image: A view of casina of Pius IV with statues.
A view of casina of Pius IV with statues.

Photograph © Ted Spiegel/CORBIS

Vatican City
By Gianluigi Colalucci

There comes a day for each of us when nothing will ever be the same again. For me that day was April 8, 1994, when Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass in the Sistine Chapel, which my team and I had just finished restoring after 14 years. On that day the chapel—with Michelangelo's famous frescoes—became transfigured by the sacredness of the Mass, a sacredness that emanated not only from the pope, but from the very frescoes that the day before I'd considered simply works of art—sublime, yes, but works of art. I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning, and suddenly understood two important things: the transcendent spirituality of Michelangelo's paintings and the true meaning of working inside the Vatican.

The ancient Romans believed that every place had a genius loci, a guardian deity that made extraordinary things happen. One of their places had to be the Vatican Hill—its name a derivation of vaticinium, the prophecy of future things. Over the past 20 centuries a succession of popes have made this center of faith into a center of culture and art as well. Architects, painters, and sculptors of the highest caliber, men of letters, theologians, and humanists have come here to contribute their works.

Today we enjoy the fruits of their talent, immersing ourselves in an extraordinary past—a past that, in the Vatican, is as immediate as the present. The existence of modern life in rooms hundreds of years old seems absolutely normal here. Entering an office full of computers and laser printers, I pass a stufetta (a sort of Turkish bath) painted in 1516 by Raphael for Cardinal Bibbiena. A 15th-century defense tower built by Pope Nicholas V houses a very 20th-century bank.

These places, of course, are part of the working Vatican and are off-limits to outsiders, but the treasure-packed Vatican Museums are open to all. I suspect that most of the more than three million annual visitors who come here are unaware of two distinctions that make these museums different from all others: First, the vast collections of world-class artworks—including the Greek Laocoön and Apollo Belvedere sculptures—are grouped with masterpieces that literally were born here, conceived expressly for these buildings, including Raphael's frescoes in the Raphael Rooms, Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and frescoes by Beato Angelico in the Niccoline Chapel. Second, a number of the masterpieces created here were inspired by artworks already in the collections: I think of the Belvedere Torso, on which Michelangelo modeled his portrayal of Christ the Judge in the "Last Judgment"; the Egyptian caryatid that Raphael reproduced in one of his frescoes in the "Incendio di Borgo" (Burning of the Borgo) room; and the 1818 fresco showing the excavation of famous Roman statues at the ancient town of Ostia—statues that are now on display in the museum.

Contemporary art, too, has an important place in the Vatican, and includes spiritual works by Auguste Rodin, Wassily Kandinsky, Salvador Dali, and Edvard Munch. One of the most striking pieces is the big bronze sphere by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, created specifically for one of the Vatican's courtyards.

And of course this is a place of faith. St. Peter the Apostle was buried at the foot of the Vatican Hill, and on his sacred grave site the Catholic Church would establish its seat, the tremendous Basilica of St. Peter. With its 14 museums, its own specially commissioned artworks, its priceless library collections, and its sheer religious symbolism, the Vatican is much more than the sum of its parts: It's an organism that inspires and produces the very art and faith that then enrich it further—like a circular galaxy in a process of continuous expansion.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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