Meanwhile in 16th Century Vatican City…
“I don’t see what the problem is,” he shrugged.
“You don’t see what the problem is!” he said in exasperation. “Your holiness, he gave me the ears of a donkey!”
“I think they look rather fetching,” he mused.
“And there’s a serpent eternally biting off my testicles!”
“Well that does sound rather uncomfortable,” he said in sympathy.
“So you’ll order him to paint my face out?”
“Look,” he sighed, “I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power…”
Food rationing in Britain during WWII was so severe that giant, meandering queues became common place. It’s claimed that people would often join queues without knowing what they were for. They just hoped there’d be something worthwhile at the end. Not long after entering Vatican City I did something similar. There was a massive queue snaking its way around St Peter’s Square. I assumed it must be the right queue, so I joined.
Vatican City formed in 1870 when unification of the numerous Italian states resulted in much of the land surrounding the city being claimed. A territorial standoff resulted, lasting almost sixty years until Mussolini signed a 1929 pact rendering the city an independent nation state; the world’s smallest. Amusingly, it has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the world. Many would argue this is owed to the tiny population skewing the crime figures. But perhaps it’s simply evidence for the Bible’s proverb ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ After all, when a reporter asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican he jokingly replied ‘about half of them.’
My intention was to queue for the Sistine Chapel, so I was relieved to discover the massive queue was actually for the basilica. It was ‘about three hours long’ I was told. I happily departed and wandered off to find the chapel’s queue.
I kept being approached by guys promising I could skip the queues. After discovering the chapel queue was 1hr 30mins I became interested. I got chatting to one who explained that for 50E I’d get a guided tour of the museum, chapel and basilica. Entry to the chapel was 20E, so it would be an extra 30E. I said I’d think about it and went to leave. He stopped me and offered student price. My comment about not being a student was greeted with casual insouciance. Student price was 41E. So he was offering 21E to skip the queues, receive a guided tour and see the basilica. Seemed like a sweet deal. Five minutes later I was inside listening to the guide’s explanations.
The guide was a slightly eccentric, middle-aged Italian lady wearing clothes daubed with more splashes of colour than your average painter’s smock. She also seemed extremely preoccupied with the male bodies of the museum’s sculptures, which I found rather amusing.
After the museum we entered the Sistine Chapel. It’s named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned it, and was built between 1473 and 1481. Its dimensions are the same as the Temple of Solomon’s as described in the Old Testament. It wasn’t until my visit that I realised the infamous smoke that the world’s press awaits when a new pope is being selected emanates from the chapel. A chimney is installed in the roof when required.
Although the chapel was completed in 1481, Michelangelo didn’t begin the ceiling until 1508. He was initially vehemently opposed to the commission. This was partly owed to the daunting scale of the work, but also his contempt for the art form. He considered himself a sculptor first and foremost, and distained frescoes. Despite this, he created such an astounding masterpiece that it changed the direction of western art. It takes someone remarkable to create a world-changing piece of art. To do so in a medium you’re contemptuous off…well… I’ve no idea what level of talent that takes.
It seems Michelangelo was also a pretty strong-willed character. You’d imagine most people would humbly abide any request from the pope. Not Michelangelo. He maintained that if he had to accept the commission then he must have a free hand in its design. He then dismissed the requested design completely and embarked upon an epic series of nine scenes from Genesis. Despite his initial reticence, he eventually painted an astounding three hundred figures covering 460m2. He also ignored the pope’s constant complaints about the mushrooming timescale and spent four years on the work.
The pope summoned his principal architect and instructed him to design a scaffold to aid Michelangelo in reaching the ceiling. Michelangelo laughed at the proposed design and opted to design his own. Many mistakenly believe he painted lying on his back, but he was actually standing up.
While in his sixties Michelangelo was called back to paint the altar wall. Once again he protested the commission; once again the pope dismissed his objections. The result was The Last Judgement – the largest fresco painted during the 16th century and an unquestioned masterpiece. It depicts Christ as the judge sending the damned to hell with his left hand and lifting the saved up to heaven with his right. Despite once again having to endure the pope’s constant pestering to hurry up he took his time and completed the work between 1535 and 1541.
The Last Judgment proved controversial through its depiction of naked figures. It ignited a bitter dispute between Michelangelo and the pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who considered it disgraceful for such a sacred place to feature nude figures. In retaliation, Michelangelo incorporated Cesena into the scene as Minos, the judge of the underworld, who has the ears of a jackass and snakes biting his testicles. Cesena complained to the pope who responded with the comment at the start of this post (“I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power” – the rest of the scene was artistic licence on my part.)
It goes without saying that the ceiling is spectacular. Sadly, I can’t share any photos as they’re forbidden. The Swiss guards who patrol the chapel are pretty strict about this. I saw one guy having his cheekily-snapped photos deleted. There’s no talking allowed either. There’s just a lot a shushing.
After the chapel we were guided through to St Peter’s Basilica. The first church on the site was built during the 4th century, but it underwent major rebuilding during the 16th and 17th centuries. This mammoth project took 120 years to complete.
Catholics believe St Peter’s Basilica is built upon the burial site of the first pope and head of Christ’s apostles: St. Peter. Oddly, his name was actually Simon. He helped found the Christian church after Jesus’ crucifixion. He was later crucified for his efforts. The basilica’s altar is claimed to be positioned directly over his tomb.
Michelangelo was in his seventies when the basilica’s principal architect died. The construction had already been going for forty years. I imagine Michelangelo was hoping to put his feet up and relax in his twilight years, but the pope had other ideas. He dragged him from his retirement and appointed him superintendent of the building program – something he once again vehemently opposed.
Once again he also again demanded a free hand in the design. But he didn’t simply dismiss the work of the previous architects. He built upon it. In doing so he progressed the colossal project to a stage where it could be completed after his death. As such, he’s recognised as the principal architect of what stands today. Going for the hat-trick, the result was another undisputed masterpiece. It’s an example of Renaissance architecture considered by many as ‘the greatest of all churches of Christendom.’ It influenced architecture throughout Western Christendom and even features the world’s tallest dome (inspiring Christopher Wren’s dome at St Paul’s in London). Upon completion it gained the title of world’s biggest church. A title it held until 1989 when the church in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire surpassed it.
Despite initially being uninterested in seeing inside the basilica I’m extremely glad I did. It’s astonishing. I’ve seen a fair few churches in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite like entering St Peter’s Basilica and lifting my head.
The immense size and beauty is staggering. I was so overwhelmed by the visual hammer-blow that I stopped dead in humbled awe. I hope Christian readers can forgive me, but upon entering the holiest site in Christendom the words that immediately, accidentally, left my lips were “Holy fuck.”
The thing I took most from my Vatican City trip was respect for Michelangelo. He’s the genius rebel who revolutionised everything he begrudgingly touched. He considered fresco an inferior art form, and yet revolutionised it anyway. It was a rival painter who pushed for him to paint the Sistine Chapel – hoping his dislike of frescoes would result in a humiliating disaster. Instead, he elevated it beyond anything anyone had ever seen before.
He consistently rebelled against the pope’s authority. Whether it was arguing against his commissions, dismissing the intended designs or simply ignoring incessant demands to hurry up. Along the way he mocked a leading architect and humiliated the master of ceremonies. He also took one of the holiest sites in Christendom and filled it with nude images (until they were later covered over). He was clearly an unassailable maverick. You’ve got to admire that.
As I’m not able to show you any photos I thought I’d instead share this classic Monty Python sketch. It fittingly imagines Michelangelo arguing with the pope and explains why he never painted the Last Supper (the chapel’s Last Supper scene was painted by Rosselli).