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I knew at some point we would get over to the Vatican Museums, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to plan it. The lines and crowds at the place are notorious, and even in the old edition of the Georgina Masson book, she gave the same advice I’d read over and over again 40 years later – get there early, stand in line, race to the Sistine Chapel, and then backtrack.

Or, go in the afternoon, after all the tour groups were through. The latter would have been great except for the fact that during our visit, the Museums were still observing winter hours – closing at 1:45. The day Michael took the Scavi tour after Katie and I did (and I still haven’t written about THAT!), she and I and the little ones walked to the entrance to the museums around 11 just to check out the line – there was no line!. None. If we’d wanted to go in right then, we could have been inside in seconds. That gave me hope, and I tentatively planned it for the next day. Even if we would only have 2 or 3 hours in a Museum that could take a couple of days…with our crew, that would be enough time, this time at least.

As fate and great kindness would have it, that plan became unnecessary later, as I met up with someone quite knowledgeable who offered to take us in early, before the crowds, and give us a tour of the Sistine Chapel. Done, as I explained to my daughter, aghast at having to rise super early (for her) to get over there – this isn’t a chance you pass up. You can sleep later.

One side note – on the risks of finding accomodations in a city you’ve never been to. I agonized over this for a month, and came pretty darn close to getting an apartment that was "close to the Vatican Museum entrance." Now, I could see from the map that this would be a little walk from the St. Peter’s entrance, but I also thought…how far could it be? Well…far. I am so glad I didn’t get that other apartment. It’s about a 15-minute walk from there down to St. Peter’s, which one of us ended up going to every day for one reason or another, as opposed to the one time we’d go to the Museum. Good choice, close call.

I am really grateful for that visit to the Sistine Chapel. There were a couple of other small groups in there, whispering (for you’re not supposed to talk at all). Our guide pointed to a couple of suited gentlemen coming in and out of a side door with objects wrapped in cloth and even a basket at one point. "The Pope’s saying Mass somewhere," she said.

Our guide brought out, not only the artisitic issues related to the work in the chapel, but the theological as well – she put The Last Judgment into theological and historical context that made it all the more powerful. Katie was totally entranced, and I hope, learned a lot in a way that will stick both intellectually and spiritually.

Then, after sweet rolls in the cafe, she left us, and we wound our way back to the entrance, and began again, this time starting with the Pinocoteca, which, reading about just now on the website, I want to visit all over again. It’s a rich, dense collection, but even among the Big Famous Works, a few smaller ones stood out to me – Ruini’s St. Matthew and the Angel – I love the expression on Matthew’s face, and the earnest expresion on the angel’s. A small painting in one of the first rooms, which I can’t find right now in the descriptions on the website, of the faces of Virgin and St. Anne – one in front of the other, facing front, looking calmly at the viewer. I found it startling and almost contemporary, and I would love to have a reproduction, if one exists. Another, as I recall, of what I think was someone picking arrows out of St. Sebastian. Or maybe it was another saint – I think we were deep in hair-pulling wars at that moment, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Everything in this room.

Then to the Pio Christian museum with is fine and absorbing collection of sarcophagi, and then, once again, through the astonishiong elaborate halls (including the Map Room) to our way out, which would take us back through the Chapel, but not before the Raphael Rooms, Borgia Apartments and so on.

This is where the crush really revealed itself. The way to the Sistine chapel leads all of these masses of people through narrow hallway after narrow hallway into these magnificent rooms, of course, but that are mobbed with people. A real crush, and even though the works are enormous, the conditions for viewing are anything but ideal – it reminded me of the special exhibit of the El Grecos we saw at the Met in NYC a few years ago – just too many people in a tiny space. I know we’ve got old buildings and severe constraints, but honestly – it was like some hot, uncomfortable March of Art that became all about escape, not contemplation.

So…next time…get there early, do the race to the back, and this time, don’t go directly to the Chapel, but enjoy those other rooms before the crowds descend. Could the Museum limit admission especially to these rooms? Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if they had longer hours – but this was during the winter when the crowds are supposedly smaller, and during the summer, the hours are longer anyway. I don’t know, but it strikes me as a problem. But then, as Masson indicates…it’s not a new problem, is it?

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