plaster cast of Pieta

Vatican City

On our second day in Rome, we visited Vatican City, seeing the Vatican Museum (including the Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter’s Basilica. Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world, with a population of 800 and area of 110 acres.

We arrived by bus at 9:00, when the museum opened.  Hop off the bus when you pass the Vatican City walls and then walk uphill. We had purchased tickets online, designating the day of our visit. With the voucher, we bypassed the queue on the sidewalk and exchanged the voucher for paper tickets. The Vatican Museum is large. To reduce walking, we saw the Pinacoteca museum first and exited the museum at the Sistine Chapel, next to St. Peter’s.

I enjoyed this plaster cast of the Pieta in the Pinacoteca, because we could walk up to it and view it in the natural light from the window.  The marble original by Michaelangelo is probably far superior, but that’s difficult to see, protected far from viewers and behind bullet-proof acrylic panels.  The cast was made in 1975, three years after the Pieta was attacked by a man wielding a hammer.  Christ’s left thigh looks luminous.  Plaster is translucent, so it must be reflected light.  The interplay of light and shadow adds depth to the art.

plaster cast of Pieta
plaster cast of Pieta

The statue of Laocoon is the most famous Greek statue in ancient Rome.  Laocoon, the High Priest of Troy, warned of accepting the Trojan horse and Greeks bearing gifts.  To silence these warnings, the Greek gods (who of course favored the Greeks) sent snakes to crush Laocoon and his sons.  See the motion and emotion.

Laocoon.  High Priest of Troy, who warned of Greeks bearing gifts. Greek gods sent snakes to crush him.
Laocoon. High Priest of Troy, who warned of Greeks bearing gifts. Greek gods sent snakes to crush him.

A purple, igneous rock called imperial porphyry was beloved by Roman emperors.  The massive basin below, found at Nero’s palace, was made from a single stone.  Porphyry is extremely hard; the technique to work porphyry was lost until the Renaissance.  Imperial porphyry occurs only in a single Egyptian quarry that is now played out.

Roman basin of porphyry from Nero's palace
Roman basin of porphyry from Nero’s palace

The Sistine Chapel is spectacular, but they don’t allow photography.  A fresco by Michelangelo covers the ceiling and tells the story of the world until Jesus.  The most famous panel is God’s creation of man, where God’s hand reaches out to Adam.  The Rick Steves audio tour of the Sistine Chapel is wonderful.  We found seats along the wall and listed to the audio guide twice!

Painted 23 years after the ceiling, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is decidedly more grim, emphasizing the souls pleading their case, Christ turning his head, and many sent to hell.

We exited the Sistine Chapel through a small door at the far right, saving ourselves a 15-minute walk back to the Pinacoteca and the same walk back to St. Peter’s.  The door is supposed to be for tours. We walked out the door without stopping to ask permission.

St. Peter’s Basilica is huge, holding 60,000 standing worshipers.  Recall that the Colosseum held 50,000, seated.  To maintain the sense of scale, the ceilings are high.  To keep the main alter from getting lost, Bernini created this bronze, seven-story canopy.

Main alter of St. Peter's.  bronze canopy by Bernini.
Main alter of St. Peter’s. bronze canopy by Bernini.

Michalangelo was 24 when he completed the Pieta, showing a Mary cradling the body of her son, taken down from the cross.  Wow! Conditions for photography are difficult. The Pieta is placed behind bullet-proof glass, far from viewers.  Work your way to the railing, trying to minimize reflections from the glass. Boost your ISO and take lost of photos. This handheld photo was taken at 120 mm, 1/20 second, f/5.9, and ISO 1250.

Michaelangelo - Pieta
Michaelangelo – Pieta

We spent six hours at the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica.  We hadn’t eaten lunch.  We had planned to get gelato near St. Peter’s, but the gelato shop would take us away from the bus back to our apartment.  Tired and hungry, we caught the bus home without looking for gelato.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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