Perhaps you’re looking in the wrong place? (Musei Vaticani Pt II)

In my last post I hinted that the Sistine Chapel is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end for many of the Vatican Museums visitors, much as the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, or the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. It is spectacular in composition, colour and scope, and I’d happily bypass it.

There are two reasons for this. One is that photography is not permitted; not just flash photography, where the light may fade the pigments, any photography, but worse still you can’t really look at it. Even in December the number of visitors vastly exceeds the number of seats around the perimeter of the chapel, and woe betide anyone who seeks to sit on the floor or steps to be able to spend the time required to take in Michelangelo’s masterwork. The stewards elsewhere within the museum are gentle and scholarly. Here they are young, muscular and assertive as they actively patrol the room. Even if you find a seat, it will only afford a view of some of the room and there’ll be a long wait for one opposite!

But no matter. Accept that it will be an anti-climax. That way you can enjoy some of the other pleasures of this palace of excessive power and influence.

Some of them are obvious; Pomodoro’s Sfera con Sfera (one of a number of these golden globes around the world), the ceiling of the Gallery of the Maps, the great head of Augustus and the Momo Staircase, so often incorrectly referred to as the Bramante Staircase even though it wasn’t built until 400 years after the death of Donatello Bramante, the architect whose work elsewhere inspired both this structure and indeed Michelangelo’s dome of St Peter’s.

But look more closely and there is artistry everywhere; in the carvings on doorways and window shutters, in the marbles of the flooring and yet more spectacular ceilings created over centuries.

There are also some of the individual works from antiquity to modern day, by artists notorious and long forgotten.

And if you’re really looking for superstar artistry, where you can take as long as you like to enjoy the details, and so long as you don’t use flash take as many pictures as you like, then you can’t go wrong with the Stanze di Raffaelo, a series of rooms clothed in frescoes by another Renaissance great.  When Sir Kenneth Clark published his book to accompany the TV series 50 years ago, Civilisation did not feature the Sistine Chapel on its front cover.  Instead it featured a detail from one of these rooms and the image known as The School of Athens in which Euclid explains a geometrical theorem to a group of students.  Of course Raphael had no idea what Euclid looked like so he turned to someone he did know to supply the face of the mathematician.  Donatello Bramante.

The School of Athens, Raphael, Musei Vaticani  (Euclid in red, bottom right)
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