THE Vatican museum clocked up over five million visits last year, making it one of the most visited museums in Europe, and with a total figure that puts it into the big league. This for the Vatican museums is a record breaking number.
I myself have visited a couple of times. I remember my first visit back in 1996 when on my first visit to Rome I popped in to see the Sistine Chapel and walked out with a passive smoking habit.
At the time, I couldn't believe that people were smoking cigars under that amazing ceiling. In subsequent visits I recall being horrified by the restoration that had taken place, mostly because I was so accustomed to seeing the washed out colors through the haze of tar and smoke that clung to its surface. Seeing it restored on my next visit (in 2001) left me without my bearings. It would be like seeing Rome clean and without the taint of smog that covers a lot of the city.
Anyway, back to the museum visits. The Vatican Museums offer free entry once a month if you are willing to queue for a few hours and join the throngs of others who are trying to save €15 or whatever it is they charge to get in these days. There is also a huge private industry of organised tours that sustains a lot of employment in Rome, particularly for art history graduates who can speak multiple languages.
I haven't been for two years now, mostly because I have HUGE issues with the place.
Not because its the Vatican, because, well, normally I don't give a damn about the church. Perhaps I am part of the naive but mostly I like to pretend that they don't even exist. I am so used to living in a secular nation that the only time they rile me is when they cross that line and mix into politics. The endemic corruption, closeted nature of so many of the clergy (who you can spot a mile away here in Rome) and the ridiculously out of touch nature of the organisation mostly just make me roll my eyes. My expectations of organised religion are so low that nothing really surprises me.
What I do have a huge issue with is the Vatican Museums, their general existence, their approach and the fact that they have a collection which produces eye wincing envy in others.
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To say that these collections are expansive, worthy of days and days of attention and repeated visits and admiration in general is to some extent true.
When we are talking about the objects, I have to say that they function in the highest possible calibre of conventional, classical and romantic arts. They are a little haphazard in that they function a bit like a museum of curiosities. That they often have some kind of spiritual or allegorical element to them is what supposedly loosely binds them together. But mostly, this is a collection of disparate objects; ranging from partially decomposed mummies through to marble statues, sarcophagi and two dimensional works that simply serve to remind you of how powerful the Vatican and the Catholic Church are as organisations.
Unfortunately, the way the collections are assembled in the spaces, often in ageing showcases in haphazard ways, render the objects as trophies that point to the large scale plundering that we all know occured in amassing this collection.
But I think most visitors overlook this. They are like rabbits in headlights, shocked and suprised by the glow of what they see in front of them, and unable to distinguish the context and situation in which these cadivers lay.
Objects here have limited didactic explanations. Mostly they litter walls and every available surface in a painfully overstuffed way. Imagine a house that has no distinguishable free surface: no vacant wall space, no mantle where dust can collect. Then multiply it exponentially and you have an idea of what awaits you at the Vatican.
This problem with clutter, and the lack of respect it then offers is made worse by the fact that there is often little if any attribution details available. Like the worst of the world's most cynical collections, visitors have to pay for an audio guide or text in order to get some curatorial insight into key works.
This place infuriates me, not only because of the way it confirms how money oriented the Vatican and Catholic Church is in general, but because it offers just a roof and walls to the objects it houses and operates on the assumption that its the bulk and not the individual that is important when it comes to a collection.
Taking a tour of the Vatican Museums becomes a race against time, not only because there is so much to take in, but because as a visitor you more or less need to follow the predesignated routes and alot yourself the appropriate amount of time to do so in order to avoid collapsing. You can pay a guide to take you around (more money), you can make occasional guest appearances when gatecrashing other guided groups to get some kind of insight, or, more likely, you can simply go it alone and be left to wonder a complicated, non linear complex that is so overly adorned with the spoils of centuries of plunder, power and privilege. Basically you are that rabbit that doesn't know what to do with itself.
Hopefully at the end of your visit you will vacilitate between awe of the masterworks that you often will stumble across, and the kind of undisguised contempt and hatred you will feel for the Museum and its operational philosophy. That is if you haven't succumbed to the hypnotic effect that so many collected items can have on a person.
Hopefully your last lingering thought will be for the other five million or so visitors who over the next twelve months or so, will retread the path you burned on your way around the site, and whether or not they will be capable of seeing through the all that glitters is gold philosophy that seems to mark the Vatican Museum experience. Good luck to them.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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