Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

March 31 – April 1, 2012

Photo set on Flickr (Part of the Rome set)

The tiny Papal state of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state, is home to two extravagant buildings – St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Even Louis XIV would be embarrassed by their level of lavishness.

We began with the Vatican Museums. There is a well-known trick that allows visitors to walk straight into St. Peter’s Basilica from the Sistine Chapel to avoid the long walk between the two sites’ entrances. I was carrying my tripod (had to leave at the storage area) so there would be no shortcut for us.

The museums first opened to the public more than 500 years ago. Compares to former palaces like the Louvre and the Hermitage, the Vatican Museums seem even more like the home of a royal family. While the Vatican Museums have its share of archaeological and artistic treasures (Egyptian artifacts, tapestries and Roman sculptures to name a few), the main draw is the one-of-a-kind frescoes by various Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio. Only people like Pope Julius II and his successors, with their almost unlimited financial resources and political clout, could gather some of the very best artists on earth to decorate their personal apartments.

Infallible proof of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church’s corruption is everywhere. The Gallery of Maps, Raphael Stanze and the Sistine Chapel are more than just artistic masterpieces; they represent the clerical abuses Martin Luther emphatically stated in the Ninety-Five Theses. Leaving aside personal views, however, the Vatican Museums are without a doubt one of the finest showcases of art in the world. And the only museum I have been where its staff smoked while on duty.

Papal Swiss Guard, Vatican City

Just like London has the Queen’s Guards, the pope has his personal army – the Swiss Guard. According to the official website, recruits to the guards must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military and can obtain certificates of good conduct. They also require a professional degree or high school diploma and must be between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 174 cm (5 ft, 8.5 in) tall. The only thing more archaic than the Swiss-only requirement is the guard’s Renaissance era uniform.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Once stepped inside St. Peter’s Basilica, I asked myself, “This thing is astonishingly huge. Just how should I approach it?” Too many things were trying to catch my attention – every inch of space is a decoration of some kind. The most remarkable feature, though, was not these embellishing man-made objects but the dawning light flooding in from the west-facing windows.

I was so focused on photographing the light I didn’t recognize the time had reached 19:00, the basilica’s closing time. We decided to visit again the next day as there was still much for us to see, including climbing up St. Peter’s dome. Coming back again revealed new details I missed out on the previous day. The experience was unexpectedly gratifying, even for me who usually don’t have all that high an interest level for colossal churches and cathedrals.

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