Dr. SkySkull in Rome: the Vatican Museums

Part 4 of a series of photo essays on my recent trip to Rome. Part 1 can be read here,  Part 2 can be read here, and Part 3 can be read here.

On day 4 of our Rome adventure, we decided to finally venture inside some of Rome’s wonderful buildings!  Most of our time had, up to this point, been spent walking the city and viewing the architecture from the exterior or, in the case of the Colosseum, interior but still outside. Now we were interested in seeing some of the non-architectural artwork of Rome and, to be honest, get out of the heat for a while.

Our major stop would be the immense museum complex of the Vatican, which we will get to in a moment.  The Vatican has a dress code, however, and generally bans shorts on men and short skirts on women.  So we put on our long clothes — in 90-degree heat — and headed out for the day.

If we were going to be uncomfortable, we decided we might as well make the most of it.  Non-casual dress is expected in most of the city’s churches, so as long as we were dressed the part, we made plans to visit a few other such sites of interest.

Our first planned stop was the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, which possesses one of Rome’s most beautiful and famous sculptures. But along the way we passed the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (also called the Fountain of Moses).

The Fontana dell’Acqua Felice.

Built between 1585 and 1588, this fountain marked the end of another Roman aqueduct that was restored long after the empire’s collapse.  The restoration was ordered by Pope Sixtus V, and the new aqueduct was named the Acqua Felice, after the Pope’s birth name of Felice Peretti.  The new source of water helped the rather crude and unpopulated section of Rome grow into a thriving neighborhood.

We, of course, took a moment to see what Moses thought of us; apparently we were deemed unworthy.

Judgy Moses accuses us.

Literally across the street from the fountain is the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which was constructed intermittently throughout the years 1605 to 1626.  From the exterior, it looks lovely, though not spectacular or iconic…

Santa Maria della Vittoria.

… but appearances can be deceiving, as one immediately realizes upon entry!

Interior of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Be sure to click on the photo to view it in full size!

The ceiling, not visible in the above photo, features the painting The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy, which was created in 1675 by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini.

The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy.

But the real star of the church is to the left of the altar in the front of the chapel; it is the magnificent sculpture the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, completed by the master sculptor Bernini in 1652.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

The sculpture depicts a scene in the life of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a cloistered nun and mystic who described a vision of an angelic encounter as follows:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The ecstasy and pain Teresa described is supposed to be a spiritual one, though clearly Bernini interpreted it with a little bit more of the physical sensation, as a closeup of the sculpture suggests.

Detail. Oh, my.

My guidebook describes an anecdote in which a French politician visited the sculpture in the early 1900s and commented something to the effect, “If that is divine ecstasy, I have seen it many times.”

In a bit of literal and figurative brilliance, the scene is illuminated by natural light which comes from an unseen window in the dome above.  The figures to the sides of the central scene? Those are the donors who contributed to the piece’s construction, eternally admiring the results.

After leaving Santa Maria della Vittoria, we turned and walked about 1/4 mile to another Santa Maria, in this case Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

This church, which I understand also serves as a monastery for monks of the Capuchin order, holds a fascinating and macabre secret: a crypt that uses the bones of the deceased monks as decorations!  The skeletal remains of nearly 4,000 monks are here, arranged in ways that are probably horrifying to many modern observers. The practice apparently began in the year 1631, when monks of the order arrived at the church from their old monastery, bringing the late remains of some 300 members with them.

Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photographs of the crypt itself, so we must use a photo from Wikipedia to give a sense of the artistry.

One room of the Capuchin Crypt, via Wikipedia.

There are six rooms in the crypt, whose purpose seems to be to remind visitors that their earthly life is finite, and that their real existence will be in God’s embrace.  In the first room, a plaque displays the words, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

There have been a number of famous visitors to the Crypt, including the Marquis de Sade and the author Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Mark Twain visited with the first international tour group from the United States in 1867.  He chronicled the experience in his hilarious memoir The Innocents Abroad, which we quote a little here.

Here was a spectacle for sensitive nerves! Evidently the old masters had been at work in this place. There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself–and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it”–meaning himself and his brethren up stairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

I asked the monk if all the brethren up stairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

See what one can accustom himself to.–The reflection that he must some day be taken apart like an engine or a clock, or like a house whose owner is gone, and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.

Here and there, in ornamental alcoves, stretched upon beds of bones, lay dead and dried-up monks, with lank frames dressed in the black robes one sees ordinarily upon priests. We examined one closely. The skinny hands were clasped upon the breast; two lustreless tufts of hair stuck to the skull; the skin was brown and sunken; it stretched tightly over the cheek bones and made them stand out sharply; the crisp dead eyes were deep in the sockets; the nostrils were painfully prominent, the end of the nose being gone; the lips had shriveled away from the yellow teeth: and brought down to us through the circling years, and petrified there, was a weird laugh a full century old!

It was the jolliest laugh, but yet the most dreadful, that one can imagine. Surely, I thought, it must have been a most extraordinary joke this veteran produced with his latest breath, that he has not got done laughing at it yet.

The book contains a couple of sketches of the event; one of these is shown below.

These days, to visit the crypt one must first pass through a nice museum of the history of the Capuchin order.  It was also blessedly air-conditioned.  However, though they had a dress code similar to the Vatican, I literally saw two guys in shorts wandering the museum the moment we entered. This would foreshadow our experience at the Vatican.

Seeing all those deceased monks apparently made us hungry, so we stopped for lunch across the street from the church; I had a lasagna again, if I recall correctly! Then we were only a short walk to a metro station which we could take to visit the Vatican and its massive museums.

The Vatican Museums are almost mind-boggling in their scope, scale, and antiquity.  Their origins can be traced back to Pope Julius II at the beginning of the 16th century, who purchased a single statue that started the collection.  Today, the complete museum collection is some 70,000 works, with 20,000 on display, housed in multiple buildings and comprised of 54 individual galleries.  We ended up spending an entire afternoon there and probably browsed 1/4 of what was on display.

We didn’t really have a plan for the museum, and didn’t buy advance tickets the night before as we had done for the Colosseum. (I think we were all a little unsure whether we actually wanted to bother with the VMs in the first place.)  On our way to the individual ticket line, we were propositioned by a group tour guide, and ended up paying for the group tour.

A few things about this, if you’re wondering: you’ll pay about 3 times as much for a group tour ticket than an individual.  On crowded days, you’ll be in a group of 20-30, outfitted with radio receivers to better hear your guide, though they don’t work nearly as well as you’d like.   And, though you get into the building and out of the hot sun much quicker than in the individual line, you end up doing a lot of waiting and organizing inside.

We took this photo to show our general befuddlement during the “getting into the museum” process.

But, you do get into the museums much faster overall, and definitely out of the sun quickly. Also, having a group tour ticket means you can leave the museums through a “special” exit in the Sistine Chapel that leads directly to the Basilica di San Pietro, avoiding a trip back through the really, really huge museum.  Finally: the guides are good, but they also let you know that you are welcome to leave the group at any time and explore on your own!  We lingered with the group for about 20 minutes and then decided to strike out on our own.

Remember the dress code at the Vatican, and the thought that “hey, we might be wearing long pants, but at least we’ll be in an air-conditioned museum”?  Well, a large portion of the museum consists of sculptures, and those sculptures don’t need and don’t have air-conditioning! One also spends a surprising amount of time outside between buildings; in fact the first thing one encounters after getting through security is an open square with a view of the Basilica.

View of the Basilica di San Pietro from the Vatican Museums.

To add insult to injury: there were plenty of people walking around in shorts!  Apparently the dress code is relaxed when the crowds are huge, or the weather is hot, or both?  We were rather annoyed, either way.

Then we were into the exhibits themselves, and… holy crap.

The Hall of Busts.

The Hall of Busts, pictured above, is one of the likely first views of the museum visitors will see, and it is jaw-dropping. Hundreds of ancient busts, presumably mostly Greek and Roman, line the walls.  Unless you are an expert in those periods of ancient history, there are simply too many to take in, appreciate, and understand.

A sample of busts.

It is hard to express one’s feelings in the museum overall, and it is perhaps best to return to Mark Twain, who always knows the right things to say; he also visited the Vatican Museums during his tourist trip in the 1800s.

It makes me dizzy, to think of the Vatican–of its wilderness of statues, paintings, and curiosities of every description and every age. The “old masters” (especially in sculpture,) fairly swarm, there. I can not write about the Vatican. I think I shall never remember any thing I saw there distinctly but the mummies, and the Transfiguration, by Raphael, and some other things it is not necessary to mention now. I shall remember the Transfiguration partly because it was placed in a room almost by itself; partly because it is acknowledged by all to be the first oil painting in the world; and partly because it was wonderfully beautiful. The colors are fresh and rich, the “expression,” I am told, is fine, the “feeling” is lively, the “tone” is good, the “depth” is profound, and the width is about four and a half feet, I should judge. It is a picture that really holds one’s attention; its beauty is fascinating. It is fine enough to be a Renaissance. A remark I made a while ago suggests a thought–and a hope. Is it not possible that the reason I find such charms in this picture is because it is out of the crazy chaos of the galleries? If some of the others were set apart, might not they be beautiful? If this were set in the midst of the tempest of pictures one finds in the vast galleries of the Roman palaces, would I think it so handsome? If, up to this time, I had seen only one “old master” in each palace, instead of acres and acres of walls and ceilings fairly papered with them, might I not have a more civilized opinion of the old masters than I have now? I think so. When I was a school-boy and was to have a new knife, I could not make up my mind as to which was the prettiest in the show-case, and I did not think any of them were particularly pretty; and so I chose with a heavy heart.

But when I looked at my purchase, at home, where no glittering blades came into competition with it, I was astonished to see how handsome it was. To this day my new hats look better out of the shop than they did in it with other new hats.

It begins to dawn upon me, now, that possibly, what I have been taking for uniform ugliness in the galleries may be uniform beauty after all. I honestly hope it is, to others, but certainly it is not to me. Perhaps the reason I used to enjoy going to the Academy of Fine Arts in New York was because there were but a few hundred paintings in it, and it did not surfeit me to go through the list. I suppose the Academy was bacon and beans in the Forty-Mile Desert, and a European gallery is a state dinner of thirteen courses. One leaves no sign after him of the one dish, but the thirteen frighten away his appetite and give him no satisfaction.

That is to say: it is hard to appreciate many of the pieces they are lost in a sea of equally beautiful pieces. With that in mind, I will only share a fraction of the photos I took, to give a sense of how magnificent the pieces are.

In the Egyptian wing are countless magnificent pieces, many of which I had no idea existed in any form.  I lingered for quite a while by this lovely stele of Hatshepsut (1507-1458 B.C.E.), female pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt.

I lingered not only because of its beauty and historical importance, but also because it was right next to a wall air-conditioning unit.

This particular stele was erected to commemorate improvement and restoration works done in West Thebes.  If you’ve never read about Hatshepsut before, I highly recommend doing so: she was one of the most powerful women in ancient history.

A lot of Egyptian artifacts in the Vatican come from the later period when Egypt was taken over by the Roman Empire, leading to a lot of hybrid art styles. I was not prepared for the magnificence of some of the statues.

Reconstruction of the Serapeum of the Villa of Hadrian in Tivoli.

These statues, most of which are original (one or two are plaster casts), are arranged in a reconstruction of a chamber in a Villa of Emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 117-138 C.E.  These statues evidently originally flanked a pool that represented the Nile, and was connected to another pool that represented the Mediterranean.

The gods of this Roman period of Egyptian history were a synthesis of the pantheons of the two cultures, as the next amazing statue shows.

The statue of Hermanubis.

I stared at this statue for a loooong time. Incredibly, it is the only one I saw in the entire museum that didn’t have a description plaque next to it, just deepening its mystique. It is, in fact, a 1st or 2nd century statue of Hermanubis, a god that melds the Greek Hermes with the Egyptian Anubis.  The statue possesses the jackal head of Anubis, and the caduceus (staff) of Hermes; both had similar religious roles, in that they guided souls to the afterlife.

We moved on from the Egyptian wing into an outdoor chamber in which some of the Vatican’s most famous statues appear, including the one that started it all.

Laocoön and His Sons.

Laocoön and His Sons was excavated in Rome in 1506 and purchased by the Vatican, and it is the piece that really marks the beginning of the Vatican’s collection.  The story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Poseidon, differs in various accounts; we summarize one here.  During the Trojan War, Laocoön supposedly saw through the ruse of the Trojan Horse, and attempted to warn his compatriots of the doom that hid within.  The gods, angry at him, sent serpents to drag him and his sons to their doom in the water; this was then interpreted by the Trojans as a sign that the Horse was sacred.  The statue was mentioned, and praised, in antiquity by Pliny the Elder, and probably dates from around 0 C.E.; it is still considered an iconic image of human suffering.  It is somewhat ironic that only days earlier I had posed in front of a bronze copy of the Laocoön at the Rijksmuseum, not knowing that I would see the original.

Right around the corner from the tragic Laocoön is a much more recent statue, Perseus Triumphant, which dates from around the beginning of 1801 and was fashioned by the sculptor Antonio Canova.  Obviously, the sculpture shows him holding the head of Medusa, which he used to slay the sea monster Cetus in order to save Andromeda.

Perseus Triumphant.

It is a beautiful statue, though I kinda prefer the Ray Harryhausen/Harry Hamlin version.

The Vatican seems to close various rooms and wings of the museum without warning at their discretion; we were unable to visit the Etruscan wing, which had been closed by the time we reached it, and we were only able to pass through a room which contains all the animal sculptures.

Sala degli Animali.

But there was plenty to still see!  We passed by a delightful statue of Bacchus, which I share here simply because it is so unlike the usual perfect depictions of the human form one sees.


In the Greek Cross Gallery, one encounters the magnificent sarcophagi of Helena and Constantina, the mother and daughter of Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome from 306-337 C.E.  The one pictured below is that of Constantina.  The material is referred to as “porphyry,” which is a term for a purple-hued igneous crystalline rock.

Sarcophagus of Constantina.

It was already getting late in the day at this point in our exploration, and we were getting tired from the exertion and the heat. We opted to forge ahead to see the magnificent Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.  Along the way, we passed through a lovely gallery which contains maps.

The Map Gallery. Here you can see how crowded the museums were on the day of our visit.

The four Raphael Rooms were originally designed as a set of public reception rooms in the Vatican Palace for Pope Julius II.  He commissioned the workshop of the famed Raphael to paint the walls, resulting in a series of masterpieces.  Raphael died before the work was completed, but his assistants completed the work.

I will only share two of the frescoes in this post.  The most famous is The School of Athens, which was painted between 1509-1511.  The figures in the work represent classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, who are prominently located in the center.

The School of Athens.

A sharp-eyed observer, or one who has been told beforehand, can spot the artist Raphael himself on the right side of the piece, staring boldly at the viewer from behind a group of debating scholars.

We see you, Raphael.

Another scene of interest is The Fire in the Borgo, which marks a historic fire that broke out in the Borgo, one of the districts of Rome, in 847 C.E. The Church claims that Pope Leo XIV contained the fire with a benediction.

The Fire in the Borgo.

After the Raphael Rooms, we hurried on to see the Sistine Chapel, passing by a large collection of modern religious art along the way. I only stopped briefly at one to make a quip.

“Stick ’em up, Messiah!”

Unfortunately, I cannot show you photos of the Sistine Chapel, and its magnificent frescoes painted by Michelangelo, as photographs were not allowed!  The room was packed to capacity, and what I will most remember about it is the Vatican guards angrily and periodically shushing the excited and muttering visitors.

From the Sistine Chapel, we took advantage of our group tour badges to take the exit which leads directly to the Basilica di San Pietro, and we were able to get our first look inside.

As the name suggests, tradition holds that St. Peter’s Basilica is the resting place of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ Apostles.  There has been a church on the site of St. Peter’s since the time of Emperor Constantine, though the current basilica began in 1506 and was completed 20 years later.

The following panorama gives you an idea of the view as you first enter the building.

View from the entrance of the Basilica di San Pietro.

The entire building is designed to impress; here is an uncropped panorama to give you a real sense of what it looks like inside.

Panorama of the Basilica.

The massive bronze canopy under the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, created by the Italian artist Bernini to mark the supposed location of St. Peter’s actual tomb.

Note the almost heavenly rays of light streaming in from the dome; I imagine that this was a deliberate design to provide more a feeling of the divine.  Everything about the Basilica is intended to impress; the sheer size of it is intended to overwhelm the senses and make all other churches look puny in comparison. In fact, there is writing on the floor that indicates the length of other, presumably inferior, cathedrals elsewhere in the world.

“Puny cathedral.”

There was one other masterpiece within the Basilica we had time to see before the end of the day, another masterwork of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s The Pietà.

The Pietà, aka “The Pity,” was created between 1498 and 1499 by the famed Michelangelo.  It depicts Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary after the crucifixion, and regardless of one’s religious inclination it is beautiful to see in person.

Not everyone agrees, however. In 1972, a mentally-disturbed geologist attacked the statue with a hammer, breaking the arm and chipping off many pieces before he was stopped.  Spectators took many of the broken pieces, including Mary’s nose, and though some were returned, Mary’s nose was not. It had to be reconstructed from another piece of marble on the back of the sculpture.

So, what did I think of the Vatican Museums and its collected cultural history?  I have very mixed feelings, similar to those that I have regarding the church’s involvement in the history of Rome: it’s complicated. For instance, look at this magnificent statue of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet that is at the museum.

The Goddess Sekhmet.

Pretty much any archaeological museum would kill to have a single statue like this, while the Vatican also has this one, in even better condition.

The Goddess Sekhmet.

As another example consider this statue that the Vatican possesses…

The Goddess Sekhmet.

… uhhhh, of the Goddess Sekhmet. Wait a minute…

The Goddess Sekhmet.

Oh, come on…

The Goddess Sekhmet.

How many of these things can the Vatican have?

The Goddess Sekhmet.

I assume that must be all of the–

The Goddesses Sekhmet.

Apparently all of these statues come from a funerary temple of pharaoh Amenhotep III built around 1350 B.C.E., and there were in fact hundreds of Sekhmet statues present.  The Vatican had this set on display because they were engaged in a restoration project for those in their possession.  But, presumably, this is all the Sekhmet statues they ha–

Oh, come ON.

I point this out to show that the Vatican has a RIDICULOUS assortment of archaeological and cultural riches. It seems somewhat absurd and unfair that it is all gathered in one religiously-motivated repository, where the motivations of the holders may not be entirely dedicated to the growth of knowledge. (Note the fig leaves on many of the naked statues earlier? Those were placed by the Vatican. Often at the loss of the genitalia of the poor dudes.) On the other hand, the Vatican started collecting these works at the beginning of the 16th century, long before most people cared at all about preserving such work. They invested resources in collecting and preserving this art that most other people and organizations didn’t have. These works might only exist at all anymore thanks to the Vatican’s work. So, I have mixed feelings.

As we headed back towards our hotel and dinner, the setting sun once again cast many buildings in a glorious golden hue.  Let me end this post with a shot of the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Our trip to Rome was almost done; we would have one more morning to spend in the city, and we would make the most of it. As you will see in the final post!

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