The Vatican Shuffle

Probably number one on my list of things to see in Rome was the Vatican Museum and today was the day. The only problem was, I didn’t get my ticket ahead of time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try. One night I tried to buy a voucher from a street booth but the man only spoke Italian and didn’t understand what I wanted. I gave up for fear of getting the wrong thing. Then I was going to get a ticket online but you have to print out the voucher and I don’t have a way to print. So I had to wait until I could ask my B&B folks if they could print one for me, but it was too late. The online tickets have to be purchased 48 hours in advance.

Oh well, I just got myself ready and prepared for standing in line. How bad could it be?


This is only a SMALL part of the line… probably not even a quarter of it!

OK, I left the room about 10:30 am and walked straight to the vatican, so I guess I ambled up on the line about quarter or ten till 11. The sun was shining and the line was moving, although I couldn’t see how far it went, and I settled in. The “skip-the-line” vendors were working the crowd hard, but I didn’t see anyone buy their overpriced tickets.

For a long while I shuffled along in silence beside a quiet older man, focused on keeping my place. The ticket vendors circled like vultures. Other people in line started sending part of their party off to buy food and bring it back. It was getting past lunchtime.

After an hour or so we turned a corner and still the line stretched out of sight. Gypsy beggars held out their Jesus pictures. Crippled souls sat or lay on the ground along the wall with a cup extended for coins. More vendors, now with postcards and keychains. Even when you say no, they talk to the side of your face and shake their goods at you.

Finally I start talking to the older man. He is from Toronto and can’t believe he is standing in a line this long. Neither can I. And I don’t think I would for anything else. But at least we can chat and the weather is mild and we compare our guidebooks on what we are about to see – if we ever make it to the entrance.

Finally, about 2:15, we are at the door. Almost 3.5 hours in line and the tour is just starting. I’m feeling a little faint, but we hang together through security and the ticket booth and many flights of stairs. We arrive at an open plaza that leads to more stairs and the beginning of the museum. There is a cafe on the left. I have to stop, so this is where we part ways.

I get a tuna sandwich and a glass of Prosecco and just sit for a few minutes. I am alarmed at the number of large tour groups filing by and entering the museum. It seems like an awful lot of people cramming in there… an awful lot!

And it was.

When I made my way inside I was enveloped into a mass of bodies moving as one unit. Shuffle, shuffle, stop, squeeze, get poked with purses and umbrellas, shuffle some more. How are we going to see anything at this rate?

Sadly, it stayed that way the whole time. I maneuvered around tour groups when I could, but it was only to butt up against another one. I really think if I had just lifted my feet off the ground the crowd would have carried me right on through the whole place. So it was squeeze your way to what you wanted to see, then squeeze back in and keep moving. Lots of people just held their cameras over their heads and pushed the button, hoping for the best. I didn’t even bother – postcards are better pics anyway.

After what seemed an eternity we came to a loop of rooms. I could see where you would wind around and come right out on the other side of the rope I was standing beside. I felt the sudden need to escape. I caught the guard’s attention and motioned and asked, “can I come under the rope, please?” “no,” he said, and motioned for me to take the loop through the rooms. I thought I would cry so I stood as pitifully as I could and asked again. “Please?”

“Are you alone?” he asked. “yes!” I replied eagerly. He unhooked the rope and let me through. Oh bliss! Some fresh air and I could get my nose out of the back of some guy’s oxford shirt…

Of course it was right back into the crowd again, but oh well.

So why am I not expounding on the glorious treasures of the Vatican Museum – the greatest collection of western art in the world? Because I couldn’t get near it! I’m not going to say I’m sorry I went, because I’m not, but it was a bit of a letdown to go on a day when it was that crowded. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like tour groups, and even though I tried to suspend my own biases, it was draining to contend with. Still I am glad I made it through the Vatican Museum. And I will spend some time looking at the treasures online and up close.

The highlight, however, is the Sistine Chapel. I was greatly anticipating seeing that. And it is glorious. It has been restored to its original colors and stretches overhead at 43 feet wide and 131 feet long. The most famous excerpt from it you usually see in books, the creation of Adam, is just one small central panel.

ImageImageThe stories of the rascally Michelangelo Buonarroti spending 4 years painting this ceiling are fascinating. He got the job when his rivals suggested him for it to the Pope. They knew he had never done frescoes before and they thought he would do a terrible job and make them look better. Michel did not want the job. He considered painting to be an inferior art form to sculpting. But the pope bribed him with promises of a huge sculpting project later, so Michel took it on.

After a fierce learning curve, he got pretty good at it. He also had to design special scaffolding for the project. Some accounts say he was able to paint leaning backwards – and over his head – but that he didn’t lie on his back to do it. He had a lot of assistants who he didn’t allow to do much painting – maybe a patch of sky – and hired and fired them constantly. He made them mix plaster and paint and truck it up and down the scaffolding. He didn’t like people seeing what he was doing so he would chase them away. He even threw wooden planks at the pope from the catwalk!

But all was forgiven when the masterpiece was revealed and even Michelangelo’s rivals were impressed.

Today it is one of the most magnificent pieces of art on earth – if you can enjoy it. I entered the room with the masses. The room itself was literally packed shoulder to shoulder with people craning their necks upwards, mouths hanging open, shooting photos. The entire place was at a standstill with guards occasionally trying to move people along. It did little good.

I moved from spot to spot as I could to view various panels, but it was really a jostling mess overall. I soon had to find the door and just tell myself I was there and I’ll have to study it more from photographs.

And in fact, there is quite a controversy about the overcrowded situation at the museum. The Sistine Chapel, in particular, is suffering damage from the pollution of so many bodies crammed into the same space.There are plans to install more cooling systems to handle the body heat and flakes of hair and skin that everyone leaves behind because it leaves a residue in the room.

Critics want the crowds to be limited by ticket sales but the museum directors don’t want to lose the revenue. I for one would like to see the crowds controlled. If I knew I could only visit the museum by getting a timed ticket, I would plan for that. It would be so much more enjoyable. And I wouldn’t have spent almost 7 hours of the day literally shuffling through miles of lines and crowds.

So then it was on to St. Peter’s Basilica, and I’ll have to make that the next post…

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. MaryBeth
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 09:03:33

    Wow. A completely different experience for you. Did you see the Raphael rooms? Incredible! And the sculptures, and sculptures…weren’t they beautiful? And did you notice the castration of many? And there are no photograpsh allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. And I take it you didn’t do the audio tour? The audio was wonderful and we SAT inside the Sistine Chapel for at least 45 minutes!

    I better start planning to take you back to Italy and we will Rome MB style! And I DO NOT do those lines! Lol

    Keep conquering Rome,


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