During our stay in Rome last month, we had the opportunity to visit Vatican City for several different experiences. In all there were 4 different things that we were fortunate enough to experience over 2 days. First, was the rare and hard to book tour of the Necropolis (also known as the Scavi). I’ll talk more about this later but this was VERY IMPRESSIVE. Next, was the visit to St. Peter’s Basilica where one is simply awe struck of the beauty that is inside. On the second day, we were fortunate enough to get tickets to the Papal audience which is a weekly address by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Then finally, was our tour of the Vatican Musuem which was a showcase for a significant part of the Vatican’s collection and included the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Musuem deserves its own dedicated report so I’ll work on that over the next couple of days.
Our first day’s visit to Vatican started with an early morning tour of the Necropolis. Tickets for this are extremely difficult to come by if you do not book well enough in advance. For our October trip, I had reserved the Necropolis tour directly through the Vatican in February. The Necropolis tour is not open every day and is limited to only 150 visitors spread over 10 groups daily. The Necropolis is significant because it is actually a Pagan Cemetery that was left intact as Catholic churches were erected directly on top of this cemetery. The first Churches started to appear in the 4th Century with Constantine (first Roman Emperor to Convert to Christianity) building them. The current Basilica dates back to 1506 when construction began. 120 years later, the Basilica as we see it today was completed. Unfortunately there was no photography allowed in the Necropolis due to its frail condition. The Humidity is maintained a 95 percent to keep the frescos from fading. The Necropolis is a series of streets and passage ways that hold the interred remains of those of the Pagan faith back when the Pagan faith was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. Today you see the chambers and the shelves where marble caskets and other various items are in place holding the remains of those that passed away 1800-2000 years ago. Constantine, being the first Christian Roman Emperor felt the need to send a message, decided to build tributes to his faith in the form of Churches and Cathedrals directly on top of this Necropolis and so began the path to what is today known as Vatican City. When touring the Necropolis you see the ancient foundations of the Churches that pre-dated St. Peter’s Basilica. You also see the foundation of the current Cathedral as well. The absolute key highlight to the Necropolis are the remains of St. Peter. During the tour you see the bones laying on an ancient temple that is directly beneath the altar of the modern Basilica about 10-15 meters above. During our tour, there was a special mass in the Vatican and the singing of the Choir lent an eerie feeling as we looked over these ancient artifacts. If you plan to visit the Vatican, you absolutely should try to get tickets for the Necropolis. In my opinion, touring the Vatican and Necropolis transcends religious beliefs and can be appreciated by anyone.
Now that my poor attempt at a brief history lesson has mercifully come to a close, I can move on to the pictures. Below are pictures of the exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica including St. Peter’s Square.
The interior of the Basilica is worthy of its own separate report, but I’ll cover a few of the highlights here. The Basilica contains several altars and literally hundreds of statues paying tributes to the Apostles, various Saints and former Popes especially those dating back to the first years of the Basilica. For me, there were two overriding highlights that ranked above everything else.
The Basilica is home to Michelangelo’s interpretation of a Pieta. A Pieta is an example of a sorrowful Virgin Mary. Michelangelo’s edition is for obivious reasons the most famous one. Several years ago someone decided to attack this statue with a hammer so unfortunately it has to be displayed behind glass, but it is still spectacular (click on image for full view):
The other highlight for me is The Papal Altar & Baldacchino designed by Bernini. Bernini’s works are prevalent through out the Basilica and Vatican City. The Papal Altar and Baldacchino were his first works inside the Basilica:
Another Masterpiece by Bernini that compliments the Altar is his “Throne of St. Peter”:
Of course there are other wonderful masterpieces founded everywhere within the Basilica. I could list hundreds of statues, and trust me I have the pictures to back that claim. But here are a few of the ones that stood out to me. So many of these look like they could come to life at any moment. Their details are simply amazing. I never knew you can carve stone so beautifully that it looks like the statues are draped in cloth.
A unique display of interred Pope Pius X:
The Basilica also has beautiful mosaics that cover virtually ever inch of the interior walls. I’ll add those images to my “Vatican Gallery” that I will create in the next few days. Please check back in a few days for that addition to my site.
Another unique opportunity that presented itself to us was to be part of the Papal Audience that is held each week at the Vatican. Tickets are free, but you have to request them through a Church or a Catholic Organization such as a Bishop’s office, Diocese, etc. There are agencies that can arrange for the tickets but they will charge you a fee. We requested our tickets online through the Bishop’s Office of The Pontifical North American College located in Rome. CLICK HERE for a link to their website for more information on obtaining the tickets. Keep in mind that on the days of the Papal Audience the Basilica is closed to visitors during the Audience. It opens at 2pm on those days.
The Audience lasted for about 2 hours and St. Peter’s Square was full of Visitors and Pilgrims from all over the World. The Pope addressed the Audience with his message in several languages and acknowledged many of the groups that had traveled to see him. Groups from as far as Australia, Ghana, East Asia, etc. were in attendance. The Pope entered in his “Pope Mobile” and was driven up and down the aisles so that most of the Audience could get a good look. Its recommended to get there 2 hours prior to the start of the Audience to get the best seats since they are first come, first serve. Here are a few pictures:
Security was present, but not obvious. The Swiss Guard is responsible for Vatican Security. Don’t let these individuals fool you. There are “significant” automatic weapons beneath the uniform:
A large crowd:
As I stated earlier, a visit to the Vatican does not have to be based on religious beliefs. Granted, its the “Capital” of the Catholic Church but the experience can be enjoyed by anyone. The history and the priceless works of art are reason enough to visit. The Vatican’s Museum that I’ll cover in another report is also reason enough to visit. There are not many places in the world that you can visit and see works by Bernini and Michelangelo almost everywhere you look. To me, this was one of the best parts of our trip. Things that I had only read about in textbooks or seen in movies came to life.