Last week I revisited the Sistine Chapel
When I was about six years old I was very interested in naked people. I’m told that many children share this interest. But in those days, the mid fifties of the last century, porn was not as close as your smart phone. Pictures of naked people were only available in National Geographic Magazine, which seemed to include bare breasted African natives in every issue, and in art. My mother had a big coffee table book, put out by Life Magazine, entitled “Great Art of the World”. It included details of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And in those pictures I could see at least two naked people, Adam and Eve. I poured over those pictures.
If you imagine the Sistine Chapel through the eyes of a child, it’s like a horror movie. You have the mother holding her infant above the rising flood waters, the boatman on the river Styx with his glowing red eyes, and of course Adam and Eve being driven from the garden of Eden. Strong stuff. I was fascinated.
The first time I went to Rome, in the mid seventies, I had the good fortune to meet a beautiful art historian. We had a love affair worthy of a Hollywood movie. I told her of my fascination with the Sistine Chapel. Let’s go see it. But she had seen it many times and wasn’t interested in seeing it again. She advised me to get to the ticket office early, and don’t spend time in the Vatican museum, but march the kilometers to the chapel without looking left or right, else I would find myself crowded in with other tourists. So that’s what I did. I got to the chapel long before anybody else. I got to lie down on the floor and spend an hour, undisturbed, soaking up the images of that famous ceiling.
This time was quite different. As before, I arrived well before the opening time at the ticket office. But by eight in the morning there were already thousands of tourists following the tour guide flags, lining up, waiting to get through the entrance doors. I paid a premium to allow me to jump the queues, and tried to push my way through the crowds in the hallways preceding the chapel. But by the time I got there, the space was shoulder to shoulder. No lying down on the floor this time. Every few minutes a voice with an strong Italian accent would demand silence and remind everybody that no photos or videos are allowed. Somehow he did not add to the sanctity of the place.
Still, it was worth it. Unbelievable colours, especially the flesh tones. Gorgeous. They left a tiny square in the top corner uncleaned, just so we can see the difference. And the difference is beyond dramatic. What I saw on my first visit was like looking at the ceiling through dirty sunglasses in dim light.
Of course I am no longer looking at those stories through the eyes of a seven year old. Now they seem horrible, and stupid beyond belief. Especially the whole ark thing. It has the credibility of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. So strange that there are people who believe it is an actual historical event that really happened. Strange world we live in.