It’s sometimes reported that Michelangelo resented the four years he spent painting the 1000+ metres of the Sistine Chapel’s roof, sneaking away to work on other consignments while Pope Julius II stepped out to fight the French. But for any visitor, it was clearly a worthwhile endeavor. Trying to do it justice with words is too hard. Perhaps it’s enough to say that when I looked up I felt awed. Not just by the work itself, but by his dedication and vision.
I’m probably better off talking about what it feels like to be a tourist in there and mention a couple of things we saw. The link in the text above is good for giving a view of some of the things that are tough to see from the floor of the chapel, along with history behind its construction.
We went to the Vatican City on the day before we were due to leave Rome, which was a weekday in autumn and so it wasn’t too busy – comparatively speaking. Four million people are said to visit the museums per year and weekends are busy indeed. (From a conservation standpoint, this must be tough to deal with.) My wife and I started in the museums above, very, very slowly burrowing our way down to the Sistine Chapel, ‘very slowly’ due to the press of bodies rather than the distance we travelled.
The actual Chapel lies beyond many halls and below several floors of the museum, or so it seemed. After the twentieth room/passage/alcove/set of stairs it was hard to tell. We walked through gallery spaces where we saw a Matisse and a couple of Dalis – which was a nice contrast with some of the more gruesome religious art, of slayings and decapitations (as was in vogue at the time.) At each bottle-necked corridor it was one step forward, two steps back, with tour groups moving through like a mass of wandering ghosts, linked by their brightly coloured transistors and a knack for bumping into you. The crowd was like a train of cattle in many ways, it also moved without grace, rigid and processional without the same sense of purpose. Occasionally an arm would steal above the din and at its top, like a star on a Christmas tree, was the unblinking eye of a camera. Then it would retract, almost with shame.
Not by design, but due to the direction of the arrows leading toward the Cappella Sistina, we came to the Gallery of Maps, which I loved. Wall-sized frescoes showed the regions of Italy during the 1580s in some detail, they were actually one of my favourite parts of the museums. Many sculptures, paintings and tapestries lined the corridors, but some of my favourite pieces were much more modern: like the occasional fan, used to cool things down. These were a sweet gesture but did little in the end – because the mass of bodies that nearly constantly surrounded you were too good at producing sweat and heat. An open window here and there was like an oasis, and quickly occupied.
There were dozens of guards, often hidden from sight, though possessed of great vantage points. Their uniforms were smart and they had the impassive faces that came from being given years worth of reasons not to smile – tourists and their sticky fingers. No matter how many velvet ropes or signs that requested folks ‘not to touch’, the allure of marble and other surfaces proved too strong for many of the visitors.
Finally we came to the Sistine Chapel after nearly an hour of shuffling, and we had to pause on the landing. It was spectacular. No doubt. But by the end of the maze, we found ourselves a little burned out. We’d seen a lot. At the same time, the crowd denied you the time to examine anything at leisure. We had to force ourselves to stay in the packed Chapel longer, but in the end, we were glad to get out and get some air.
What would be best, if you could pick a time when it wasn’t crowded (some folks recommend early morning, we should have researched but added the Vatican City to our list of sights on a whim the night before.) The Chapel deserves to be seen in relative peace, and in a big hit, all at once, with little prelude. Especially not an hour-long crawl through the corridors. That way you can better appreciate the rich, detailed, and perhaps surprisingly colourful work done by Michelangelo. As to how colourful he intended is hotly contended of course.
One more thing, because the Chapel is a functioning one, it remains a holy place and so the guards periodically let out a mighty ‘Shhhhhh’ in unison. It would resonate and was quite powerful. Though it worked for a time, it was like putting a lid on a boiling pot. The pressure would eventually build and the lid/talking would eventually rise again. But I loved that they did not give up.