I visited Rome earlier this month with some good friends.
This post is about only one morning of that, spent with one of those friends, inside the Vatican Museums and the Basilica of St. Peter.
I visited St. Peter’s 54 years ago. I saw Pope John XIII enter the church on a sedan chair carried by his Swiss Guards. I was nine and the Sistine and Museums were not on my family’s agenda.
That’s my family with grandparents on the Spanish Steps in Rome. I’m the little girl in the center with white knee socks. (Note: I was slightly out of focus even then)
I went on to study Italian Renaissance art and art history at university (seeing as it took me six years to get my undergraduate degree, I happened to rack up enough credits in art history to call it a minor).
If you are not interested in art history or Italian art, it’s okay.
But you could probably stop reading now and save yourself some boredom.
If you are a brave soul, read on.
I had this really great art history teacher at Arizona State University (the second of three I attended in an attempt to stay ahead of some undesirable grades).
We concentrated on 15th, 16th and 17th century art history, where Italian High Renaissance sits smack dab in the middle – between the late 1400s to the mid-1500s. My professor used to say (with tongue in cheek, I think) that the true High Renaissance occurred in November 1507.
Leave it to say that the 40-year period between 1490 and 1530 has given us some of the world’s most sublime art.
Interestingly, all of it commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church and much of it by the Pope Julius II, to decorate his private apartments and the Vatican’s private chapel, The Sistine Chapel.
How lucky we are today to be allowed to visit these private areas!
My friend, Fiona and I opted for an early, private tour in order to miss the masses of people paying $100 less than we to be marched through these magnificent rooms en masse.
It was worth it. We had a guide, Christian, who had at least a Master’s degree in art history (he studied under a Jesuit and leading scholar of Italian Renaissance art).
Christian managed to grab and hold our interest (there were 12 of us in the group) for a solid three hours.
I see I’ve already written far too much and we haven’t even begun the tour.
I am going to slide over much of it and concentrate on the works of Raphael and of Michelangelo.
A couple of things along the way:
Here is the Fontana alla Pigna or “Fountain of the Pine cone.”
Made of bronze, this giant pine cone was originally a fountain spewing water and situated near the Pantheon in Imperial Rome, near the temple of Isis. It was moved to the Belvedere Courtyard (below) which connects Pope Innocent’s palace to the Sistine Chapel.
Imperial Porphyry is a marble quarried exclusively in one isolated site in ancient Egypt (discovered AD18). It was called ‘Imperial’ because of its royal purple color. Used extensively by Imperial Rome and later Byzantium, it is extremely rare today, having been all quarried out.
These two sarcophagi are made of Imperial Porphyry and contain the remains of Emperor Constantine’s wife and daughter. They’re found in the Vatican because Constantine was the emperor who legalized Christianity.
These former Papal Apartments contain perhaps the world’s most valuable works of art.
Here is a copy of the famous, if only for the very strange anatomy, Ephesian statue of Artemis:
Yes, those are a lot more breasts than we normally see on a woman.
On to Raphael.
Not only are there entire rooms painted by Raphael, there are tapestries created in Belgium but designed by Raphael.
Here’s a detail of one of Raphael’s ‘cartoons’; and another entire tapestry:
Ceilings are not ignored in the Vatican Museum, anymore than in the Sistine Chapel.
This one – believe it or not – is painted to look three-dimensional, using trompe l’oeil or ‘trick of the eye’.
I frankly didn’t believe it, until Christian has us look at it from the end of the hall down the length of the ceiling. It was flat.
Here’s another ceiling – this with real bas-relief statues and paintings:
Okay so now we’re getting to the really good stuff.
There are a couple of rooms where Raphael painted all the walls. They were themed according to what the Pope wanted. In one room, the two main walls face one another and are themed “Philosophy” and “Religion” (that’s close enough).
“Philosophy” is also known as the School of Athens, because it depicts all the classical Greek thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Zeno, Epicurus, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, and on and on.
This is perhaps the most famous painting by Raphael and it is notable, for me, for two things:
- Raphael includes portraits of the three most famous artists of the time in this work – Leonardo portrays Plato, Michelangelo portrays Heraclitus; Raphael portrays himself as a minor noble.
- Although the current St. Peter’s Basilica had not yet been built at the time he painted this picture, Raphael was given access to Bramante’s plans for the church and, as a gift to Pope Julius, he set the scene for his “School of Athens” in the soon-to-be-erected St. Peter’s Basilica.
Raphael’s work here in the Vatican is important for so much more than my two points – transforming ancient, classical work into a modern, more realistic style in composition, perspective and anatomy. Considering people write entire PhD theses on these subjects, to say this is a gross over-simplification is, well, a gross over-simplification.
Next we’re going to the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s itself. So let’s take a break: