The Vatican – Michelangelo’s Masterpiece

Whether or not you’re a practicing Catholic, the Vatican—the world’s second-smallest  sovereign  independent  state—is  a must-see when you’re in Rome , if only for its enormous art collection. In truth, it has more  art  than  most  children  (or  most adults) can appreciate, so keep your focus narrow: Tell the kids you’re here to see the work  of  one  great  artist,  Michelangelo. Everything else is icing on the cake.

You  enter  Vatican  City  through  grand colonnaded  St.  Peter’s  Square,  where the Pope himself appears on a balcony at noon  every  Sunday  (except  mid-July  to mid-Sept)  to  bless  the  gathered  multitudes.   Straight   ahead   is   the   massive facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza San Pietro,  topped  by  a majestic dome designed by Michelangelo. (Note: The basilica has a strict dress code: no  shorts,  no  skirts  above  the  knee,  and no  bare  shoulders  and  arms.)  St.  Peter was allegedly buried here in  A . D . 64; this is the  second  basilica  on  the  site,  mostly completed in the 1500s and 1600s. Don’t be surprised if the riot of gilt, marble, and mosaic inside overwhelms you all—that’s what it was designed to do. Steer the kids into  the  first  nave  on  the  right  to  see (sadly,  behind  reinforced  glass)  a  young Michelangelo’s  exquisite  sculpture  of  the Pietà,  with  a  tender  Virgin  Mary  cradling the  crucified  body  of  her  son  Jesus.  Pass through the grottoes, getting a peek at St. Peter’s tomb, then wait in line to climb to the  dome  (separate  ticket).  You  can  walk up  all  491  steps  or  take  an  elevator  and walk  only  320  steps  (only!);  at  the  top you’ll  have  an  astounding  view  over  the rooftops of Rome.

Next  you  visit  the  Vatican  Museums (yet  another  ticket  line),  housed  in  a  section  of  the  papal  palaces,  a  labyrinthine series  of  lavish  apartments  and  galleries. This collection of treasures from antiquity and the Renaissance is so big that visitors are given a choice of four partial tours—all of  them  ending  in  the  Sistine  Chapel. Among much else, you may choose to see the  Borgia  Apartments,  with  their  frescoes  of  biblical  scenes,  or  the  Raphael Rooms,  decorated  by  Raphael  and  his workshop for Pope Julius II (the highlight is the  second  room’s  scene  of  the  Greek philosophers, who are actually portraits of great   Renaissance   artists).   Eventually you’ll reach the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s  command  performance  for  Pope Julius II. It took the artist 4 taxing years in his 30s to complete the nine panels on the ceiling, whose themes are taken from the pages  of  Genesis.  The  most  famous  are Adam  and  Eve  being  expelled  from  the Garden of Eden and the Creation of Man—bring  binoculars  so  the  kids  can  see  the details,  especially  God’s  outstretched  finger giving the divine spark of life to Adam. On  the  altar  wall  is  a  late  Michelangelo painting,   the   Last   Judgment,   wherein some  of  the  doomed  sinners  resemble Michelangelo’s  enemies.  Hey,  even  great artists can be petty.