Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rome Day 3: The Vatican

Today we had a tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica scheduled for 1pm.  And dinner at Armando al Pantheon at 930pm.  Otherwise, all open!

After breakfast at the nearby cafe, we decided to tour the Doria Pamphilj Gallery.  It was a tram ride and short walk from our B&B but seemed miles away from humble Trastevere.  This Gallery is a Palazzo that belonged to a pope (Innocent X) who gave a cardinalship to his nepote (nephew, thus the term nepotism) who later decided he wanted to marry and resigned as Cardinal Nepotebut over the years was readmitted to the clan (or something like that).  Anyway, this Palazzo has been in the Pamphilj and Doria families for thousands of years and is filled with amazing art in spectacularly beautiful rooms.  Caravaggio, Velasquez, Titian and Raphael are all represented.  The audio guide is narrated by the current heir and is really well done.  The family lives somewhere on the premises.

We took a cab to the Vatican Museums, entered through the pre-booked line (no one in line), went through security, collected our pre-paid tickets, and had about 25 minutes to wait for the tour to start.  The Vatican Museums were crowded, as usual.  We've been there twice before but never on a tour.  We chose the official Vatican tour and the Museums part was definitely worth it.

Our guide started with explanations of the Sistine Chapel since no guiding is allowed in there.  She used a computer display which was very helpful.  She told us how Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to complete 40 statues.  When he didn't finish the statues on time, the pope "punished" him by commissioning him to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a fresco painter, and had no money so couldn't pay assistants to help.  He worked 20 hour days for 4 years to get it done, permanently damaging his eyesight.  She explained each panel (Creation through Moses) and said the triangles just below were prophets alternating with pagan sybils.  Michelangelo also painted the Last Judgement (commissioned by Pope Clement VII) on the altar wall. 

The tour through the Museums was informative.  It was a pretty large group (with one or two aggravating picture takers who kept the group from flowing) and most people seemed bored!  My favorite Maps Room was under renovation and not as spectacular as usual.  The highlight for me, frankly, were the Raphael Rooms.  Our guide explained that Julius II commissioned Raphael, only 25 but already pretty famous, to paint these rooms as his private apartments.  Raphael negotiated being paid up front so only did two out of the four rooms; his students did the rest.  My favorites, and the one most like Raphael's colorful paintings we've seen in museums elsewhere, were in the Salla delle Segnature where he painted philosophers surrounded by students.  He inserted himself, Leonardo, and Michelangelo in one painting and Dante in another.  Beautiful work.

After the Raphael Rooms we walked through rooms with modern art and ended up in the Sistine Chapel.  It really is a beautiful Chapel but so crowded that it doesn't feel holy in any way.  The guards are very good at spotting the rule breakers (taking pictures or video) and work to keep things quiet. 

We exited on the right and headed to St. Peter's Basilica. Here I thought the tour was a let down and I was sorry to have paid extra for this part. The guide provided very perfunctory and basic information and left us to our own devices.

One big gripe: the only toilets are outside the security check so if you have to go, you must exit, wait in line for the facilities (half the women's toilets were closed), then wait in the long security line to get back into the Basilica. Terribly inconvenient. We really wanted to climb the tower but that's hard to do even without full bladders! After a stop in the gift shop, we left, used the facilities and walked around looking for a snack.

We ended up at a fantastic cafe on the less touristy side of the Piazza del Risorgimento. We ordered pizza and wine. Delicious!

Suitably refreshed, we headed back over to the Vatican for more souvenir shopping and general meandering around.

We took a cab back to the B&B to rest and change before dinner.

I had read good reviews of Armando al Pantheon and we liked the menu when we passed by on Day 1. Reservation was for 930pm so we took a cab there. We had a little time to spare so we enjoyed the beautiful skies over the Pantheon and people watching. Dinner was excellent. It's a small place with attentive service, good food, nice wines, and not horrible prices.

After dinner, we went to Giolitti for gelato, threw our coins into the Trevi Fountain, walked through Piazza Navona and eventually made it back to the B&B. It had been another fabulous day in Rome!

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