Kalpana Sunder takes in the sights of a State steeped in history, spirituality, and the works of great Masters
What it lacks in size, it more than makes up in wealth! The Vatican City's power is palpable. As we walk towards the gates of Vatican City, touts on the side-walk entice us with an English-speaking guide and a way to avoid the queues.
We succumb, and with radio-sets and a flag-toting English girl, march towards the entrance of the Vatican Museums. Here are large statues of Michelangelo and Raphael supporting the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI. The airy vestibule has a ticket booth, an information booth and, of course, the inevitable gift shops! Extending to almost five miles and about 1,500 rooms, the Vatican Museums are not for the faint-hearted! The whistle-stop tour that most groups follow is like an express pedestrian path to the Sistine Chapel.
Our guide leads us to the octagonal courtyard filled with benches, trees, and fountains. Here are placed the earliest statues acquired by the Vatican — Apollo del Belvedere, a Roman copy of a Greek original (one of the most beautiful Roman statues), and the iconic Laocoon dating from the 1st Century. Laocoon was the Trojan priest who warned his fellow citizens that the wooden horse was a trap and was, therefore, condemned by Athena to die with his two sons. Apparently, the statue of Laocoon and his sons was found buried in a field without his elbow. Much later, the elbow was found in an antique shop!
The Belvedere Torso
We enter the Room of the Muses that houses Roman statues of poets and muses copied from Greek originals, and see the famous headless Belvedere Torso dating from the first century B.C. This is said to have inspired many great artists, including Michelangelo, for its outstanding details of human anatomy. It is said to portray Hercules. From here, we move into the Round Room with an ancient mosaic floor; its dome is modelled on the one in the Pantheon. In the centre is a huge basin made from red porphyry stone (a rare, expensive stone, 85 per cent of which is in the Vatican!) which was found in Nero's palace. A gilded bronze statue of Hercules found near the theatre of Pompeii is here. This statue had been struck by lightning, and the superstitious Romans buried it deep in a box explaining why it had been put there. Because of this, it is one of the best-preserved statues of its era!
The next room is the Room of Tapestries, containing 15th and 17th Century tapestries. Pope Leo X got Raphael to paint on silk, and sent them to Flanders to be woven into rich tapestries. The Galleria Della Carte Geografiche is the hall of maps created in 1580 by a cartographer in pale blues and greens. I crane my neck to catch the amazing ceiling frescoes that depict regional saints and the history of the Church. From the windows, we catch a glimpse of the lush Vatican Gardens with ancient oaks and myriad fountains. Taking a break from the riches and the opulence of the Vatican, we go outside to the Courtyard of the Pigna, named after an ancient bronze pine-cone there. There is an oddity here — a startlingly-modern ‘sphere within sphere' sculpture by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro.
We know how Michelangelo painted for four long years lying on the scaffolding, and his battles with the then Pope, but nothing had prepared us for the intense beauty of the Sistine Chapel. This room is not just a chapel — it is the room where the Pope is elected, signalled by the white smoke billowing from the chimney! On the ceiling is a canvas of scenes from the Genesis. Behind the altar is the Last Judgment, also by Michelangelo, a compendium of the ‘Divine Comedy'. Intense restoration efforts have brought to light the unexpectedly vivid colours.
We are now ready to visit the piece de resistance — St. Peter's Basilica. If the Museums humbled us, St Peter's is stunning! Massive bronze doors open to marbled floors and the dome designed by Michelangelo. On the floor is a brass line inset into the floor with a Latin inscription — it compares the size of other great churches in the world to this! We are mesmerised by Michelangelo's Pieta; this is his only signed work. Soon, we are outside St. Peters, in the famous Square designed by Bernini, in the centre of which is a 13th Century B.C. Egyptian obelisk flanked by two fountains. We walk past the Swiss guards, in their striking yellow, blue and red Renaissance uniforms, supposed to have been designed by Michelangelo! My eyes are drawn to the colonnade that shelters the square-like open arms and the statues of saints. Religion, history and the sheer beauty of this place simply leave me overwhelmed.
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU METRO PLUS,2010