Holy Sightsee: Vatican City

January 7, 2015 — In March of 2011, as I walked out of the holy, walled city-state that is Vatican City, I was ready to write an opus. A three-part epic that covered the wonders of art and man that cram the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. I would weave my experiences staring wide-eyed and dry-mouthed at famous works of art, with my own religious baggage and philosophical questions to create a post worthy of nailing to church doors or reading at mass. I would press the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other into it. It would be apocryphal scripture: The Gospel according to OTIS. I was ready.

But then we moved on to our next Italian wonder. And then our next. And then our next. Then, days and days later, we came home and I was bursting with wonders and speaking with a Mario Brothers’ accent. I was able to get to a few posts before the coals cooled, but like Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, I forgot much of Vatican City.

Mostly these days, I remember a parking lot.

But here are my remaining impressions, such as they are. And my photographs such as they are, as Vatican City is square-inch-to-square-inch wonder, and therefore impossible to focus the camera on any one item with certainty or to realize the full import of what you’re seeing. You just point and shoot and hope. Hope that you get something cool. And that they’re wrong about Hell.

No reason to go into the history of the papal zip code. Actually a big reason. It’s hard to sum up in a couple casual sentences. I just think of it as Catholic HQ, a religious District of Columbia, and that’s as deep as this lay(d)man gets, inaccurate and possibly heretical though it might be. Life’s too short to figure out religious nomenclature, law, and history…unless those religions are right about eternity.

Our visit to Vatican City was one of the few times I’ve actively sought a tour group. We had only about half a day or so to say we’d been to the Vatican, and just typing its name into Google was overwhelming. We met our group outside of the massive city walls of this sub-Rome, walls that keep out ancient weapons in the past and modern sin in the present, and enveloped its 100 acres of holiness and high hats. Since we were in a tour group, we didn’t have to wait in line and, our tickets as our passports, we were led through the stony gates by a feisty little Italian girl who masterfully shepherded our group with enthusiasm, as if every one of our souls was being saved just by stepping across its polished stone tiles.

In the Vatican Museums, this series of 50-odd galleries that prove that man can improve on God’s nature, I marveled at sculptures and paintings by the immortals, by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, da Vinci, Titian. I marveled like a layman, of course, not because I understood what made those works and those men great, but because I had seen those pieces so many times in books and movies. It was more like meeting a celebrity than seeing art.

One of the memories that will always stick with me was in one of the Raphael Rooms, the one that bears his large fresco The School of Athens, where Aristotle and Plato saunter through a throng of Greek philosophers lying about and mingling as philosophers do. I’d seen this image so many times in books that it was impossible for me to impale my mind on the fact that this was the 500-year-old original. But, honestly, The School of Athens isn’t what I remember most about this room. It was the crowds.

I have never been in a bigger crowd in such a confined space. It was less shoulder-to-shoulder and more skeleton-to-skeleton. Panic-inducing. I mean, the Vatican was generally crowded (it was a month before Easter), but that room through which Plato and Aristotle forever-discourse was, I don’t know. I just kept wondering if it were possible to walk across the tops of people’s heads like at the end of Crocodile Dundee. But I didn’t have any crocodile-skin boots and I was wary of screaming, “Help! Save me.” It was the Vatican, after all.

I don’t know how the tour group stayed together, much less my wife and I. Eventually, we were expelled like Jonah out of the whale’s mouth and into long, gilded hallways tiled with Renaissance art like the Holy Home Depot had a sale. It was then that I happened to glance out a window and see below an average, ugly parking lot of cars. Now that was jarring. Vatican City was day-to-day life for some. Its population is about 850, and then there are all the people who commute there for a job. Like I said. Jarring.

St. Peter’s Basilica was gorgeous, full of sculpture and ecclesiastical flourishes and hiding sanctified human remains under every surface as well as displaying them like all the best ancient churches do. They say St. Peter’s buried underneath it, resting from his upside-down crucifixion.

But the Sistine Chapel. Now that was an experience I’m still processing almost five years later. Before entering, our tour guide warned us that photography of its famed ceiling was illegal. It was the only spot on our tour where we were told that. And the reason, she told us? Copyright issues. That the company which restored it owned the rights. Seemed weird that the most known visual in the world couldn’t be photographed. And that it was owned by a company instead of the clergy.

Of course I did.

But then we walked in and there, under Michelangelo’s beautiful frescos—God’s finger to Adam’s, Noah and the Flood, David and Goliath—all soul-soaring works of art interconnected into one giant soul-soaring work of art, was a solid mass of people brazenly lifting their cameras and phones to heaven to record the masterpiece, while a group of guards on a dais yelled futilely and in an unbroken stream at individuals and groups to stop taking pictures. The noise from the disobedient crowds was so loud as it echoed off the close walls of the small, oblong chapel that we could barely communicate.

It was more a riot experience than one of art appreciation.

But it summed up my Vatican City experience sublimely. It would be a heavenly place if it weren’t for all the people. Much like the big flaw of Heaven itself, I assume.