I was in Rome a few weeks ago playing tour guide.
Now, I won’t play tour guide for very many people, but one of my oldest friends was visiting. It was her first trip to Europe, and Rome was the city at the top of her list.
We did the usual rounds, paying our respects at the Colosseum and Forum, and all those essential buildings, shops and squares that crowd into the ancient centre. But I’d been especially dreading a return visit to the Vatican Museum.
During the day, the Vatican Museum is packed to the rafters with tourists. On my first trip to Rome back in 2012, I spent much of the time being swept down long galleries by an inattentive mob of elbowing, pushy people people.
I was looking forward to spending more time with several incredible paintings and sculptures, but I was not looking forward to the sort of jostling that left my first visit tinged with rage.
And then one of those strange travel coincidences intervened. Or perhaps it was a gift of the classical gods. I received a message from the good people at The Tour Guy asking if I’d like to check out any of their exclusive experiences.
I’m really not a tour person. I like going my own way, and I resent it when the price of entry into a place is closely supervised obligation herding.
But Curtis was offering something different: after hours access to one of the world’s most crowded treasure houses. A chance to walk around on our own, without the daytime mobs.
And so me and Jen trudged over to Vatican City after what had already been a long day of walking in the sun. We would develop the Cobblestone Hobble by the time the night was done, prompting us to reflect on middle age, but it was nothing a couple glasses of wine couldn’t cure.
Anyway, yeah, the pope’s place at night.
There were more tour groups with after hours access than I expected to see queued up outside the gates, but it was so much better than going in the daytime. And when a man resembling St. Peter opened a door which was distinctly non-pearly, we slipped inside and collected our passes and radios.
The groups tended to bunch up at first as we shuffled down the long galleries together, but when our guided tour was over, we were free to wander around for two more hours. That’s when it felt like we nearly had this vast museum complex to ourselves. I couldn’t lounge around on the Papal Sofa or conduct Inquisitions to ferret out destroyers of library books, but space and time to look around made up for that minor oversight.
The tour itself was first rate, too. Our guide was called Maria, and she clearly had an irreverent streak. After telling us about the scandalized papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, who insisted that clothes be painted onto the figures in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, she pointed out that, in their original form, naked Saint Blaise really looked like he was giving naked Saint Catherine a good seeing-to from behind.
Clothing was duly applied to the figures by a painter called Daniele da Volterra, known forever afterwards as il Braghettone (“the breeches maker”). But the figure of the pope’s prudish Master of Ceremonies was left in the lower corner of hell where Michelangelo had placed him, with the ears of an ass and a snake biting his balls.
Maria loosed off several other memorable lines throughout our walk, pausing by a kiosk that had been placed between two galleries and asking if anyone wanted to buy souvenirs blessed by Pope Francis.
But what struck me most was how knowledgable she was on a wide range of topics, from European and Italian history, to the history of the Papacy, Greek philosophy, and more. I’d like to think that I’m fairly well read in all these areas, and it was obvious from her comments that Maria had far more to say than she had time for on this fast paced tour.
I’m not the sort of traveler who enjoys group tours, but I could have spent another hour listening to her insights. I will happily sign on to The Roman Guy’s tour again next time I’m in town, and I can highly recommend it my my readers. Don’t suffer the Vatican Museum’s daytime crowds if you have the option of going after hours.
You will need time and space, because the place is absolutely inundated with Greek and Roman sculpture, Egyptian antiquities, Etruscan remains, galleries of ancient maps and tapestries, and both modern and classical painting. Oh, and some religious artifacts, too.
Inevitably, I found myself drawn to the very same works which had mesmerized me on my first visit.
Raphael’s School of Athens is a painting I could stare at for hours. It captures the spirit of the Italian Renaissance in one massive wall-spanning fresco where art, philosophy and science merge, mingle, argue and sulk around the steps of a massive room.
Plato and Aristotle pace the centre of the image, with Plato pointing towards the sky, perhaps in reference to his Theory of Forms, while materialist Aristotle gestures towards the physical world of experience, for him the source of all knowledge.
A library of other figures is scattered around this focal point. Socrates drones on and on and on to our left, annoying a group of students. Pythagoras scribbles in a book while some guy with a beard copies his notes from over his shoulder. Euclid is messing around with a compass, predating the many math sets I would buy and destroy (or deliberately lose) throughout my elementary school career.
At the other side of the scene, Ptolemy holds a terrestrial globe, facing off against Zoroaster, who is lifting a celestial globe of his own. And Diogenes the Cynic sprawls on the steps at their feet, brushing off everyone else, no doubt thinking about that time he lived in a barrel in the Athenian agora and masturbated furiously, much to the surprise of passing housewives.
The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511, contains so many layers of references and figures, each one representing a library of thought, that I end up losing myself down theoretical tangents every time I stare at it — much like the popes who once used this room as a study.
Another great favourite of mine is, of course, the Gallery of Maps. This elegant room is longer than a football field, and hung with depictions of the many ways that humankind has conceptualized, organized, and sought to bring order to the natural world.
Finally, if I had to choose only one sculpture in this entire world of art to spend my time with, it would be the Laocoön.
Laocoön was a priest of Apollo in the city of Troy. You’ll recall that the Greeks had besieged this city for 10 long years, with no end in sight, when Odysseus had the bright idea to build a giant wooden horse and hide soldiers inside it. The Trojans were told it was a gift, and that the Greeks, sick of all this bickering, had picked up their toys and gone home.
But ol’ Laocoön wasn’t buying any of it. He smelled a rat — or maybe a sweaty Greek. He tried to warn his fellow citizens it was a trap, but would they listen? Homer has the answer to that one (Hint: it’s “No”).
Worse was yet to come for the priest. The gods were meddling in this conflict, taking sides as they often did in the ancient world, and Athena and Poseidon both favoured the Greeks. They didn’t like seeing this Trojan priest trying to mess up the plan, and so they sent two enormous sea-serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons.
And that is what we see in this sculpture: Laocoön and his two sons fighting desperately for their lives, struggling frantically to free themselves from the grasp of the serpents that are strangling, squeezing and biting.
No matter how long I stare at this sculpture — at the curls of Laocoön’s hair, at the open mouth of the serpent biting his thigh, at the group held together by the bodies of snakes — I cannot believe that it was carved from a single block of marble. Not just because of the technical mastery and the emotion captured in stone. But how did the artist see these forms hidden inside?
The Vatican Museums contain the artistic and cultural wealth of the world, either looted by the church in its crusade to push Jesus on every indigenous group at the planet’s farthest fringes, or commissioned by Popes who controlled vast wealth and power in the Middle Ages.
But whether or not you approve of the church, I advise you to set politics aside during your visit and focus on the treasures of our collective past. My only “church” is the Australian music group, and I’m simply grateful that we can still see these objects today.
Our night visit at an end, we trudged on weary legs around the walls of the Papal city-state and back to St. Peter’s Square. It was after 10pm by then, and the crowds of worshippers had dispersed long ago.
We crossed the massive square and sat on a step beneath Bernini’s curving Doric colonnade, topped with a mixed bag of saints, and we looked at the facade and tower of Christianity’s largest church.
The Papal apartments were directly across from us, and I briefly wondered whether Francis was a nighttime reader. But mostly we sat together in silence, thinking about the past and our lives. Our small hometown felt very far away, both geographically, but also in terms of world-shaking events. How many things this square must have seen, from the fall of Rome to the long Dark Ages, the burning of heretics at the stake, and the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists. And now, tourist hordes and the European Union.
The present just doesn’t feel very significant when viewed down a tunnel of centuries, and those day to day problems that plague every one of us drifted into insignificance, too.
We thought about these things in silence, late at night on St. Peter’s Square. And then I stretched my forty-seven year old knees and heard them go off with a crack.
“Glass of wine?”
“Glass of wine.”
And so we trudged along the bank of the mighty Tiber, back to Trastevere to what had quickly become our favourite bar.
Check out The Roman Guy’s Vatican Museum Night Tour HERE. Highly recommended.