The grandest artwork of all – the Sistine Chapel

[Vatican City, Italy]

No visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. If you have only one day in Rome and have to pick between this and the Coliseum/Forum, I’d pick this (although with some planning, they are both doable in one long, exhausting day).

To get to the Vatican, I took Bus 64 across the Tiber river. It was about a 20-min ride that had me squished like a sardine with a bunch of Italians going to work and school. Luckily, I managed to get on at the front so I was standing right next to the driver, enjoying the view ahead. One thing that never seizes to amaze me is how many more people can get on a bus you’d think is full to the brim.

I had reserved my ticket online about a month in advance, having read in my guidebook that the line to get tickets at the door can be a few hours long. When I arrived a few minutes before 9 am, I passed a huge line of people waiting for tickets. I even saw a few tour groups in that line, which surprised me – I thought tour groups always got to skip the line. I wonder why so many people end up waiting for tickets on the spot – did they not know about the online reservation thing, or was it booked by the time they tried? At any rate, I was happy to go right on by. Inside, I seemed to be the only person not part of a tour group. That was somewhat of a challenge because I had to navigate past their random stops that blocked the way forward – they seemed to not realize or care that others might want to go by.

I had read in my guidebook that, once inside the Vatican Museum, I could exit the Sistine Chapel through the group tour exit (if it was open, and depending on the mood of the guard there) directly into St. Peter’s Basilica, rather than having to back out (15 min) and go all the way around to St. Peter’s (another 15 min) and then wait in the security line god knows how long. That meant that I could not come back to tour any of the stuff in the beginning, e.g. the Pinacoteca – the painting gallery of the Vatican that opened in 1932. Reviews were mixed about whether this was worth a visit or not, but I went by it in the very beginning of the museum and ducked in to check it out. It was indeed deserted, and I tried to locate one of the rooms that supposedly had a Caravaggio painting, but I couldn’t find it.

The Sistine Chapel is the climax of a somewhat long-winded tour of the rest of the Vatican Museum collection, so you have to pick and choose what you want to focus on as to not exhaust yourself before the big finale. I barely glanced at the Georgian Egyptian museum, and bypassed the tapestries fairly quickly. This is where I had to elbow my way past the tour groups, although it was nice to keep an ear out for an interesting tid bit I’d overhear from an English-speaking tour guide. I paid a bit more attention to the Gallery of Maps, where I saw one of Italy sans Sicily – Sicily was under Spanish rule at the time, so it got cut out of the map!

Past a modern gallery full of Matisses were the Raphael rooms, where Raphael painted frescoes for popes that lived in these quarters.


Ceiling in one of the Raphael rooms

There were four rooms total but the fresco that most impressed me was the School of Athens. Raphael honors the great pre-Christian thinkers here, who are portrayed as the leading artists of Raphael’s day – Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, portrays Plato. Raphael painted these just down the hall from where Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, but Michelangelo was not initially included in the School of Athens. It wasn’t until Raphael took a peek at the Sistine Chapel in progress that he realized he should put his rivalry with Michelangelo aside and include him – you can see Michelangelo sulking in the foreground of the painting.

The School of Athens. A brooding Michelangelo (at the front) was added later once Raphael took a peak at the Sistine Chapel (in progress at the time) and decided that his competitor was so good, he deserved to be in this fresco.

Next up was the Sistine Chapel. It took my breadth away when I saw it and I almost cried – this is how powerful this work of art is. I quickly navigated to a bench along the wall in the middle of the chapel, and started up my Rick Steves audio guide, which explained what I was looking at. The ceiling shows the history of the world before the birth of Jesus. The very middle of the ceiling depicts 9 scenes of the world’s history, starting with God creating the world, the ocean and the moon, the Earth, man and woman and so on. In one of the 9 frescoes, God appears to be bursting out of the ceiling to create the Earth – this is one of many places where the painting looks 3-dimensional. It is amazing that Michelangelo was able to create this angle working standing up close to the ceiling. You could also see that the figures in one half of the ceiling were more numerous and smaller than the ones in the other half. Michelangelo, having finished the first half, wasn’t happy with his work when he saw it from the chapel floor, so for the second half, he went all out, creating scenes with fewer but much bigger figures. In the middle, there is a scene of God creating Adam – the two are almost touching fingers. It is an expression of Michelangelo’s philosophy about God that the two are at eye level, rather than God bestowing life to man from above. You’d think they’re almost equals the way Michelangelo portrayed them.

A stolen photo of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel took 4 years to finish. It is the size of a football field. Michelangelo completed it standing up, not laying down. Frescoes are painted on wet plaster; as it dries, the painting sets and becomes an integral part of the wall. The catch – you have to paint while it’s still wet. This means each day,Michelangelo’s assistants would put up as much wet plaster as he thought he might be able to finish in a day, and if he wasn’t happy with the result, they’d have to scrape it all down and start over. Not only was immense talent needed for this piece, but immense physical exertion too. Stare at the ceiling for a minute and now imagine working like this all day for 4 years. My neck hurt just for the length of time it took for me to take in the painting!!!

So who could top this work? Well, you could argue Michelangelo himself did, when he was commissioned later on to paint the wall behind the altar. In this painting, it’s judgement day and Christ has come to find out who’s been bad and who’s been good. The bad, on one side of Christ, are leaving their graves waiting to be judged. The wicked, on the other side, are hurled down to hell. The complex composition includes more than 300 figures, and the twisted figures in it are shown at almost any angle. When The Last Judgement was unveiled in 1541 (about 30 years after the Sistine chapel was finished), and the pope himself is said to have dropped to his knees and asked God for forgiveness on judgement day.

And another stolen photo of the last judgement

When I was finally ready to move on, I sneaked through the group exit without any issues with one of the many groups that were going through. Now I was in St. Peter’s Basilica, where I paid 5 EUR to go up to the top of the dome. It was quite the climb with the final staircase being barely wide enough for one person to pass through, but the view from up there was absolutely magnificent. The entire St. Peter’s square was before me, with all the people looking like little ants scurrying around.

Next up, I toured the basilica itself. Designed by Bramante, Bernini and Michelangelo, this church sits at the burial site of St. Peter. It’s history is fascinating. An old basilica, built during the reign of Constantine in 4 AD,  it stood to commemorate where St. Peter was buried after he was killed by Roman Emperor Nero in 64 AD. By the 15th century, calls for a new church were made, and so the new basilica was constructed. It took 120 years to finish; it was built around the old church and when it was finished, the old church was taken down and taken out through the front door of the new basilica.


Inside St. Peter’s

The inside contains fabulous designs by Michelangelo and Bernini. Michelangelo’s Pieta is behind bullet-proof glass just to the right of the entrance (a mad man entered the church on May 21, 1972 and started hacking away at it with a hammer – hence the glass).

Michelangelo's Pieta

There is a large bronze baldachin designed by Bernini above the alter, helping reduce the visible distance between the floor and the ceiling. The baldachin was made out of bronze likely melted from the Pantheon, giving rise to the saying “what the barbarians didn’t pillage, the Barberinis did”, referring to Pope Urban VIII who came from that prominent Italian family.


Bernini also designed the dove window behind the altar, and the Chair of St Peter – a statue so popular with visitors that its right foot has been worn smooth by people kissing or touching his toe.

This church, one of the two largest in the world, was financed with the purchase of indulgences – essentially, the rich were able to buy themselves out of punishment for sins, the thinking was. This practice drew criticism from a priest named Martin Luther, whom you may recognize as the father of Protestantism. Isn’t all this history just amazing?

Finally, once done with the interior, I went back outside, where I learned two more interesting things from the audio guide I was listening to. First, the obelisk in the middle of the square once stood in the middle of Nero’s racetrack – the same emperor who killed St. Peter. Racing chariots was a favorite Roman past time, and for entertainment in-between races, Romans sacrificed Christians – by way of gladiator matches or other some such atrocities. Isn’t it ironic that this same place is now so important for the Catholic church? Also, in one of the building that can be seen just above one set of columns flanking the square, the pope’s apartment takes up a portion of the top floor. How neat – and what a view he has!

By the time I was done, it was way past lunch time, so I stopped in a little restaurant on a pedestrian street not far from the Vatican. I enjoyed a great pizza and a beer – perfect fuel for a tired tourist.

I then took the metro to Piazza del Poppolo, where I tried to get into Santa Maria del Poppolo but it wasn’t open yet (it houses a Raphael chapel and a couple of Caravaggios), so I strolled down Via del Corso – a main shopping street in Rome. I actually enjoyed the walk between Via del Corso and Piazza di Spagna more – high-end designer have their boutiques in these more elegant, cozy streets.

Piazza del Poppolo

Piazza del Poppolo

The side streets are definitely more charming and intimate

Side street along Via del Corso

Piazza di Spagna and the stairs were somewhat anti-climactic – pretty, yes, but not much else to them.


After a couple of hours of rest back at my AirBnB mid-afternoon, I hesitated on what to do next and finally settled on going back to the Pantheon and checking out the inside of it. That was well worth it. The dome of the Pantheon was magnificent. It inspired Michelangelo’s design of the Dome of St. Peter’s! The giant dome is as wide as it is high. To picture it, imagine a giant ball set inside a giant waste basket so that it just touches the floor; now put that in an imaginary box that’s a perfect square. That is a testament to the engineering feat that the building of this thing was. It is made of concrete – a Roman invention. At the top, the square indentations in the dome reduce its weight without compromising the structure. Legends were spun trying to explain exactly how the Romans built this thing. At the top of the dome is the eye in the sky – the opening called the oculus. It is not covered, so when it rains, the Pantheon gets wet inside – that’s why there are holes in the floor, and it’s also slanted towards the edges to help water drain.

Just to the left of the altar is Raphael’s tomb together with a bronze bust depicting him.


Two kings of Italy are also buried here – Vittorio Emanuelle II and Umberto I together with his queen Margherita. She is the one that pizza Margherita was named after – basil, tomato sauce and mozarella cheese symbolize the colors of the Italian flag. Who knew!


Vittorio Emanuele II tomb

After the Pantheon, I just had enough time so sneak into two churches in the area – Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which had a marvelous chapel painted by Caravaggio, and Church of Santa Maria Minerva, which housed a lesser-known Michelangelo sculpture of Chris bearing the Cross.

I also walked by a tomb and a memorial designed by Bernini. The Egyptian obelisk in front of the church, the shortest of 11 in the city, sits atop an elephant also designed by Bernini.

The last photos here are from my walk home – you can see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona at dusk. Of course, gelato was involved, too. 🙂


Is that enough art and history for you in one day? It sure is for me, and I even learned a few of the tid bits in this blog in the process of writing it. One thing is for sure – the city of Rome is jam packed with magnificent architecture in many layers, and art is everywhere to be found.


6 Comments on “The grandest artwork of all – the Sistine Chapel

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