Vatican City

Lesly Lotha - Vatican City 1

Less than 6 kilometres from Rome lies the Vatican City. The dream of being in two countries at the same time was unconsciously achieved when I set foot in the street that took me to the Vatican museum. You will most likely walk down the avenue of trees and catch a sight of Castel Sant’Angelo along the Tiber River standing like an old guard as St. Peter’s Basilica shine at the back which will surely get your blood pumping. Technically, Castel Sant’Angelo does not fall within the Vatican City. The Vatican City is basically the St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican Museum and The Sistine Chapel. But this is probably one of the most powerful countries in the world, even minting their own money (they use the ancient Italian currency Lira).

Lesly Lotha - Vatican City 2

I wasn’t aware that the Vatican had a King and that this made them just one of six remaining absolute monarchies in the world. This is also the reason why the Vatican cannot be a part of the European Union. The ‘King’ of the Vatican is mostly unheard of because the Pope plays the dual role (i.e. Of Pope and King). He also has a third role as The Holy See. The Holy See is the name given to the diocese of Rome. When the Lateran Pacts (sanctioned by Benito Mussolini) were signed in 1929, it allowed the Vatican to exist as its own sovereign state. The Holy See is the jurisdiction in Rome of the Catholic Church; the supreme body of government and is an episcopal (bishops) designation while the Vatican City is a diplomatic ground and home of the Pope. The seat of the Holy See is thus held by the Pope. So ultimately, while being the emblem of God on earth, the Pope also balances three hats – ruling, governance and diplomacy (It will take a while for those facts to settle in!)

The ‘pro tip’ for a Vatican visit is to join a tour group. A legitimate one that is. You can do it on your own but with a recognised tour guide, you get a fast-forward option right into the St. Peter’s Basilica after the museum and Sistine Chapel viewing. Otherwise the option is to exit after your museum and Sistine Chapel tour and then enter via a separate entrance for St. Peter’s. The Vatican was the only place where we joined a tour group and it was worth it. We were approached by a friendly young English chap, a tour operation for City Lights, and my sister even haggled for the price I think. Our tour guide was a lovely Italian woman who was extremely well-versed and articulate. A fact that stand out is her explanation of the Creation of Adam. The painting of God is within a shape of the brain, hence instilling thought in man. After so many years of looking at the painting, I only saw this then. 

There is a lot of history and information attached and involved within the walls of the Vatican and I don’t think I was adequately prepared for it. I now wish i had bought a relevant book for this. The last one I read relating to anything Vatican was The Agony and The Ecstacy way back in 12th standard. It is the about the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Irving Stone.

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Truth be told, I didn’t take many pictures. I was partly mesmerised and partly tired of pulling out my camera for everything and figured I might as well really take it all in; be in the moment. In any case, the Vatican is just one of those places where any photograph you take turns out to be ‘the one’. Left and right, up and down, you are completely encircled and drenched in art and it is an absolutely fascinating feeling. The main event, for me, was the Sistine Chapel, the home of the Creation of Adam and the Last Supper. You are asked to be as silent as possible and photographs are strictly not allowed. If you attempt, you will be personally asked to stop. You are only allowed for a limited time in this place that is both holy and a work of art. A binocular is a handy tool here. We were in a group with 2 elderly couple and friends from America and one of them kindly lend us his binocular which was of great help. It was the only chance I would ever get to be as close to the creation (that can be taken metaphorically in some many ways). The Sistine Chapel is used only during the conclave and for worship services. 

Between 1600 - 1900, art went through a sort of censorship under Pope Innocent X, Pope Clement XIII and Pope Pius IX. Naked status, mostly the male figures, were covered with either a metal or a plaster fig leaf because nakedness was seen as damning.

I saw these sculptors and I remember being both amused and amazed. Amazed thinking about how that statue had survived for over 500 years and amused because of the leaf. This really happened. This was history quite literally coming alive and even a year later, I am still in a state of disbelief. 

Surprising point for me during the museum tour? The Vatican's very unique collection of Egyptian antiquities. 

Our tour guide was over once we were led through the ‘shortcut’ towards the St. Peter’s Basilica.  

So there we were, facing the giant.

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This was really a place fit for the man who symbolised God on earth. The famous window where the Pope addresses the masses were right about and out tour guide pointed that out to us before taking our leave (it’s not mandatory but it is good manners to tip her). The Pope is present to make an appearance every Wednesday. No matter where he is, what part of the world he is in, he apparently makes sure to be back in the Vatican on a Wednesday to greet the people.

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The ceilings of St. Peter's is adorned with what looks like gold paint but it's not. It's real. There are also pot-hole look alike's placed on the floor, adorned in intricate designs possibly in gold. The purpose of these are to work like air vents or air chutes because of the Necropolis which is below/underground. Necropolis literally translates to the 'city of the dead'. Archeologically, they have been dated back to the 4th century and this is where St. Peter, one of the original 12 apostles is believed to be buried here. The Necropolis, however, is not open to everyone. You can try battling the Swiss Guards if you want to sneak past but that'll land you in the Vatican jail (which actually sounds pretty cool in one way). To be granted a tour of the Necropolis, you need to write a letter for permission which isn't given to everyone. College/school tour groups or important people would get first preference I reckon but it is advised that you still give it a shot (probably months or a year before your trip) as only 200 tourists are allowed per month. I imagine it will be worth it. 

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When I was in school, I had the privilege of being taught history by Mr. Matthew from grade 7 to half of 10. I call it a privilege because he made history come alive. You know those teachers who make a difference in the lives of students? He was one of those. I should add that in my lifetime, I had the pleasure to be taught history by three magnificent individuals: Mr. Matthew, Ma’am Phoebe and my father.

Mr. Matthew didn’t teach us like we were school kids. In hindsight, he treated us like adults. He treated us the way we were treated at University. I think most of my classmates weren’t fans of his class because of this. His teaching style was too alternative. He never opened the textbook when he came into the class. He would say “settle down” and begin his tangent. It was impossible not to be enthralled by him and fall under his spell. It was only a few minutes before the bell rang that he would sum up and say we just finished one chapter and if we went back to read it, it would all make sense. His classes were either facts not in our books, tales he had made up or real stories and one such tale was of his friend who visited the Vatican, saw Michelangelo’s Pieta and wept. I never ever forgot that story because Mr. Matthew was metaphorically explaining to a bunch of empty-headed 13 year olds that not only could art could make you feel emotions unlike anything but the work of these masters were unlike anything we could imagine. I always held that story close to me and when I finally saw the Pieta for myself, I understood why. I was back in that history class sometime in the summer of 2002. Michelangelo’s Jesus and Mary had raw emotion. Mary cradled Jesus, her son, as she first did when he was a new-born. Jesus was her son but he also belonged to the world which meant that she could never claim him to just be hers. As a virgin mother, she probably knew that their destiny, as mother or as son, was not going to be easy for either but it had to be accepted. Michelangelo’s Mary has an expression of serenity and to me, I feel that this is probably how she felt when that took him down from the cross. A sense of peace that he was finally past all the suffering and home with his father in heaven.

I refrained from photographing the Pieta. It was a moment in time I just wanted to remember. This is how I felt almost the whole time I was in the Vatican City if I have to be honest. It felt very personal and I didn't even want to share it on my instagram where I was uploading and updating every day. I post a lot from my past travels from time to time today but I refrain from posting anything from the Vatican because I feel like it's crossing a line with my privacy, if that makes sense. It's not about how I will never be able to capture it in photographs. Rather, it felt and still feels much too sacred.Until this log that is. 

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel and later by Pope Paul III to design and build St. Peter’s Cathedral. St. Peter’s was commisoned to several architects including Raphael before Michelangelo. Between 1506 to 1547, the plans were argued upon several times and it never took off. The original architect was Bramante and by the time Raphael and Peruzzi and Sangallo could do anything, there were now cracks in Bramante’s foundations. Michelangelo had to get through five Popes before his vison and foundation for St. Peter’s could take flight by which time he was already over 80 eighty years old. When Pope Paul died, he was succeeded by Pope Julius III and Pope Marcellus who both died in quick succession in 1555. Neither officially voiced Michelangelo as the official architect for St. Peter’s. But under Pope Paul IV and Pope Pius IV, Michelangelo carried on the work until 1564 when he died at the age of 88, completing only part of the dome. Pope Pius IV died the following year and the rest of it was completed by Giacomo della Porto on request of Pope Paul V in 1590. Many of the sculptures inside St. Peter’s is the handiwork of Bernini. 

Michelangelo respected his predecessors while designing his version yet, the credit for the design and architecture as it stands today is completely and deservingly his.

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No wonder man had placed heaven in the sky! It was not because he had ever seen a soul ascend thereto, or caught a glimpse of the vistas of paradise above; but because heaven simply had to be housed in the most divine form known to man’s mind or senses. He wanted his dome too to be mystical, not a protection from hear or rain, thunder or lightning, but of a staggering beauty that would reassure man of His creation… a sentient form which man could not only see and feel but enter. Under his dome a man’s soul must soar upward to God even as it would in the moment of its final release from his body. How much closer could man come to God, while still on earth? With his vast cupola he meant to paint His portrait just as surely as when he had painted Him on the Sistine ceiling.

 Stone, I. (1961). The Dome. In The Agony and The Ecstasy. New York : Penguin Group. 749

Can you imagine if Pope Julius II and Pope Paul III accepted Michelangelo’s resignation when they offered him the commission of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s? because he did. He objected saying that he was no artist and that nor architect. By trade, he was a sculpture. Yet, here we are today. Michelangelo accepted the commission of St. Peter’s as a homage to the God he believed it. It is said that he accepted no payment for St. Peter’s. 

The church has come under fire many times in history for being too narrow-minded and not open to change, prosecuting scientists and inventors, denouncing them as heresy. In recent times, however, it has been plagued by something far worst: scandal (those stories of sexual assault) within the highest order resulting to the resignation of Pope Benedict (as well as health problems, allegedly). During a time when the church needed saving from itself, I have this sense of belief that they were given the answer in the figure of Pope Francis. I admire Pope Francis because of his ability to connect to both the young and the old, to religion and science, to the scripture and to logic and also to believers and non-believers alike. Some argue that he might be too progressive but I sense that he is aware that for the Church, for the Vatican as an institution to continue, it too must embrace the worldly changes. The Vatican is a symbol of faith and hope to millions around the world. And you get to see just that when you’re people watching outside at St. Peter’s Square. 

SEPTEMBER 25, 2015