stop for the Vatican. Arriving about 9.00am, we headed directly down Via Ottaviano to take us to St Peter’s Basilica and the meeting point for the Omnia office to pick up the tour. However we were intercepted by a street vendor offering guided tours of the Vatican. Now our Omnia pass got us into the City with an audio guide without having to wait in line but the deal being offered seemed far better. We were able to agree a discount in the cost of the tour and changed course into Via Germanico and the offices of Maya Tours. Whilst waiting for the guide I checked out the entry into the City and even at that hour the queue ran from the entrance in Viale Vaticano into Via Leone IV around the corner almost to Via Vespasino (a long way).
Our group was about 17 strong and we were supplied with head-sets and our guide Debra (a very Roman lady despite her name) had a microphone so that we could all hear her commentary and you knew when you lost sound that you had also lost your group. Entrance went very smoothly. Despite it being low season there was still quite a crush of people. Having Debra to guide us into the City was so easy. If we had gone it alone with our audio tour I am certain our stress levels would have accelerated. Italians are hopeless at organising themselves and the confusion at the entry was enough to confirm this (Debra later admitted this was a true statement).
Our first stop was outside the new entrance where Debra briefed us for our visit to the Pinecone Courtyard. The dome of the Basilica could be seen in the distance and the Papal rooms could be seen behind scaffolding. Debra challenged us to spot the chimney from which the white/black smoke emanated for papal elections. Of course there is not one. A special stove is brought into the Sistine Chapel as no one wants to poke a hole through Michelangelo’s ceiling.
The Pinecone Courtyard is a large court which served as a recreational area for the Popes and clergy. Each Pope set about filling it with some monument for his aggrandisement (my view) to the detriment of other cultures (of course the Popes are not the only leaders to have pillaged from the defeated). Below are a series of photos showing the courtyard. One of the more miraculous (again in my view) was the globe in the centre of the courtyard. Passing from the courtyard into the museums we went through a smaller courtyard called the Octagonal Courtyard displaying statutes from all periods but there was one in particular that Debra wanted us to see which she stated was a favourite of Michelangelo, Laocoön and His Sons excavated in Rome in 1506 by a farmer who then donated it to the Pope It shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. It is said that Laocoön was a Trojan priest of Poseidon who was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear. My picture of it does not do it justice as the sculpture is very dramatic when seen in real life.
Another sculpture of note is the Belvedere Torso which Debra said so influenced Michelangelo that he gave everyone in his Last Judgment a “six pack”. The Belvedere Torso is a fragment of a nude male statue, signed prominently on the front of the base by “Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian” and is now believed to be a copy from the 1st century BC or AD of an older statue, which probably dated to the early 2nd century BC. Wikipedia notes “The contorted pose of the torso and musculature were highly influential on late Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael. Michelangelo’s admiration of the Torso was widely known in his lifetime, to the extent that the Torso gained the sobriquet, “The School of Michelangelo”. Personally I found it difficult to admire such a broken piece of what it once was to be as awed as Debra.
I have included some other photos of things I saw (too many to mention them all) but I was impressed by the red porphyry Sarcophagus of Constantina that was once house the body of Constantina, daughter of Constantine the Great (died 354), and a similar sarcophagus for her mother and the giant statues of Hercules in bronze.
Then followed the Tapestry Gallery. These tapestries were enormous. Ilaria Marsili writes in a blog the following:
“It’s a 75 meter long gallery with a splendidly vault decorated in trompe d’oeil executed in 1789.
On the walls are displayed tapestries belonging to two different periods and manufactures:
On the left wall there are tapestries woven in Rome by the Barberini workshop and commemorating important moments in the life of the Barberini pope Urban VIII.
On the left wall the important tapestries woven in the 16th century by the workshop of Pieter van Aelst, the best in Europe during the renaissance period, based on cartoons by the pupils of Raphael
and depicting episodes from the life of Jesus. Particularly worth of notice are the Adoration of the Magi, the massacre of the Innocents and the Resurrection of Christ. The last one is one of the best example of ‘moving perspective in the history of art, and the best executed on a tapestry.”
I agree with Ilaria, the tapestry “the Resurrection of Christ” is amazing. As you walk past it the eyes of Christ follow you and the slab in front of the cave appears to move so that it is always pointing toward you. My photos certainly do not do these tapestries justice.
From there we went onto the Gallery of Maps. Pope Gregory XIII was both an astronomer and astrologer and as such was interested in terrestrial mapping as well as astrological mapping. According to Debra he ordered this Gallery to be constructed so that when he passed through he would travel from the north to the south of Italy (or visa versa depending which way he was going). I have provided you with pictures of the ceiling of the gallery rather than the maps as you can see the maps any time but unless you visit the Vatican you will not see the ceiling of the Gallery. “The galley was commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII as part of other artistic works commissioned by the Pope to decorate the Vatican. It took Danti three years (1580–1583) to complete the 40 panels of the 120 m long gallery. (Source Wikipedia)
There are much more extensive museums in the Vatican than the few I have outlined but without spending every day of a week in there I could not hope to remember anything I saw.
In the Pinecone Courtyard Debra had by reference to various display panels outlined what we would see in the Sistine Chapel. No photos could be taken and we were allowed 5 minutes to walk through. She spent some time explaining how Michelangelo agreed to paint the ceiling (remember he was a sculptor) and of the interplay with Raphael. She also discussed how he came at the end of his life to paint the Last Judgment.
I have found that Wikipedia has a most readable description of many of the things I observed and as I cannot remember the statistics given by the guide (I don’t think she gave us too many) I have resorted to that source so that my memory is not tried for its inaccuracy.
“The chapel is a high rectangular building, for which absolute measurements are hard to ascertain, as available measurements are for the interior: 40.9 metres (134 ft.) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft.) wide, the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament.
Its exterior is unadorned by architectural or decorative details, as is common in many of the Medieval and Renaissance churches of Italy. It has no exterior façade or exterior processional doorways, as the ingress has always been from internal rooms within the Apostolic Palace (Papal Palace), and the exterior can be seen only from nearby windows and light-wells in the palace.
The ceiling of the chapel is a flattened barrel vault springing from a course that encircles the walls at the level of the springing of the window arches. The barrel vault was originally painted brilliant-blue and dotted with gold stars, to the design of Piermatteo Lauro de’ Manfredi da Amelia. This was entirely replaced when Michelangelo came to work on the ceiling in 1508.
Of the present scheme of frescos, the earliest part is that of the side walls. They are divided into three main tiers. The central tier of the walls has two cycles of paintings, which complement each other, The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ. They were commissioned in 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV and executed by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Roselli and their workshops. Beneath the cycles of The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ, the lower level of the walls is decorated with frescoed hangings in silver and gold. Above the narrative frescos, the upper tier is divided into two zones. At the lower level of the windows is a Gallery of Popes painted at the same time as the Lives. Around the arched tops of the windows are areas known as the lunettes which contain the Ancestors of Christ, painted by Michelangelo as part of the scheme for the ceiling.
The ceiling was commissioned by Pope Julius II and painted by Michelangelo between 1508 to 1512. The commission was originally to paint the twelve apostles on the triangular pendentives which support the vault; however, Michelangelo demanded a free hand in the pictorial content of the scheme. He painted a series of nine pictures showing God’s Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind’s Fall from God’s Grace. On the large pendentives he painted twelve Biblical and Classical men and women who prophesied that God would send Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind, and around the upper parts of the windows, the Ancestors of Christ.”
Debra our guide informed us that if you look closely at the face of the Prophet Izaiah Michelangelo used Julius’s face to influence him to give him the free hand he wanted. But the angels on Izaiah’s shoulder are making the Turkish sign for “Up you pal” (the finger) as the artists statement of his opinion of Julius. I looked but without my glasses and with the ceiling 3 stories above me I could not see it.
“In 1515, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a series of ten tapestries to hang around the lower tier of the walls. The tapestries depict events from the Life of St. Peter and the Life of St. Paul, the founders of the Christian Church in Rome, as described in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Work began in mid-1515. Due to their large size, manufacture of the hangings was carried out in Brussels, and took four years under the hands of the weavers in the shop of Pieter van Aelst. Raphael’s tapestries were looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527 and were either burnt for their precious metal content or were scattered around Europe. In the late 20th century, a set was reassembled from several further sets that had been made after the first set, and displayed again in the Sistine Chapel in 1983. The tapestries continue in use at occasional ceremonies of particular importance. The full-size preparatory cartoons for seven of the ten tapestries are known as the Raphael Cartoons and are in London.

This was disrupted by a further commission to Michelangelo to decorate the wall above the altar with The Last Judgment, 1537–1541. The painting of this scene necessitated the obliteration of two episodes from the Lives, the Nativity of Jesus and the Finding of Moses; several of the Popes and two sets of Ancestors.”
Debra stated that the artist by this timing knew the end of his life was near and he made some important statements in his painting. One was to show all figures naked as that is how we are born and that is how we pass into heaven. According to Debra Carafa put up quite a stink but until Michelangelo died the figures remained naked. The genitalia in the fresco were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra, whom history remembers by the derogatory nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-painter”).
“The Pope’s Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said “it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns,” In response Michelangelo worked da Cesena’s semblance into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. It is said that when he complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain. Michelangelo also painted his own portrait, on the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew.”
At this point in the tour we were offered to stay and view the other museums or proceed onto the Basilica. At this point the tour had run for 2.5 hours and we had had enough so we proceeded to St Peter’s. This is truly enormous. Built to be the centre of Christianity for the world it is completely awe inspiring. I will leave you to view my pictures which barely touch the surface of what makes up this temple. We finished our tour with a visit to the crypt where many of the past Popes have been laid to rest. On departing we had our first glimpse of the Swiss Guards in their traditional costume. These blokes are serious guards of the Pope and there are some 130 odd of them. In addition the Vatican has its own Police force again about 130 of them.
As we left we took photos of the grand entrance (St. Peter’s Square) which strangely Mussolini built for the Pope following the signing of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican. Time to return to Via Germanico collect our Omnia passes and grab some lunch.

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Retired Australian Lawyer having worked representing the innocent and the not so innocent in Australia and some of the remote parts of the world and having travelled widely through Europe, Western Russia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Thailand Malaysia Solomon Islands northern China, Hong Kong and the UAE So now that I have the time I am writing about my travels present and past. Hope you enjoy exploring off the beaten track.