Having lived a stone’s throw from the Vatican (not that I’ve tried…) for nearly a year now, I guess I kept assuming I was going to soak up some knowledge of the city-state’s vast art and antiquities collection by way of neighborhood osmosis. Alas, I’ve only made it through the museums once in that time, which has hardly given me a chance to distinguish the map room from the tapestry room from the Sistine Chapel (that’s the big one at the end, right?). Needless to say, when an opportunity arose recently to jump on board a “Vatican: Behind the Scenes” tour with my good friends at Walks of Italy, I, well, jumped on board.
Upon introduction, our fearless leader Vincenzo informed us that a) we would be visiting some pretty cool rooms in the museums, normally off limits to visitors, and b) we were only to pronounce his name if we gesticulated with two hands simultaneously (practice it with me “Vincennnnzo!”). With that out of the way, we fought our way through the massive queues gathering outside the Vatican Museums (apparently it was a cruise ship day), and reassembled in the cool interior, as we waited for Gianluca, our official Vatican “controller” to come and escort us. And let me tell you, Gianluca and Vincenzo together was like the ultimate backstage pass. First, we skipped our way through the currently off-limits Etruscan wing on our way to the Bramante Staircase, the brainchild of Donato Bramante, master Renaissance architect and designer of my favorite Chiostro (leave yours in the comments!). The staircase is notable for its sloping spiral nature, perfect for horses or rollerskates, as well as the incredible views it affords of the both the city of Rome and the papal tennis court.
Following this, we breezed through a few more galleries and courtyards, stopping for a quick peek at the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon (ancient statues worthy of a book or two in their own right), on our way to the Gabinetto delle Maschere. This tiny little room gets its name from the mosaic which has taken up residence on its floor. Rescued from Emperor Hadrian’s villa out in Tivoli, this impressive piece of antiquity depicts ancient theatrical masks – comedy, satire, and tragedy. The Gabinetto is also home to the statue of the Three Graces, and a large, wooden, be-holed chair whose original purpose was to serve either as a seat of relief, or to facilitate the time-honored and possibly false tradition of confirming that the pope-elect had the, well, proper jewels to hold the office.
From the Gabinetto, we joined back up with the regular hordes for a bit, and made our way into the Raphael Rooms. Vincenzo tantalized us with a glimpse of the “School of Athens”, but clearly this was not going to be the highlight, as he then rushed us against the crowds into the “chiaroscuro” room, which serves as the gateway into the Niccoline Chapel. Built under Nicholas V, this little chapel is frescoed with the gorgeous masterpieces of Fra Angelico, an early Renaissance painter, and served as the precursor to the Sistine Chapel (which wouldn’t come along for another 100 years or so).
Naturally, we wrapped things up the only way you can in the Vatican Museums – with a fierce debate under Michelangelo’s Creation of Man as to what the forbidden fruit actually was (Vincenzo, naturally, took it home by pointing out that apple leaves don’t cover nearly as much as fig leaves).
While this certainly isn’t the cheapest way to see the Vatican (that honor belongs to the last Sunday of every month, when the museums are open for free, and crowds equivalent to the population of greater Dallas descend on it), it is certainly a worthwhile splurge – I mean, how often do you get to frolic among Etruscan bronzes, while on your way to a restored Renaissance chapel, visited by a few dozen people per year? Well, if you’re Vincenzo, I guess about once every couple of weeks.