This is a picture of how I actually felt halfway through the Vatican Museum.
The day had started out well. It was our first morning in Rome and we were staying with friends in a rented apartment (thank you again, AirBnB) right near the Vatican (mainly because this neighborhood seemed more affordable—and in my opinion it was a great base). We’d had fantastic espresso and cappucinos from a little cafe, and we’d made sure our skirts were long enough to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. (Lest you think they jest about the dress code, they don’t: no shoulders, no thighs, no shorts. The Swiss Guard does not want to see it.).
St. Peter’s was free to visit and beautiful inside. It’s named for Peter, the disciple who once denied knowing Jesus out of fear but went on to become the rock of the early church and the first “pope” (not a term he would have used at that time). He is believed to have been martyred in Rome in the time of Nero, and potentially buried on the current Vatican site. We visit a lot of old churches but the basilica is so ornate, and imposing with all the colored marble. And Michelangelo’s Pieta, of course, which is on the right just after you enter the church.
I suppose this might be obvious, but I have never seen so many priests and nuns in one place. Every time we walked through that square we passed clusters of them. I assume a lot of them were visiting or making a pilgrimage. It says something about the rituals of my childhood that I still felt the urge to greet every single one of them and call them “Father” or “Sister.”
We had bought our tickets for the Vatican Museums online to avoid the huge queues (and yes, they were huge) and to be assigned a time for entry. Our time was 11:30, and we earned it by paying not only the steep €15 ticket fee but the additional €4 “service fee” PER TICKET, for ONE transaction…. And let me tell you, the Museum was making a haul of cash on Saturday—because it would have been physically impossible to get any more bodies in that building.
It was clear the museum was crowded when we entered, and we decided that we should try and get to the Sistine Chapel as quickly as possible, to see that first before the museum got any more crowded. Then, we thought, we could backtrack and see other things. So we began following the signs marked “short route” to the Sistine Chapel. Very quickly we found ourselves in a narrow hallway hung with tapestries and absolutely mobbed with tour groups, so much so that sometimes you couldn’t even move for a minute because there was nowhere to go. I started pointing out facts like: “If there were a fire right now, we would all die” and “This is what it feels like before a stampede begins.”
Basically, this degree of crowd is not for me. It didn’t matter what was on the walls because after about 30 minutes of this, I was freaking out. Also it became clear that there was no “going back to see stuff we missed” because the traffic was only flowing one way. I had the strong urge to escape out the window into the Papal gardens.
At one point we were shuffling and shoving along like everyone else, trying to get to the Sistine Chapel, and on our right was another hallway blocked off by rope so you couldn’t go directly there. Some guards had been manning it but they were farther back now. Suddenly a few people ducked under the rope and made a break for it. A man ducked under and beckoned his wife: “Come on! Hurry!” She was clearly reluctant to violate the rule of flow and looked around nervously. “COME ON!” her husband prompted. “It’s another hour that way!” “No,” she insisted. “It’s just one more bend!”
This, we decided, was a marital argument waiting for later. She continued on the prescribed route and left him alone, exasperated, but far closer to the Sistine Chapel. Just after this the route took us on a small outdoor walkway and we got some much-needed fresh air before ducking back into the Stanze di Raffaello, where we saw the famous School of Athens. Note: in real life, this painting that perhaps you also have seen in art history textbooks is actually the size of a gigantic wall. It truly surprised me.
After the Raphael rooms, I don’t know, either the space expanded or a whole bunch of people fainted or couldn’t go on, because mercifully things thinned out. My heart rate started to slow down and we finally—yes—made it to the Sistine Chapel (no photos there; also the guards say “Shhh!” a lot). The chapel is lined with benches and we sat for quite some time, looking at the ceiling and reading in our guide about the different painted scenes.
From here on out the museum and I reached a more cordial agreement. We were able to find our way to some different and quieter spaces, including a hall of really interesting ancient maps, and a hall lined perpetually with locked ornamental cabinets (what was in them?!). Windows appeared, and space, and clean air, and eventually the spiral staircase and the gift shop and the exits.
We overheard a tour guide telling her group that to really experience the museum without the pandemonium, they’d have to come back in winter. And I understand it was a Saturday in June, but for the price of admission? Try and make sure people have a positive experience. Me, I’ll be sitting happily outside, by the fountains.