I booked our tour of Vatican museums a few weeks in advance online. English tours fill up fast. The only tour that accommodated our schedule and also included the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica was three hours long. Our tour guide was a diminutive Italian with expertise in art history and determined to share in depth.

We started, however, with ten minutes adjusting dress: women and girls adding scarves, shawls and sweaters to cover their shoulders; men and women tugging skirts and shorts down low enough to cover their knees. Much scrutiny ensued. She threatened men with scarves for their knees. Tug, another tug. One man couldn’t tug far enough but had the foresight to bring jeans.

“They are very seriouS-a heRE-a, okAy.” she said. “You wilL-a not enteR-a iF-a kneeS-a or shoulderS-a are exposeD-a, okAy. These are noT-a my ruleS-a, okAy. But I weaR-a loNG-a panTS-a and loNG-a sleeveS-a as a siGN-a of respeCT-a, okAy.” Nearly every word finished with an emphatic consonant and upward swinging “uh” and every sentence with rhetorical ‘okAy.’ Did I mention this was a three-hour tour? (A three-hour tour!)

Next we spent fifteen minutes in the lobby gathered around a flat screen display viewing various sections of art to be found in the Sistine Chapel. Our tour guide strictly instructed us not to speak in the chapel. No pictures. We would have thirty minutes to observe. She would take questions only after we step back outside. She admonished us that this is a holy place.

I read somewhere that the Vatican Museums encompass seven miles. I know that our tour on this day was seven kilometers. All in all, it was quite spectacular. We covered much of that fairly quickly — the gallery of maps, the courtyard of the Pigna and Sphere with Sphere, Pius-Clementine, chariot room, gallery of tapestries. We spent a long time in Raphael’s rooms, admiring masterpiece works. Here our guide displayed her detailed knowledge of art in depth.

And then, finally, it was on to the Sistine Chapel.

We all put our cameras away. Men and women removed their hats. We received final instruction on when to leave and where to depart. Plus, no eating! No drinking! No talking! None! We hushed to enter the holy place…

… where there was a large crowd issuing a continual hum. People talking, pointing, carrying on conversation. A continual stream of humanity wearing hats, shorts, and short skirts. One guide brazenly continued on with his tour. What? The guards tried, somewhat. “Sssshhhhhhh, this is a church!” they proclaimed, over and over, whereby the din would lessen momentarily. They ordered those sitting on platform steps to stand. They escorted rebels using cameras out — not to confiscate (as we were so sternly warned) but, apparently, to delete pictures (whereby the rebels would return to continue their scandalous acts). The people were simply not compliant. It was a lost cause.

This did not feel much like a holy place. It felt like something between an art gallery and a spectacle. Frankly, and I cannot believe I’m saying this, the Sistine Chapel was a bit of a let-down. I was greatly relieved when we scooped coveted seats on a bench along the perimeter to rest until our thirty-five minutes of viewing time expired. Otherwise, it was shoulder-to-shoulder, necks craned. Finally, it was time to move on.

The tour concluded in Saint Peter’s, an impressive end point, for sure. It is the largest Catholic church in the world, the dome reportedly the largest covered dome. Several famous churches could fit inside this one! But I was becoming desperate to escape group tour purgatory at that point and we broke off on our own. It was a huge relief to leave by way of Saint Peter’s square, meandering among Bernini’s columns, admiring the fountains, before a café break. Then, some souvenirs. We sent a postcard from the Vatican. I picked up a book as a back up for my faulty memory and to catch some of what we missed, especially in Sistine Chapel discomfort.

Finally, I purchased a cross for our eclectic collection from around the world. It’s become one of my favorite features in our home kitchen. I think the Hubs will appreciate this as we have fond memories but no lasting mementos from our trip here together. Everything we purchased then we gave away!

I’m happy we did the Vatican tour. I’ve wanted so much to see the famed Sistine Chapel with my very own eyes and though it was a disappointment in ambiance, that does not detract from masterful art. But oh, my mercy, the Hubs will be glad to have escaped this tour! And I doubt I’d do it again, especially in July. ;=)

~René Morley

Read all about Roma 2012! Friday | Saturday morning | Vatican Museums | Saturday evening | Sunday

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