Until today I didn’t really know much about the Vatican other than what I had gleaned from history courses taken long ago and from reading The Da Vinci Code. We could have wandered through the various museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica on our own, but we decided to pay a lot for a five-hour tour with a guide. This turned out to be a good decision for us because we would have spent a lot of time on the wrong things and probably would have run out of steam before we got to the good parts.
Our tour guide was Maria. She said her real name was Mary Freedom, a name given to her by her hippie parents in the 60s, but I don’t believe it. She seemed too young and too Italian for this to be true (although the business card she handed us at the end of the tour gave her name as Maria Libera Del Vecchio). She seemed a bit flip at the beginning so I thought this would be another one of those tours where the guides just made up stuff, but she turned out to be quite knowledgeable. She’s an art historian who specializes in Renaissance art and she has such a passion for it that listening to her was never boring. In each room of the museums she skipped past all the minor works and went right to the best ones.
Five hours is a long time to listen to someone talk, and sometimes it was hard to keep up, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I learned a lot about Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio (and Bernini) that I never got from any art history course. Maria carried a tablet with her to show us details of paintings and sculptures, and to give a quick overview of the Sistine Chapel before we entered it because you’re not supposed to talk inside it (or take pictures). She was well versed in ancient Roman history as well as the history of Catholicism, although she seemed a little baffled by the current Pope, often saying, “But Francis will be Francis,” as she described his breaks from tradition.
The Vatican is an amazingly beautiful, historic place and I highly recommend touring it with a knowledgeable guide. The tour wore us out (lots of walking, stair-climbing, neck-craning to view ceilings and the dome) so afterward we returned to our hotel for a quiet evening of reading and writing.
There’s so much more to see and do here, but tomorrow we must say, “Arrivederci Roma” as we board the train for Florence.