Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rome-The Vatican Museums on a rainy day, April 2015.

Mayur called me from Munich on a busy working day- March is a crazy time at work. ‘I’ve something to tell you’, he said. ‘We’re going to Rome!’ Wow! He had actually picked the destination and booked the flight tickets for the Easter weekend!! I immediately started a hunt for a Bed and Breakfast and confirmed our booking at a place called Beltramelli BnB. We were set for Rome!
It was going to be my first weekend in Europe, and in all the travelling for work till the last day, and hurried shopping and packing, I’d forgotten to ask Claudia from the BnB precise directions from the suburban train station of Roma Tiburtina. To top it all, Mayur’s cell phone network abandoned us in Italy. We spent half an hour of our precious time in asking directions,and getting  animated replies in Italian and broken English. A kind gentleman actually used Google maps on his cell phone to help us, and finally we even called the BnB from a public phone booth. Finally, we reached the cute  BnB in a residential, suburban area of Rome.

After a quick bite, we set out to the city center by train to see the Vatican museums. It was Good Friday, and the St. Peter Basilica was closed that day, and the Vatican museums would be closed the next day, so there was this humongous queue outside the museum gate. Our lack of preparation also meant that we hadn’t bought tickets online.So standing in the queue in the rain and cold, hoping to get in before closing time while bravely resisting the crude ‘skip-the line' offers was all we could do. And we did get in, just in the nick of time! That feeling was a heady concoction of relief, triumph,happiness, and great anticipation!!

The museums were chamber after chamber of Renaissance gems that made us forget all our tiredness (we’d taken an early morning flight), and even hunger! Not only are the walls and ceilings bedecked with jewels, but even the floors have beautiful mosaics.

The huge and intricate Flemish tapestries were quite remarkable. Copied from drawings by Raphael's pupils, these were made in Brussels in the 16th c.


When we reached the Sobieski room, both of us wanted to linger on, take in some more. The room derives its name from the enormous wall to wall painting of the Polish king Sobieski by Jean Matejko. It depicts the Polish victory over Turks in the 17th century. Apparently, Sobieski prevented the Turks from overrunning Europe.The detail, the expression of arrogance on the king’s face, the tragedy of war: what an exceptional painting!

Martyrs of Gorkum

Another striking painting in that room describing the tragic scene of a mass hanging, is the Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini. These 19 Dutch Catholics were put to death by the Calvinists during the 16th century religious wars. All paintings in this room date back to the 19th century.
And then of course, the renowned masters. The Raphael’s rooms, which are the public part of the papal apartments, were decorated by Raphael and his students, in the 16th century. Since perspective was what set Renaissance art aside from medieval art, these frescoes, for me, epitomise Renaissance art in how they depict beautiful three-dimensional scenes like ‘The School of Athens’, ‘The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple’ and ‘Fire in the Borgo’, to name a few. Each of the rooms has a theme: Victory of Christianity over Paganism (with the ceiling fresco showing a broken statue in front of a crucifix), The heavenly protection granted by Christ to the Church, The harmony between Christian and Greek philosphies, and the Fire in the Borgo.
Room of immaculate conception

Ancestors of Christ

And then, the pièce de résistance. The Sistine Chapel: the site of the papal conclave to elect a new pope. There was much more security in here, and we were constantly being told to maintain silence and not take photographs/videos. Three walls of the chapel are covered with beautiful frescoes by a team of Renaissance artists who created frescoes such as ‘The Last Supper’ by Cosimo Rosselli and ‘The trials of Moses’ by Sandro Boticelli. It’s hard to believe that the  trompe l'oeil drapery on the walls is painted, and not real. Michaelangelo was commissioned to (re)paint the ceiling and the entire wall behind the altar. Interestingly, he was overwhelmed by the job as he considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter. He created his own wooden platform, as no architect could do a satisfactory job, and painted the ceiling from a standing position(contrary to common belief). The lowest part of the ceilings have beautiful figures of the ancestors of Christ, and most of them are shown studying from a  book or scroll. On the highest ceiling are painted stories from the book of Genesis, including the brilliant ‘Creation of Adam’. The altar wall, painted many years after completing the ceiling,  depicts ‘The Last judgement’ in great, glorious detail. Incidentally, Michaelangelo had depicted only nude figures, which caused great controversy and were later ‘covered up’ by another artist, after Michaelangelo’s death!
Sistine Chapel Ceiling-a sneak peek

From the Gallery of maps

After the Sistine Chapel, you think it must be the end of the tour. What can you show us after that? But a lovely surprise is in store. The gallery of maps! The perfect antidote to the overdose of all the beautiful yet almost exclusively sacral art!! It has a series of pretty accurate maps of Italy and was created in the 16th century based on the drawings of the geographer Danti. It has a few old globes too. One of them had constellations painted on it. On locating India on one of them, I saw ‘Moltan’ marked somewhere in modern day Uttar Pradesh. Well, decent accuracy for the times, I’d say.
Gallery of maps ceiling-St. Michael in Monte Gargano
Of course, the museums have a great collection of sculpture- Roman, Greek, Egyptian; and other curious objects.

Satyr with Dionysus as a child

Chariot room
The famous Belvedere torso  which is the fragment of a nude male statue is dated to about 1st century BC and is said to have inspired Michaelangelo.
There’s a gallery of ancient  animal statues. Then there’s the Sala Rotunda, with a giant stone bath carved from a single stone at its centre, beautiful sculptures all around and an exquisite mosaic covering the floor.

With the double helical staircase at the exit (that keeps ascending people away from those who are descending) providing the last bit of drama, we hopped out of the museums like happy children, eager to find a sumptuous meal.

We found a family run restaurant with the elderly patriarch greeting us with a a smile. Fresh orange juice (red in colour! Made from Sicilian or ‘blood’ oranges), spaghetti with bacon in red sauce and ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese were polished off pretty quickly. We finished the meal with the most gorgeous tiramisu which the owner's wife had herself made! Divine finish to a heavenly day!! :)

P.S: The photos are basically record shots taken with a Panasonic Lumix GX-7 + 7-14 F4.0 hand held in low light. 

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