On Infiltrating the Vatican City, and Chasing Roman Skies…
It was a hot, bright and sunny May day when I stepped over the boundary of Rome, and entered the smallest country in the world – the Vatican City.
It wasn’t my first time in the Vatican, I’d spent many an hour wandering through those white, marble streets in days passed.
But this time, there was something particular I wanted to see…
There were tourists everywhere, of course, congesting the statue-lined bridges, and the long, narrow streets – taking snaps of anything postcard picturesque. I moved with a sense of purpose, poise, as I swiftly made my way down the Via della Conciliazione, towards St. Peter’s – the largest basilica in all of Christendom – and the final resting place of Saint Peter himself.
St. Peter’s Square opened up before me, like two great arms, welcoming me into this staggering place of global pilgrimage – ushering me into the heart of the Holy See. I removed my black sunglasses, better to see the place, and gazed around at the congregations of people – the groups of awe-inspired tourists, mouths open, iPhones held high, taking pictures next to the erupting fountains – groups of nuns draped in scapular, moving to and from the great church – and many priests walking around with younger boys, introducing them to the Pope’s kingdom… well, make of that what you will.
I moved away from the light, away from St. Peter’s Square, and down through a street lined and shaded by the high, stone walls of the Vatican fortifications. I just overheard an Italian tour guide telling his group that the great pillars of St. Peter’s were made from stone taken from the Colosseum back in Rome. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, as I turned away.
I wanted to go and to see the Vatican Museums, a site that held not only the Papal apartments, but also a rather famous chapel that, like many before me, I’d always longed to see…
I arrived without a ticket, and was surprised to find no queue outside the place, and so I just walked straight inside.
It was quite quiet inside, but still there were many tourists. I did my best to avoid the larger groups, as I made my way through long corridors lined with ancient busts of emperors long fallen, through neatly-arranged courtyard gardens with large marble statues, beautiful works of art – huge rooms with great murals, medieval maps, vast mosaic floors, black granite staircases, and numerous jewels and treasures accumulated over centuries of Papal reign.
I have to say, as beautiful as it all was, I felt disgusted. How can this house of God, this epicentre of the largest spiritual organisation in the world, be filled with so much worldly treasure, such a lot of earthly possession? Surely a place of spirituality should be bare – naked, even – so only the voice of God can be felt and heard? A place where only the soul, not gilded picture frames, does the talking? (okay… I obviously don’t think people should worship only in bare halls, but you know what I mean… this place was a palace for an earthly king, not a heavenly one).
But after walking for quite some time, musing for quite some hours, I eventually came to it:
The Sistine Chapel.
My body tingled as I entered. I had longed for this moment since I was a child…
But… again… I was disappointed.
The place was packed, everybody shuffling through like sardines, security guards at every corner, every entrance. It felt more like a concentration camp than THE Sistine Chapel (and I don’t use the term lightly). I was distraught. How could this be it?
I barely even glanced up at the ceiling covered with Michelangelo’s famous frescoes. I couldn’t. I just had to get out of that furnace…
What to do next? What a waste of time! After a quick moment of despair, I decided to walk back through the museum toward the entrance, to make the most of my time left, and see a bit more of the terrible beauty I’d seen earlier, and then to exit and walk back into Rome, and home.
I was just approaching the entrance when suddenly all the doors started being closed behind me, and the security guards started ushering everyone to leave. Didn’t make a difference to me – I was already leaving. But as we all started making our way out… something clicked. “Oh, shit,” I thought, because I knew what that clicking meant. I’d had an idea – a bad one – well, a good one – but there’s no way I could go through with it!
Before I had even the chance to think, however, my legs were already turning back round towards the closed doors, the security guards, and the museum that was being shut-up behind me. As I reached the first set of doors, upon trying to quickly walk straight through, the guard stepped in front me, and tried to turn me around.
“The museum’s closing,” he said, pointing toward the exit. “But I have to get back this way!” I pleaded. “I’ve lost my friends and don’t have my mobile phone – if I exit this way and they exit by the Sistine Chapel, which is where I left them, I’ll probably never find them again!” It just sort of rolled out of my mouth – I had no idea where it came from – but it was so convincing even I was concerned about my friends… the ones I didn’t have…
So this guy looks at me incredulously for a moment, rolls his eyes a bit, and then just throws his hands in the air, letting me through.
Success? Success!! But I still had to get through about eight more sets of doors… and security.
I sped on ahead, feeling invigorated, determined, as the crowns, antique robes and golden mirrors of the museum sped by once again – my eyes set only on the Chapel.
I came to the next door and repeated my lie again to the security guards, my bottom lip down-turned, my eyes glazed. And it worked again! They let me through! “This would NEVER happen in the British Museum,” I thought, thanking them and marching on.
I lied and lied, again and again, through every set of doors, passed each set of security guards, regurgitating more or less the same story, adding only a little embellishment here… a sigh there… an over-the-top-pleading -hand-gesture there. (I don’t endorse lying...usually…)
And, then… I made it. I was there, again: The Sistine Chapel.
Only this time… it was empty. Well, not totally empty… There was a security guard, a couple of older people who still hadn’t managed to make it out yet. But compared to before… and no-body even seemed to notice me, as I slid in.
There was no time to even celebrate my victory. There was something I had to do. I walked over to the very middle of the room, just threw my head right back. And there it was! Michelangelo’s ceiling. Oh, that ceiling! I span ran slowly, as that famous blue, those painted archways, those bodies, maroon robes and those hands just blurred into one great mixing pot of everything I’d ever imagined. Everything I’d dreamed of…
I made it. For that moment, the Sistine Chapel was my own. I’d never go back. Never again. Unless I was invited by the Pope himself. I’d never want to taint that perfect little memory.
Once my poor, arching neck could take no more, I left silently through the other exist and stepped down into St. Peter’s.
I was just musing about inside, when suddenly something else clicked – another idea: “Sunset!” I thought… oh, not again.
That was it – I was off. Dashing through the basilica, dodging the tourists, through St. Peter’s Square, passed the fountains and the guards, the nuns and the statues. I zipped passed the great Castel Sant’angelo, back over the bridge, and back into Rome…
The narrow streets of terracotta and stone whizzed by as I made my way to the very centre of the city – to the Ancient Citadel itself.
I made it to the top of the one-hundred-or-so-steps just in time, to catch this…
Truly, there’s no place like Rome!
**All images on this post were shot on film, with a Canon AE-1**
Remember, sometimes in life it’s not about where you’ve been – but what you do with the time you have.