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)

Can’t see the wood for the trees? (Musei Vaticani Pt I)

In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.

Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–14...
Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–140 CE after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. Found in the 16th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope.  Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.

Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise.  It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court.  I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.

In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality.  But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).

The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old?  What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre?  It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century.  Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:

…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

Which is perhaps why I shot The Braschi Antinous instead.