Although in my previous visits to Rome I had been staying just outside the walls of the Vatican, I did not previously venture inside knowing that I would be doing so with my family. As per usual, I navigate the family to the meeting point with our guide, Alessio. One big advantage of having a guide is that we get to hop into a much smaller and a much faster queue to enter the Vatican Museum. Because it is the last week of July and therefore the peak of the tourist season, the regular museum queue stretches around the block, past the corner, and then through a piazza.
The Vatican Museum can easily be overwhelming as there are so many “important works” to see. Even if one just wanted to see the highlights, there are so many pieces that can be considered highlights to make that an almost insurmountable task. Initially, our guide indicates that we should skip the painting gallery and go straight to the sculptures. However, my dad convinces Alessio to quickly run us through it and they compromise that Alessio will point out one, maybe two very beautiful, very influential paintings. We enter the gallery, and only describing two paintings is impossible because part of the beauty of the paintings is understanding it in context and seeing what came before and what has come after. Because it seems that many visitors skip the paintings, the family has quality one-on-one time with Raphael’s “Transfiguration”, possibly his last painting. We will later see this same image in St. Peter’s Basilica except that there it is done as an intricately designed mosaic. In fact, the mosaic is so intricate that it is only obvious it is not a painting from a foot away.
One unexpected highlight of the day for many of us is the Gallery of Maps. The gallery includes topographical maps of all of Italy, and they were painted directly on the walls back in the 16th century. The hall is still one of the world’s largest pictorial map collections. We all are map people, a trait that is either genetically or environmentally acquired from our dad; therefore, this hall, which receives less recognition than the other exhibits, is a wonderful surprise. In addition, I have to at least mention that the Sistine Chapel was breathtaking, the frescoes brilliant, and the marble and art exquisite throughout.
As with any guided tour, a big component to the success of the activity depends on the quality and character of the guide. Alessio does a very good job, and we enjoy that he is also a real life caricature of a “suave” Italian. He knows all the guards at the Vatican, which we later learn is because he was once a guard there himself. He wears a nice yet very casual button down shirt with its sleeves rolled up and the two top buttons left undone. He carries a brown leather messenger bag, rolls his own cigarettes on the go, and has a witty response to most questions. In addition, he is knowledgeable about the art, the artists, and the sites and all of their significance. His friendliness with the guards also pays dividends as he is able to give us a little extra time in areas to grab a group photo and he is able to convince a guard to keep a Sistine Chapel side door open long enough so that we can appreciate the private rooms located behind them. By the end of the long morning, we all feel very satisfied about our Vatican Museum experience.