Sunday, October 19, 2008

Note da Italia : La Cappella Sistina

Cappella Sistina, Vaticano : The Sistine Chapel, Vatican

Please click on the photographs for a larger view.

For those of you who have seen the brilliant movie ‘Good Will Hunting’, you will remember the famous monologue Robin Williams delivers to Matt Damon about the things that just need to be experienced, not read about. One of the things he mentions in his speech is the master craftsman Michael Angelo and his paintings, prominently the one on the roof of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Museum. When I saw this movie a few years ago I couldn’t help wonder what that room really smelt like (referring to Robin’s lines ‘…but I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel…you’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling…seen that…’ – video here for those interested in this wonderful scene from that movie) considering it was mentioned under such a vital context. So when I realized I could easily get to the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museum) on a single bus ride from my hotel in Trastevere, it became impossible to resist. After all, when in Rome, right?

So I headed off to make the beeline that formed outside the museum in the Vatican. I also learnt that the Vatican, despite being just another area within Rome has been officially christened the smallest country in the world given the power it contains. Hence this was an eye-opener of sorts for people like me who were always told ‘Vatican City’ is in Italy instead of ‘the Vatican, while within Rome is a state within itself’.

As I entered the museum I was welcomed by a barrage of some magnificent paintings and sculptures. The tales from the Bible and then onward to the life and times of the Roman Empire were sprawling all over the roofs and walls of the hallways. Every single painting had a story behind it! None of them were really ‘still portraits’ like the ones at a place like the Mysore Palace where Kings and his family are shown posing for the painting. Instead these art pieces were action based images that unfolded scriptures and tales from an era bygone. To better enhance my knowledge about what I was seeing I even picked up a book from the souvenir shop that shed a lot of light on what was displayed in the museum. But despite all that, the one thing I waited for with a lot of expectation was the Sistine Chapel. My mind kept going back to Robin’s words and I just couldn’t wait to experience it.

First things first – it’s a long walk to the chapel. In what seemed like a never ending maze of symbols that kept assuring me that ‘La Cappella Sistina’ is right around the corner, I found myself getting a tad frustrated about the build up that was being given to the room. There was a time I couldn’t help wonder just which floor of the building I was in since I had gone up and down so many times! However, I waited. And to help me get through the wait were some amazing pieces of art spread on the way that kept me busy appreciating the attention to detail artists like Angelo gave to their work. It was a blessed feeling to have been witness to such timeless examples of sheer brilliance.

After what seemed like eternity, it finally came. And it did so with quite a rush as well. You can never be sure if the next room you are stepping into is the Sistine Chapel or not so every room has an arrow indicating that the next room will lead to the chapel. So I must admit I wasn’t completely ready for it which then meant, it took me by surprise.

Absolute and complete surprise.

The room opened up into a wide area that resembled a huge church. At first sight I couldn’t quite make out what to look for since the light wasn’t at its best. But once inside, I knew – I was there. Surrounded by easily about 500-600 other people, I stood in absolute silence. There was a large sign outside that made two things clear – no talk and no camera. I chose to ignore the second one and snapped a quick shot before being reminded by a nosy old lady not to do so. I then politely reminded her back with a well timed ‘…well, it also says no talking…so…’ to which she nodded in disbelief and walked away. That side-note apart, all I could do really was look up…and be spellbound.

The photograph I took above - of the ceiling - doesn’t do any justice to the beauty one experiences in that room. There is something more too – there is a sense of silent compassion which is so rare to find in a ‘museum’. One tends to treat a museum like a house that contains some relics and reminders of a past no one can really connect with anymore. All one generally does is look at them dispassionately, maybe ponder on the date and then move on to the next item nodding in mute appreciation. But it is quite impossible to stand under that ceiling and not feel connected to something higher – something beyond what we represent below. What Michael Angelo successfully accomplished by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for me at least, was tell the world that hope exists. That there is some chain that has come down from the time the first human was created that now trickles into the hundreds of heads that look up each at that roof each passing hour. A connection quite divine becomes apparent.

All I could do after watching the collection – especially the painting God creates Adam – was take a deep breathe. I needed another breathe to now experience what Robin mentioned in Good Will Hunting – and I did. And it was beautiful.

Another wonderful day spent in magnifica Italia.


2 reflections:

Madhura said...

Glad to know that you had a great time there in Italy. It's indeed a wonderful place for artists. I had read about those great paintings of Michealangelo, Berninis's architecture, Sistine chappel and the vatican city from the Dan Brown's novel 'Angels and Demons' a year back. Nice to know about it again through your words.
Enjoyed the video clip of 'Good will hunting' as well. If possible, I hope to take this trip one day.
Looking forward to your next post.


shakri said...


Ah yes. Dan Brown of course. I have not read that book but I am sure he described it well. Even so, as Robin says in the movie clip, it is an experience of its own. You should definitely check it out some day.