Several of the Sistine Chapel citations in my guidebook asked that you get there as early as possible, run through the entire Vatican museum, hope there's no one in the Chapel when you get there, and try lying on your back on the floor.
A variety of circumstances prevented us from getting there early. The resulting epic line snaking around two convex and two concave corners of the sloping, stony fortress walls of the Vatican museum made me decide that there's an eighth circle to Dante's hell, reserved for queue-cutters, and reincarnation may have dropped me right into it. I memorized the details of a German girl's beaded shoes in front of us, so that the sequin work is now forever burned into my memory, and I also nurtured a small, itching hatred for a couple that migrated from behind us to two spots in front of us. Freedom and forgiveness broke out as we were finally released into a whole lot of classical and high Renaissance corridors. (It seems like one of the Popes Sixtus wrote his own name on most of those ancient statues. He must have been really paranoid about thieves.) Ruchira and I had a tour of the Forum to get to in the afternoon, and the Sistine Chapel at the end, so we barelled through the museum on a mission. We didn't even need to really discuss it, we both knew what piece it was we had
to see besides the ceiling. "Stanzi di Raffaello? Stanzi di Raffaello?" we asked all the rather annoyed guards. The route is basically one way, and really, you can't miss it, but there are a few forks and we were anxious after the line. We didn't miss it.
It's sort of shocking to see art that you have admired for half your life as a flat rectangular print, and realize that it actually has corners that curve into the ceiling. But if Van Gogh's Starry Night at the Orsay was a tad disappointing in its real, small, canvas form, the School of Athens
was almost overwhelming as a huge chunk of frescoed wall. (Besides being attached to the fresco as a painting, I'm a bit sentimental about the concept and title
.) The colors are a little mellower in life, and the purple of the coat of Heraclitus (who's played by Michelangelo) masquerades the worn plaster as rough wool. The room is just not that big, and it's totally covered in art. There is no blank space anywhere to rest your eyes, or even your back. What for years was a symbolic set-piece in my head, an elegant and somewhat unrealistic tableau of philosophers, suddenly feels like a real school. Life-size and bigger than life, so close to your face, their flesh textured by the plaster, all these great thinkers feel less like elements of a visual list and more like guests at one smart party. Of course
Euclid and Pythagoras would be the geeks who'd have to whip out a napkin (or a slate) and show off their latest little discovery.
I'm not sure what kind of high-tech lens or stitching techniques professional art photographers use to get the whole thing onto a pristine print, because there's a huge oblong display case in the middle of the room and even if you were to ignore that and back all the way to the opposite wall, I don't see how you could take in the whole thing in one shot without a lens whose wide angle would distort it. Maybe it is
usually distorted slightly--the Michelangelo figure who seems like a clever insertion in prints is life-size and dominating of the foreground in the actual wall. His knees and fleshy hands are almost menacingly above your head, his brooding shadowy face aimed right at yours. It's a marvelous prelude to the Sistine chapel.