Friday, July 30, 2010

I looked up, and then I looked down

Today was Charlie's day to visit the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City! We got a little bit of a late start after our long walk last night (we're both pretty tired), but sometimes one just needs to sleep a little bit extra. We started out in St. Peter's Basilica, and Charlie listened politely while I followed him around chattering about the art. We stood at various points in the church and talked about what other buildings could fit inside; at one point, we found a spot for Charlie's house in Morristown, and in another we found a chapel bigger than the entirety of the parish church in Highland Park where I grew up. I think I figured out why St. Peter's doesn't seem overwhelming - it's because the side chapels are huge on their own, and the nave is only divided up into three "chapels" on each side, rather than the dozens of normal size that it could hold. The relatively small number of chapels and piers really humanizes the space.

I found myself getting more annoyed than usual with tourists in the church today. I don't know why people persist in wearing short skirts or shorts and bare shoulders to the Vatican when pretty much everyone who's been to Italy will tell you that you will get turned away if you dress that way. And I'm sick of the tour groups, and the rude photographers, and a lot of things. Usually I can handle it, but today I was extra claustrophobic about it all.

After we left the basilica, Charlie made use of the papal post office:

And here we are in a quick picture in front of the facade to commemorate our visit:

After the basilica, we headed over to the Vatican Museums. As you may remember, I was already at the Vatican Museums last week, where I waited on line for two hours and then had the memorable experience of walking through the Sistine Chapel without looking up, since I had promised Charlie I would visit it for the first time with him. This time, I decided to book tickets online with an extra fee to avoid the line, but when we arrived, we found no line at all, and we could have easily gotten into the museum without waiting. So for future reference - apparently it's not so hard to get into the Vatican Museums in the early afternoon on Fridays in July.

Since I had been through the museums once before, I didn't have to wear my Serious Art Historian hat, and we spent some time visiting old favorites and taking pictures of each other.

Here's Charlie with what he called a Papal Whack-a-mole:

I argued that it was an Imperial Whack-a-Mole because it had been made during the Roman Empire, but Charlie maintains that it is a Papal Whack-a-Mole because it is in the Vatican's collections. I can see both sides.

This guy made me laugh:

I'm not sure of his identity, but usually if you see a male nude portrait bust, even if the head is in the Republican statesman type, the chest tends to be at least somewhat muscular and idealized. This saggy old man chest was rather surprising to see.

Here I am with an old pal:

Maybe this is my version of a Grand Tour portrait, with antiquities in the background. All I need are some mountains or something.

And here's Charlie with a statue of Hermes:

Charlie really likes that Hermes' symbol is the caduceus, but the caduceus accompanying this Hermes looks more like a snaky pretzel at this point with all the damage.

And finally, after walking through all the hallowed halls of the museum, we were outside the doors of the Sistine Chapel. We joined hands, breathed deeply, walked in, and looked up.

And looked, and looked, and looked. We talked about the restoration project that revealed the bright colors, about how Michelangelo started painting bigger figures to increase legibility from the floor, about the amount of ceiling that could be painted in fresco in a day, about the worst pair of women's breasts ever painted by a major Western artist (The Flood, lower left, mercifully not visible in their full gory detail from the floor), about self-portraits and portraits of friends and enemies, about linear perspective, and about many other things.

And Janie, we made sure to think of you as we looked at the ceiling. I also thought of many of my fellow art historians who have also passed through this space and looked up.

Pictures were not allowed, but we took out the camera, turned off the flash, pointed the lens upward and looked down at it. So here we are in the Sistine Chapel:

We stayed for about a half hour, and even managed to snag two of the coveted seats along the wall to make it easier to look up. The Sistine Chapel delivered everything we hoped it would.


That was the end of the museum, but we had one more awesome activity planned: climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter's. I had heard that this was a scary activity for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights, and I am both, so I was a little worried. There are 551 steps up to the dome (although Charlie only counted 520), and so we were also looking at a good physical workout.

I made it without incident to the first vista point, which was inside the church. We walked along a catwalk in the interior of the dome, and looked down at the tiny figures on the floor of the basilica below. Here is Charlie's picture of Bernini's Throne of St. Peter, as seen from above:

From that catwalk, we still had about 300 steps to climb. The stairs did indeed get narrower and narrower, and steeper and steeper, and the walls began to lean inward, making it impossible to stand completely upright as we walked up the most curved segment of the dome. Finally, the tilt straightened out somewhat, but then we followed a series of switchbacks culminating in an incredibly narrow spiral staircase. Here's Charlie on the spiral staircase - see how few steps are between him and me, but not that the top of his head is actually below my feet. We all know that Charlie is quite tall, so that should give you an idea of the steepness of these stairs:

But finally, we were out in the open air at the top of the dome, and the view was spectacular. In characteristic form, my fear of heights kicked in, with some shaking and whimpering and flop sweat. But I managed to enjoy the bird's-eye view of the city, and I even helped some other visitors locate particular buildings in the landscape.

Here we are at the top of the dome:

I think I detect a bit of an insane glint in my eye - that's the fear. It was pretty cool to see the city this way, though, and I'm not going to forget it. I just hope I don't have nightmares about falling from the top.

Tomorrow is Charlie's last full day, and we have a full day of sightseeing planned, so I must be off to sleep! Maybe my feet will stop hurting at some point.

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