I never thought that I'd ever say that! But I had the most remarkable visit to the Vatican today (no, I wasn't made a cardinal. Nor did I meet a handsome priest.) Rather, today was the first time I saw the Vatican Museums relatively calm and quiet, and experienced my very first visit to the Sistine Chapel that didn't end with me wanting to smack some of my fellow visitors. I guess it was some sort of off-season miracle. Praise be!
Seriously. I arrived in St. Peter's Square at 9 a.m. for a Scavi tour and, for the first time ever, I just strolled into the piazza -- no security queues, no metal detectors, no need to put my purse through the screening devices that have always, in my previous experience, been set up for visitors to St. Peter's. This was my fourth or fifth visit, but the first in low season. If you dislike crowds, I highly recommend hitting the holy city in January.
Our Scavi tour guide was particularly interesting, and intense. Perhaps a drama student. She didn't introduce herself or ask who any of us were, but launched right into almost two hours of non-stop information about the necropolis, or city of the dead, beneath St. Peter's Basilica. I had toured the excavations, including what's believed to be the tomb of Peter himself, in the past and have been really impressed with the Scavi tour. But today's guide took things to a new level of intensity. When I staggered out at 11 a.m., I was desperate for fresh air and water.
With no line-ups before me, I decided to venture up to the cupola of St. Peter's Basilican and
survey Rome spread out at my feet. But I didn't feel like much of a hero. Today's weather was pretty humid, and again about 15 degrees C., so I was sweating like some kind of farm animal by the time I climbed to the top. The stairs, especially the final 100 or so, become extremely narrow, steep and I felt a bit claustrophobic, which didn't help with the sweating thing. But it was beautiful at the top, and breezy enough that my melted makeup re-caked on my face in no time.
Given how quiet everything seemed, I decided to save the Basilica itself for another day and head straight to the Vatican Museums. Would my luck hold? Or would hordes of my fellow man, shoving through the Raphael rooms and Sistine Chapel, make me nuts (as usual)? I was curious to see if the January miracle would continue.
This visit to the museums really was remarkable, in terms of the art, of course; but also in terms of access. No line-up whatsoever to get into the museums; no line-up at the ticket booths; not even any lines in the women's washrooms (no toilet seats either, but some things never change.) At least the washrooms are always clean.
I felt so very fortunate to be able to stroll through the museums and savour the art in relative peace. I felt so calm (and the weather, for January, was so great) that I was able to sit for several minutes on a bench in the Octagonal Courtyard and gaze at the marble Laocoon sculpture group. Some students mugged for the camera by imitating the priest Laocoon struggling with the killer serpents, but for the most part, it was just me and the marble.
Miracle of miracles, the tiny Chapel of Nicholas V was open. I had always wanted to have a peek in here, to see the Fra Angelico frescos, but it never seemed to be open to the public. I suppose that's because the crush of visitors is so large and the chapel is so small that visitors are only allowed to take just one small step inside the doorway, to protect the frescos and the floor. That means only a few people can cram into the doorway at any one time, as if in some Three Stooges gag. Not very workable when the museums are busy.
And finally, the Sistine Chapel as I've never seen it. Relatively calm. Less like one of Dante's circles of hell. Space between the little knots of people. Fewer angry shouts for "silence" from the guards. Amazing. I could actually hear my audio guide and found a seat along the side wall, so I could gaze up at the ceiling to my heart's content. Now THIS is the way to see the Vatican Museums.
I didn't have much energy left for the Pinacoteca, which was almost empty. As usual. I spent a little time with Raphael's Transfiguration, the last painting he created before death. But I was pretty footsore by this point and as it was 5 p.m., decided to head out. I'll return in a few days, to wallow some more in the January quiet and the new, extended winter hours. As I said before, TGIJ!!!