3rd Oct 2014
Yesterday was punishing but rewarding. I’d had the end-of-crazy-season joy of being unhurried and the luxury of space. All of that was about to change.
I’ve worked in museums since I was 15. I have learnt in the years since that there are different breeds of tourist. Some are either professionals in the field of the museum exhibit or amateur yet passionate nerds. I fall into this category when I’m a tourist. We like to take our time, reading every sign and label, taking a myriad of photos of each piece from every angle, perhaps even going back to earlier spots on the route to reexamine an exhibit and compare it to something we’ve now seen further on. For the smaller museums I’ve worked in, these people are the most numerous. The smaller or more obscure the museum, the nerdier the patron.
As the museums get bigger and more famous the clientele broadens, naturally, over the spectrum. If you are world renowned site (such as the last couple of places I’ve worked and the place that I’m currently employed) the bread-and-butter visitors now increasingly become what I call Top Tenners.
They are casual tourists who have a general guide book that usually contains a list of “top ten must-see sites” of that city. A lot of tourists dutifully follow this list in turn, never feeling the desire to step off of the well worn path. And at each museum or site, they again dutifully troop to the “top” room/exhibit/building to tick it off of the list. The lists are general and often don’t have anything to do with individual interests.
These unimaginative tourists are legion. I’m a lot more tolerant of them when I’m on duty but when I’m a tourist myself I find it hard to suppress my irritation. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with this kind of person. Most of them are friendly, happy and content with seeing nothing more than “highlights,” particularly if they are on a short trip or are visiting a place for the first time. A lot of museums are increasingly curating exhibits to let the slow paced label readers and the steady Top Tenners live in harmony with each other. It is possible, I do it every day at work. The Vatican Museums make no attempt to make either happy.
I’ve booked my timed ticket in advance for 10am and am very much relieved that I forked over a couple of extra euros to do so as I pass the queues, estimated by then to be three hours long. Clutching my printed out ticket I sail through to the entrance where I scan my bar code and hand over my bag for the airport style security. I feel a stab of empathy for the poor guys working the security checks. I know from brutal past experience that despite 90% of people have been through an actual airport security check within the last fortnight, nearly every single one of them still looks at the museum X ray scanner and metal detector arch as if it was only invented that morning. I have spent many an hour explaining what will set detectors off, stumped as to how people managed to get on the plane.
Dear readers (although I’m sure you know this already)
If a security guard is looking stern it is because they are frustrated.
Yes, a phone is metal. Yes, your keys are metal. Yes, your camera is metal. Just put EVERYTHING in the tray provided and let’s get this all over as quickly as possible.
And as someone with first hand experience, yes, we ARE judging you on the disgusting things you have in your bag. Especially if we have provided a bin before the security area. If I listed things I have found during routine security searches it would put you off your dinner.
This blog post is sounding grumpy already! I apologize, but the memory of my Vatican Museums experience does make me irritable.
The Vatican Museums is an Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. It is filled to bursting with treasures plundered/rescued from the villas and temples of antiquity. The problem is that it is TOO full. The museum is housed throughout large chunks of the Vatican Palace and surrounding buildings but the pieces inside could comfortably decorate another two palaces. The rooms are stuffed. With small rooms and narrow corridors it quickly became unbearably crowded. The Top Tenners were desperate to see the Sistine Chapel. This is at the end of the route and there are no visible short cuts. So the beautiful collections of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman treasures before that were reduced to a Sistine Chapel queue for most of the visitors (at least when I visited.)
Authorised guides were leading round groups at the same time. As museum staff at home I am long used to herding/reprimanding/negotiating with (in London) Blue Badge Guides. It is up to me to make sure that they are not blocking fire escapes/taking up too much space et cetera. Most indie guides in busy museums know each other and will subtly move the group away from other groups and not hog an exhibit for too long. They also either stick to a route that we give them or that they agree on themselves that makes efficient use of space. I rarely have to slap the wrists of a Blue Badge Guide.
I know a few great guides in Rome on a personal basis and I know that they are impeccably professional. They were not working in the Vatican that day! Guides here had a schedule and knew they had a struggle to keep the group engaged in the wait for the Sistine Chapel. They jostled, yelled and paid no mind to other groups or individuals. Worse, the Vatican gallery staff (the Italian versions of me and my colleagues) couldn’t care less. They were uninterested, passing their days hidden behind larger statues, waiting for their pay cheques. If there is one thing I cannot abide it is poor standards in my own field.
And so I was swept through gallery after gallery by a swell of fractious Top Tenners, completely unable to focus on the statues and treasures, let alone focus my camera long enough for a steady shot.
Here are a couple of my favourite pieces that I couldn’t appreciate when I was actually there:
Many of the galleries were inexplicably roped off (exacerbating the crush) so I know I missed a lot of what I’d been hoping to see. After the Pio Clementino section (housing the antiquities) my frustration had grown but I had no choice but to persevere. Exits and short cuts are not plentiful or obvious. Getting ever closer to the Sistine Chapel, the pace was ever quickening. It was pointless to try and take a photo of anything.
Just before the Sistine Chapel, on the left, is the entrance to the Borgia apartments. I’ve long had a fascination with the opulent depravity of the Borgia family. Unfortunately I had been forced to walk along the right side of the approaching corridor. Heartbroken, I tried to push across to the other side, but the stampede had seen the “Sistine Chapel” sign and weren’t having any of it. I was pushed into to the Chapel, even more irritated.
I spend too long at work telling people to switch off their cameras in sacred chapels to even contemplate sneaking a photo in someone else’s chapel. Saying that, hardly anyone was bothering to adhere to the strict no-photo rule, let alone the silence rule. The staff grunted rebukes with the defeated air of one who knows they are fighting a losing battle. I stayed in the masterpiece of a chapel for all of 30 seconds, my visit ruined. I’ll get more pleasure out of seeing the frescoes in a book than surrounded by boisterous Top Tenners.
All in all, I was beyond disappointed with my Vatican Museums experience, vowing never to go back unless on a private after hours tour.
Thankfully I managed to escape the bustle for the rest of the day. After a sombre lunch I headed over the river to the top of the Campus Martius to visit the Ara Pacis.
Oddly, for such a beautiful museum (and especially as 2014 marks 2,000 years since the death of Augustus) I shared the whole place with three other visitors. If you want peace, quiet, and sufficient time to appreciate Roman art, come to the Ara Pacis. It is like a balm to the soul.
The reconstructed sanctuary is gorgeous. It is remarkably preserved, mainly due to the fact that the Campus Martius was a flood plain and gradually the monument was buried in four metres of silt. It was reconstructed at the current site in 1938, various bits having to be brought back from the Louvre, the Vatican and a couple of private collections.
Across the road is the very shabby Mausoleum of Augustus. I had to squeeze against a chain fence to get photos. It is very definitely not open to the public and, to be brutally honest, looks worse for wear. The mausoleum desperately needs some funds and some TLC.
With a few hours to sunset it was time to head back towards the Vatican and visit the Castel Sant Angelo, my second imperial mausoleum of the day.
First stop is the beautiful Ponte Sant’ Angelo.
The bridge is flanked by ten statues of angels, each carrying instruments of the Passion of Christ. The current angels date are late 17thC.
It was really pleasant to stroll across the bridge with the dramatic autumnal clouds framing the beautiful statues and yet the bridge was once the scene of bloody executions, a fact most visitors seem not to know anything about.
The bridge was one of 3 designated public execution sites for those condemned in the Papal States. Gallows and guillotines were temporarily erected on the bridge, and afterwards heads were displayed here on spikes.
I’d learnt about one particular execution the previous day at the Criminology Museum and I’ve written about the sorry affair here.
The next logical place to visit was the Castel Sant Angelo. Much like the Mausoleum of Augustus the Castel Sant Angelo is cylindrical and originally an imperial mausoleum. Built to house the remains of Emperor Hadrian (he of The Wall) and his dynasty in the 130s AD, the mausoleum was converted into a fortress in 401 AD and turned into a Papal castle and prison in the 14th century. I visited once already in 2007 so I know to head to the highest point in time for sunset…