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Visiting the Vatican Museums

On Thursday evening we had a change from Ancient Rome and turned our attention to Papal Rome, with a lecture before dinner on St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Then on Friday morning we piled into another fleet of taxis to take us to the Vatican Museum. It is the most popular museum in Italy with over 5 million visitors last year. If you take into account the days it’s closed, that works out at over 15,000 visitors per day. And I could well believe it! It was pouring with rain on Friday, and it felt like every tourist in Rome had decided to visit an indoor attraction. The queue to get in was over two hours long as we arrived! Fortunately Andante had booked us a timed group ticket, so we were able to queue-jump entirely and waltz straight in. We got ourselves wired up with headsets so that our guide lecturer could talk to us as a group without shouting. That worked pretty well if you got separated from the group – you could re-find the party by seeing which direction you had to move in to get a stronger/louder signal.

Statue of Emperor Augustus in the Vatican Museum

The museum wasn’t too busy at first, and we were able to walk around fairly freely and get a good view of some of the superb Roman statues. The popes were great collectors of statues, even if they did have a fixation with fig-leaves. Apparently there is a drawer in the Vatican basement full of carefully-labelled willies and a gradual programme of removing the fig-leaves and reattaching the appropriate member back onto the statues! It was interesting to be told that originally many of the statues would not have been marble-coloured, as we see them today, but instead quite garishly painted by our standards. So, for example, the statue of the Emperor Augustus I’ve pictured above originally had a bright red cloak, reddy-brown hair, and a decidedly dodgy shade of lip-stick!

Statue of Antinous as the Eqyptian god Osiris

After a well-deserved coffee in the museum café we had some free time to explore the museums further. Most of the group chose not to go to the Sistine Chapel, as we would be seeing it later, but instead picked a particular topic or gallery to explore. I believe that the paintings are very good, with Raphaels, da Vincis and Caravaggios, if you like that sort of thing. I decided to explore the Egyptian gallery, which had some very impressive statues from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, which I’d seen the day before. Hadrian’s boyfriend Antinous drowned mysteriously in the River Nile, and Hadrian was so overcome with grief that he built a large temple at his villa dedicated to several of the Egyptian gods, and also to his boyfriend whom he deified. The popes swiped many of the best statues, but for some reason the display made very little mention of the distinctly homoerotic overtones of some of the pieces! My rather blurry picture does not show it too well, but the statue of Antinous above has a very definite bulge under his loin-cloth – most definitely not a standard feature of Egyptian art!

There would probably have been time to see one more gallery before lunch, and I was quite keen on seeing the Etruscan collection, which is unrivalled. But as I tried to get there, I was confronted by a seething mass of humanity, all intent on getting to the Sistine Chapel. I could well believe that there were many thousands of people pressing down the corridors along a one-way system – and I wanted to go the other direction, to the exit! If I’d allowed myself to get swept along by the tide, I’d have missed the group rendezvous and hence my lunch! There is no way that anyone in the crowd would have been able to see anything much at all – there were far too many people in the way, and the guards were keeping people moving.  I did wonder what would happen if there was an emergency – a fire, say – as there were no apparent fire exits, and the one exit route we’d used earlier was blocked off to make a one-way system to the Sistine chapel. I am sure that if there was an incident, hundreds of people would be crushed in the resulting stampede. It’s a good thing that I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, as the crush must surely induce panic attacks in people. I made heavy use of my elbows as I fought against the tide, and persuaded a reluctant guard to let me through the barriers to the bookshop. It was absolutely horrendous and I was very glad indeed to get out.

We had a long lunch with plenty of wine to recover from the morning’s exertions, then spent the afternoon in St Peter’s Basilica. But that was a mere prelude to the high point of the day. At 6pm, after the official closing time and when all 15,000 tourists had been kicked out, we were let back into the Vatican Museums for a private tour for just our group. What a privilege, and what a contrast to the morning’s mêlée! We wandered slowly through the rooms of the Raphael Stanza with their beautiful frescoes, admired the Gallery of Maps, and finally ended up in the Sistine Chapel – just the 25 of us, plus our two leaders and a lone (and rather bored) guard. It was superb. We had two hours altogether, with the Vatican museum entirely to ourselves. I’m sure the cost of that one visit  formed a major part of the total price of the holiday, but it was well worth it.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. paulD | 18 April 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “It was interesting to be told that originally many of the statues would not have been marble-coloured, as we see them today, but instead quite garishly painted by our standards”

    isnt that true of a lot of old churches and b/w buildings here, the puritans came round and white washed it all 🙂

  2. Richard A | 19 April 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Your post brings back memories of queueing in the rain outside the Vatican museum 13 years ago. Some things never change!