The Vatican: Beauty, Crowds, and the Dark History
Visiting the Vatican is a must-do thing on on most Rome visitors' itineraries, and so it was on ours.
A few weeks ago I went with my Mom to Rome for our first ever visit. We were mostly trying to see the most famous structures and places… To me, it was mostly trying to rein in my anxiety over the constant flood of the human form whenever we went.
Beyond the looks: the Vatican's heavy history
But the Vatican was high also on my list. Not only for the pure visual artistry I've known I would find there. I wanted to go and see with my own eyes the place that has been the most important source of pain, terror and progress inhibition in the history of the Western World.
Obviously, my visit would see only the artisans’ visions of beauty, faith, and godly power. But art speaks volumes. In every stunningly beautiful piece of painter’s or sculptor’s work, I saw the need to impose on the visitors the feeling of inferiority, dependence, and awe.
Crowds, crowds everywhere
On more trivial sides of the visit: the crowds. Actually, I think this time more annoying were the ever-present guides peddling their services to everyone.
I didn’t buy the “skip the line” ticket ahead of time figuring out that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. The thing is, there is no entry ticket to the actual Basilica and by paying for a "ticket", you pay for the chance to skip the line of people waiting for security check.
I’m not a morning person so I didn’t get up at dawn to be there right at the opening. When we came the line was stretching and turning across the big plaza.
Vatican is not for the weak
My Mom has some mobility issues – her spine holds together only thanks to some platinum screws and rods. She can’t stand in a place for a long time and she needs to rest often. There was absolutely nowhere to sit.
At first, I thought that maybe I should stand in the line and let her go somewhere to find a place to sit. But then I decided to just pay and skip the line.
I was lucky – at the tourist office selling the tickets, I almost accidentally said that my Mom is handicapped and was told she could skip the line for free if she had a document. I was really glad she did – an ID in Polish stating her disability. In Polish. There was no English on it at all nor some kind of symbol.
I was afraid they would dismiss it. But they didn’t. We were able to move in just to hit the crowds waiting to actually enter the Basilica. But the wait wasn’t all that long.
Inside the heart of the Vatican
The moment you enter you are hit with greatness. There is no cutting edges, no skimping on gold or any other kind of method to show the grandiose of this institution.
There was beauty overload, hitting you from every side. Everything had to be big, in your face, there was no way but to look up at everything.
But I couldn’t help thinking how many hospitals could be funded with just one golden feature or one painting.
Rome from above - Vatican's Coppola
After a while, we decided to move on to see the Coppola. I was worried about my Mom as there are a lot of stairs to climb. You can take an elevator to the first stage where you can see the Basilica from above.
But to get to the top and see Rome, you have to climb hundreds of narrow steps circling the actual dome.
But my Mom is a fighter. She didn’t come to Rome to skip anything! So after we waited in a long line to buy tickets to go up with elevator and then waited for the elevator, we walked around the lower level, and then we started our climb up. And boy, was it hard! And fascinating.
The stairs are circling the dome being part of it – so the walls are actually the outer part of the dome with walls fallowing the shape. I can imagine, that very tall people might have troubles walking there at times!
The stairs are so narrow that most of the time there would be no chance to let other people speed past you which adds to the anxiety if you can’t make it fast.
The good thing was, there were some windows once in a while, not always enough to sit down but to stop for a moment and take a breath.
But it was all worth it. The view from the top is simply marvelous. There is very little room to move around, with all those people crowding the narrow place but I made it all around anyway.
Just the view towards Rome over the plaza is worth the effort. But I loved the other views, too. Might be less spectacular or famous, but worth seeing, too.
I really liked walking on the roof of the Basilica on our way down - there are toilets there and tiny cafe (with almost no room to sit) if you were interested, but the best is to see the outside of what you saw from the inside. I also found it funny that the statues were unfinished from the back. Like being behind the curtain in a theater. More than the perfect little symbolism for what religion really is ;-)
On our way back, we looked around a bit more. This time we went to see the famous Pieta and – by chance – the grave of John Paul II.
I am still not sure what to think about the whole place. I loved seeing it, the famous images from history and art books, the Swiss guards, the famous plaza… images, disconnected with what the place represents in my mind.
The Vatican and I
It’s obviously not a source of holiness to me. I’m not religious and although I was brought up as somewhat secular-Catholic (living in Poland), I reconnected with my Jewish roots and chose Judaism as my culture and faith. I’m a lesbian who is a second-class citizen in her own country mainly b/c of the teaching of the Church.
I am also a historian with all too long a list of crimes committed by the Catholic Church or in its name. In addition to it, I just can't ignore what are the Vatican's tributaries doing with my own country, especially with women's and lgbt's rights, dragging us all back to the Middle Ages.
I think I expected to feel some of it when I was there. But I just saw over-the-top beauty, gold dropping from everywhere… Centuries of artists channeling their talents into their faith, showing love for God in the only way they could – creating stunning pieces of art, the highest levels of human sensitivity and mastery of matter in their hands.
Sistine Chapel - the one I missed
I wish I had the time and money to also go and see the Sistine Chapel. I know the images from books and I think it would be wonderful to see the famous paintings by Michelangelo.
I love especially the prophets, as in general I think prophets of the Bible are the most wonderful part of it, their ethical sensitivity is what keeps me connected to the text despite all the problematic parts.
I used his depiction of prophets as an illustration for prophets in my teaching so many times I can’t count. I think I would love to go and see it one day.
Vatican: Some practical tips
In case you would like to have some practical info – come early. Get the skip the line ticket, life is too short to stand in such long lines. Don’t skip the visit up the Coppola – it’s a must. If you feel fine, don’t take the elevator and walk up the stairs. The elevator holds only 10 people or so, so the line is long and annoying. If it weren’t for my Mom, I would have walked up the stairs.
The tickets for the Coppola is €6, if you want to go by the elevator – €8.
To skip the line you have to pay €15.
Take your time to walk around – there is so much to see – you are hit from every side.
Be prepared for crowds, you just can’t escape that. Which also means – not everyone in that crowd is an honest tourist – watch your valuables.
Have you been to Vatican? What was your impression?