The Sistine Chapel
Before embarking on our two week long sojourn to the epicenter of art and architecture as we know it, I did several months of online searches, you tube video watching and general fact gathering. I learned several things in the process. Plan all you like, the queues for attractions in Italy will almost always snake out the door and around the corner, but there are ways to be closer to the front of the queue if you use your noodle. As far as queues are concerned, get there early, I know, I know you are on vacation, it just works, and it generally works in most countries. Also, buy your tickets (from a reputable vendor) before you arrive. I have read many reviews of people that waited one hour or more just to buy a ticket, and then moved to the next queue and waited for another hour or two just to enter. Secondly, money well spent can make an epic difference in an experience you may never have again in your lifetime.
I knew from the start that for me the Sistine Chapel would be something I would not want to miss, I had read in multiple publications and travel journals that the crowds at the chapel are epic, elbow to elbow, shuffling your feet while looking up and spinning.........oh the thought of it just made me cringe. The big mystery was how to make this experience into something so much more enjoyable, enter Walking Tours of Italy. While surfing for information and tickets to various venues I came across their website. What had caught my eye was the line "enter the Sistine Chapel before the crowds". The tour offered entry into the chapel at 7:30 in the morning with a tour guide, take a tour of the Vatican museum before the public arrived at 9 am and a guided tour of St Peters Basilica. Perfection !
We arrived at the designated cafe at 7 am and began seeking out our tour group when we met our tour guide Enza. A native of Milan, living in Rome for 10 years, and most impressive, she had obtained her masters of art history in Florence. Much to our astonishment our tour was private, yes just us, with our own Italian native, art history major Enza !
As we descended the stairs towards the chapel entrance we were told no photos, quiet whispers please, no touching ANYTHING. I have many times since our trip shared this story of money well spent in Rome, the price of the tour was a bit steep, perhaps the price of two good dinners in Rome, but oh what we received for the price, was, well, priceless.
On entering the chapel we quickly realized that we were with three other tour guides and only about 20-25 other people, that was it. The vast chapel was visible from the tiled floors and the frescoed false drapes on the low walls to the vaulted ceiling. To top it off we had dear, sweet, brilliant Enza to point out all the small details that would have been lost on two artfully uneducated visitors from afar. For example, the side walls of the chapel have frescoed panels depicting the stories of Christ on one wall and the stories of Moses on the other. Artists such a Boticelli, Rosselli and Perugino were among the group commissioned for this work, so you see Michealangelo was not the only artist to paint in the Sistine chapel. Enza also pointed out that when Michealangelo started the ceilings this was something so new to him that he began at the far end of the chapel ceiling so any mistakes would be hard for the Pope to see from the altar at the other end of the chapel. Also as you watch the progression of the panels from one to the other you can see the progression of his talent emerge. The characters in the panels become much larger and fewer in number. My favorite tidbit shared by our guide was the story of the figure Minos the mythical King at the entrance of hell, who is depicted on the wall of The Last Judgement. During Michealangelo's four years of painting the Pope's master of ceremonials, Biagio Martinelli da Cesena continually criticized the artists work, calling it lude and unacceptable for a holy chapel. As a favor for his trouble Buonarroti used Biagio's likeness on the figure of Minos, complete with the ears of an ass and a serpent biting his genitals. Ouch !
The lesson of regret was not lost on us when it comes to money spent on memories versus "stuff". Years ago during a trip to Austrailia, we passed up a chance to take a helicopter ride over the Twelve Apostles National Park along the southern coast of the continent. One hundred dollars, one hundred dollars US dollars, at the time it seemed so outrageous, but I cannot tell you how many times I have revisited that decision with regret and kicked myself for not taking that flight. Well, lesson learned, and thanks Enza for the knowledge and the friendship.
Ciao bella !