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Inside the Sistine Chapel

May 16th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Rome, tourism


The Sistine Chapel may be the No. 1 tourist destination in the world, the top-of-the-list individual site for everyone who comes to Rome.

Which makes seeing it … a test of character and patience. You are in competition with much of the planet to see the place with your own eyes.

Some of the most famous works of art are in that one room … Michelangelo, Botticelli and the rest. The Michelangelo-executed ceiling of the chapel, the Last Judgment above the altar, plus the historical significance of the chapel, where popes are elected in conclave, all make it a must-see. If you are brave enough.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel requires effort. You enter the Vatican Museums, on the north side of the Vatican, pay your 16 euros each, and then you and 50,000 of you closest friends jostle and push each other towards the ultimate reward of the whole process. The Sistine.

We went today, and the great test is the crowds and, in particular, the tour groups, which clog all process forward because they tend to stop in narrow/cramped quarters and rubberneck at whatever it is their guide is talking about.

When we entered the museums, shortly after noon, the lines were quite short. We walked directly in the front door, more or less, and went straight to the mag-and-bag area. So, the scary assumption we must make is … the process of getting into the museums can be far more oppressive, with far more people en route, than we encountered. Leah remembers lines wrapping around the block.

We went past, as quickly as we could manage, all sorts of great works (aside from the sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons) just for the sake of breathing space.

(Those who have issues of claustrophobia must be advised against the whole of the experience.)

We took the shortcut offered … somewhere in there — more or less straight to the Sistine, and were glad we did. Even after taking in the warning of the docent (“you cannot turn back”). No intention to, signore.

The entrance to the Sistine is barely the width of a regular door, and then you are inside a mostly dark area perhaps 60 feet across and 150 deep.

Is it worth the trouble? That is an individual decision, of course, but I tend to come down, a bit, on the side of “yes”.

The scope of Michelangelo’s works, in particular, is astonishing. Staring at the ceiling, at the Last Judgment … you can do it for quite some time.

You will almost certainly be hectored by the uniformed police/security people inside, who seem to pass their day shouting “silence/silencio!” or blasting out “shhhhhhhhh!”, demanding the 500 people who may have jammed into the room to not do what comes naturally — which is to point and want to discuss what they are looking at.

(The place seems air-conditioned now; I have a recollection that it was not, when I was there, previously in, 1987, I believe it was. I remember it being cruelly stuffy.)

Enormous coffee table books have been printed pertaining to the Sistine Chapel, so I will not dwell on it, aside from these two points:

1. The famous fresco on the ceiling, with God reaching towards the finger of Adam to spark life into him … does not jibe with the Biblical description of the event, in Genesis 2:7. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” So, some artistic license there, by Michelangelo and his touchy forefingers.

2. For the first time, I noticed God’s butt. Which seems quite out of place, in the Vatican. One explanation is that it refers to a biblical passage in Exodus in which God says: “you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen”. Still, odd.

After the Sistine, the crowds seemed to thin. Probably because everyone accelerates after the Sistine. Some good stuff still out ahead, but none of it has the cachet of the Sistine.

From start to finish … two hours. About 15-20 minutes of it were in the Sistine. The rest, fighting through crowds.

I would suggest limiting tour groups (eliminating them, actually), and paying closer attention to how many people are allowed inside the museums at any moment.

But the place continues to attract huge numbers of people ready to put up with the madding crowd.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Hickey // May 19, 2013 at 11:54 PM

    Every time I see the Creation of Adam, I’m reminded of a graphic for a Sunday centerpiece in the early 1990s written by the Beast, I believe, on whether God is a sports fan. And it was the Creation of Adam, with Adam … in a Packers jersey.

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