Location: Vatican City, Italy
Our day started off on a terrible foot: V’s sprained one, to be precise. We woke up insanely early for vacation (at 5:30am) anticipating that we’d spend the full day out and about. Since the poor girl was broken, we had to give her some additional prep time.
After we wrapped her ankle, we popped downstairs for a delicious breakfast. Espresso and elegant little pastries abounded. Our doorman hailed a taxi, and we were on our way to meet our tour guide outside the one of the smallest city-states in the world (0.17 square miles). We got some more coffee to fuel up for our hours of walking at Caffe Vaticano- an expensive but cute little cafe- across the street from the front gate.
A private guide is the way to go for the Vatican if you value your time. People start lining up really early to get from Rome through the doors to this other city, and if you come with an authorized guide, they usher you through quickly. And there’s the added benefit of seeing a bunch of classical, 15th century art with someone who’s an expert in classical, 15th century art. Getting the right guide is really important because many popular companies will do anything to rip you off for a high TripAdvisor rating. I highly recommend our guide, Marta . She was incredibly kind, knowledgeable and she made the whole experience feel intimate.
Entering the Vatican was like crossing the border of any other country, except you see more cardinals. Vatican City expresses the strength and the importance of one of the oldest institutions in the world – the Catholic Church. The story of the Vatican began 1900 years ago, in connection with the execution site and tomb of Saint Peter, the first Pope. The Vatican Palaces are an immense complex of buildings, irregular in plan, whose construction date back to different time periods. Technically everyone is in line for the Vatican Museums, as they mark the entrance to the State. It’s more interesting and informative to walk around through history, rather than see it sitting static before you.
And if you’re looking for Papal stuff to take home to your friends, there’s a few little things you can pick up that were blessed by the Pope (little medallions, other ephemera). You can also send them a postcard, and get it postmarked from the Vatican City. However, there’s not many gift options overall–they sell one book written and published within the Vatican walls; that’s it.
We wove our way through courtyards and hallways and saw some of the history-as-wallpaper that covers the walls of ancient institutions such as these. Awe-inspiring in the moment, but hard to remember because there’s simply so much of it. Three hallways precede the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Two of them are grand halls of tapestries, some of which possess fascinating optical illusions. One of the things I loved, however, was a (nameless) hallway full of tapestry-maps of the known world. The territories of Italy, as mapped by 15th century cartographers, were astoundingly accurate.
The crowds we experienced here were on par with our 人山人海 (people mountain people sea) experiences in China. Every time we would come upon a hall or collection of statues, the bottleneck to get into or out of that room was a stampede. The halls were not meant to hold so many people, and frankly it’s amazing that they’ve stood up to this kind of tourism.
Going deep into the bowels of the Vatican, we were able to visit the Sistine Chapel. Though we had seen the paintings all over the place–in movies, textbooks, on the internet–seeing them in person was awe striking. I haven’t seen the Mona Lisa in person, but I’d imagine that my experience seeing the Creation of Adam would be an inversion of that. I thought the Creation of Adam were bigger in my head than it was in person, but I wasn’t disappointed. The amount of detail and elegance was apparent in every stroke. Photographs and recordings are not allowed in the Chapel, so you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.
The only downside of the Chapel is that the actual footprint of the place. It’s the size of a basketball court, half of which was not open when we were there. And a cardinal flew in and gave a benediction, which cut down on the space even further. But having a preacher give his blessing in the room where some of the most noteworthy and reproduced art of Western civilization lives, well, that gives you pause. It was almost cinematic.
And then, onto St. Peter’s Basilica. As you enter, the camera immediately pans up to the roof, for some of the highest vaulted ceilings you’ve ever seen. Opulence echoes throughout the citadel-church. The Vatican is so rich and so ornamented because people have bequeathed their money to the Pope for centuries. Rather than hold onto the cash, they invested it. Though they later built enormous churches in New York City, Seville, and Aparecida, they had to keep the largest one local. I imagine that St. Peter’s will remain the largest church in the world until the Vatican moves somewhere else.
On your right there’s a beautiful statue of Mary that was attacked by some crazed guy with a hammer in the 1970s. It’s behind bulletproof glass now. We acknowledged the lines demarcating the size of the smaller-but-still-gigantic churches across the globe, and how small they seem by comparison. We were lucky enough to see a wedding as well. It was near-surreal: the bride’s bouquet was made of jeweled flowers.
The biggest thing for V and me, as people that don’t follow the Catholic faith or its traditions, was that all of the relics we bore witness to were still awe-inspiring. Rather than holiness, we experienced an uncomfortable slight sadness. We couldn’t help but think of the exploitation that got the gold leaf onto the sculptures–the millions of people whose basic needs were suppressed for a place like St. Peter’s to be built. The centuries of corruption and wars–for this?
But that’s in the process of changing. Many people used to save for their entire lives to come and see the City, only to be turned away. St. Peter’s used to be relatively closed off to the common folk, but the current Pope has been excited to share the glory of this ancient architecture with everyone that can make it over to Europe. There’s a door in the building that only the Pope himself could pass through, and now it remains open for regular folks like us. It isn’t like everyone gets some equity in the building, but it’s a start.
Pope Francis is the first Pope in centuries that’s lived (almost) like a regular person. He took the subway when he lived in Argentina, and kept a small, humble apartment. He refuses to live in the enormous papal residence (see below). With our new President-elect’s status as a (maybe) billionaire with an absurdly ornamented estate, I can’t help but think that the American executive could take some lessons from the new Vatican.
The ones about living humbly, at least.
The biggest lesson that anyone can take from faith:
stay safe and love one another.
<3, K (&V)