Corralled beneath ornate ceilings in halls of maps and tapestries, the crowded gallery corridors felt like an elegant livestock chute extending the length of a dozen football fields. From there, we were shoved into a smaller-than-expected chapel packed with tourists. This should have been a moment that forced my mouth agape as I wrapped my head around painted details nearly 500 years old.
We had been on our self-guided tour of the Vatican Museums, moving toward its crown jewel, the Sistine Chapel. Vatican magnificence is undeniable. Its collection is vast. But it was also difficult to fully appreciate its treasures. I was more distracted by its grandiose crowds than captivated by its palatial architecture.
Instead of awe, I felt overwhelmed inside the Chapel. Pausing to take in Michelangelo’s famous frescos, strict security disrupted any potential reverie. Ensuring that I didn’t take photos or video, they insisted my family either keep moving around the perimeter or stand in a central viewing pen packed with people. We shuffled among the outer mob, toward the exit at the opposite end. All the while, I did my best to focus on the art but felt relief to finally exit.
Spacious outdoor courtyards provided fresh air. In Giardino Quadrato, water gently trickled over the rim of a large urn into the basin below to give me a peaceful moment to reflect.
From there, we ventured over to Bramante’s Cortile della Pigna, named for the 2nd-century Roman statue of a large, bronze pinecone perched in front of an enormous apse-shaped recess. In the courtyard’s center, an enormous bronze sphere slowly turned to reveal layers of gears and the smaller sphere within it. This “Sphere Within Sphere” represents the fragile, complex Earth within Christianity—a fresh piece of modern art to contrast with the surrounding history.
After exiting the museum completely, a 15-minute trek around the Swiss-guarded city’s perimeter walls took us to Saint Peter’s Square. As we approached through a large brick archway, then into a covered walkway with soaring white columns, the sound of trickling water invited me into the other side.
In the center of an immense oblong piazza stood an Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome during the Roman Empire. On each side of the monolith, water spouts spilled over the tiers of two grand fountains—Bernini’s fountain on the right (south) and Carlo Maderno’s on the left. The splashing water created a charming atmosphere despite the enormity of the space and made me feel welcome.
An expansive colonnade surrounded the piazza, designed by Bernini during the Baroque era of the 17th century. The details are extraordinary. Above each column sat 140 statues atop two embracing walkway arms. The right side led us to the Renaissance-era entrance of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Square’s east end.
We were drawn inside. Light filled the airy golden volume. (Queue the sounds of angels.) The grandeur of this domed edifice felt as humbling and awe-inspiring as was intended when it was constructed in the 16th century. Built to impress, genius master craftsmen—Bramante (who won the plan design), Raphael, and Michelangelo in the High Renaissance period, and ultimately, Bernini who added lavish Baroque opulence—created a masterpiece, the largest and grandest of all Catholic churches.
Polished light gray marble and gilded barrel-vaults glistened from sunlight that streamed in through elevated windows, constantly drawing my eyes upward in awe. Along the central nave (main aisle), giant archways framed views of the side aisles and chapels.
Light from a colossal dome lined with 16 windows flooded the octagonal space at the crossing where the nave converged with the transept. In the center stood Bernini’s Baldacchino, the Papal Altar, a mammoth-sized canopy over the tomb of Saint Peter.
Framed by the baldachin, the central apse beyond it appeared to glow like sunbeams as morning-light shone through a golden alabaster window over a gilded bronze throne at the Altar of the Chair, another Bernini masterpiece. Every detail was well-thought with purpose.
Before leaving, we stopped at a chapel that displays the Pietà, Michelangelo’s stunning sculpture depicting a lifeless Jesus held by a peaceful Mary. Her serenity creates a sense of beauty. This perfect end to our self-guided tour reminded me of the importance of hope and positivity. The energy surrounding our outlook feeds our results.
It’s difficult not to measure other churches against Saint Peter’s, but it’s also impossible to compare such grandeur. Saint Peter’s Basilica was built as the ultimate Catholic church. This center of Catholic worship sits in the center of Vatican City—the capital of the Catholic faith—in the center of the Italian capital—Rome.
This is the destination of a Catholic pilgrimage. It was moving for me to watch wide-eyed nuns and clergymen enter with such reverence. Everything about Saint Peter’s and its Piazza felt supersized and spectacular. Maybe this made the volume within the Basilica feel less congested, less restricting, making it a more pleasurable experience than the museums.
Today, however, the Vatican Museums would be a much different experience. A limited number of visitors are allowed in due to the pandemic. Reservations are required. Safety measures are in place. Given this limited access, although hard if not impossible for many to get to, right now would be a special time to experience the ornate halls, vestibules, and rotundas of the Vatican without crowds.
The Sistine Chapel must be amazing without people breathing down your neck. The Museums would be a more enriching, enjoyable experience with space and time to take in each Vatican treasure, then to leisurely walk around, gaze at the frescos, and fully appreciate the result of Michelangelo’s years of meticulous work. It’s comforting to know that beyond all life’s challenges beauty exists. One day we will again find ourselves experiencing the world’s wonders like those of Vatican City.
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All photos by Ali Giaudrone
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