There was nothing for it. We had to join the relentless one-way traffic to end up in the Sistine Chapel, the goal of the masses. People are said to turn up at the museum pointing one index finger towards the other and almost shouting, ‘Where? Where?’ We could, miraculously, pause in the Belvedere and actually find space to see Apollo and Laocoon, two of the most famous – and copied – statues in existence! Sarah had hoped it would be slightly less crowded for us later in the afternoon, and she was right, relatively speaking. Then, as we started the long walk, we had the chance to turn away from the main traffic through the lively late Greek and early Roman animal sculptures to the most exquisite sculpture gallery you could imagine. At one end is Ariadne – or Cleopatra – the reclining female figure, perhaps representing a river, who is featured behind a young aristocrat in many a Pompeo Batoni Grand Tour portrait. I also remember her for being the backdrop to Dorothea’s meeting with the young artist, Ladislaw, in Middlemarch, a key moment in the whole narrative. Along each side were statues under a ceiling of stucco, painted scenes and marble inlay, all floating serenely above us as we walked down and up it, Ariadne – or Cleopatra – keeping a matronly eye on us. Quiet. Serenity – room for thought.
Then back to the tramp down the tapestry corridor, dimly lit to protect their colour, along the intriguing corridor of maps, all brightly lit, with glimpses of the Vatican gardens through the windows, then left along the bottom of what Bramante had designed as a sculpture garden descending towards Rome from the Belvedere, for Pope Julius II, Sixtus IV’s (of the Sistine Chapel) nephew, in the early 1500s. It is generally thought to be the first example of an Italian garden, now ruined by a gallery that divides it neatly in two. The lower area, where there were once displays and mock fights, is now a parking place.
This is the part of the Vatican Museums closest to St. Peter’s and the square. It is where the decoration of rooms, to celebrate the secular position of the papacy as well as the spiritual, really started from 1480 into the 15th century and beyond. Raphael’s Loggia, now impossible to see but much copied, is out of bounds, but the Stanze, or reception rooms he painted for Julius II and the Medici pope Leo X that followed him, are entered in inverse order. The first we see was designed by Raphael but only completed after his premature death. The flow was not quite so congested, but in the centre of each of the following small but exquisitely frescoed rooms that speak brilliantly and movingly of the time when they were painted, is a large and cumbersome structure to explain each painting. Couples, mainly from Asia, had their photos taken with flash photography – one is told that affects the frescoes. No matter, Raphael suffers many shots every minute. Sometime it can be difficult to concentrate with all the flashes. In spite of all that, for me Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ remains one of the greatest paintings ever created, and certainly the epitome of High Renaissance art. It contains architecture and the building framing the human activity copies the New St. Peter’s that was being built at the same time. There is sculpture, and framed in the centre are the two philosophers debating: Aristotle and Plato. Around them throbs the thrill of learning – disciples listening, discussing with hands and bodies, drawing explanations, running to tell others. There are portraits of all his great contemporaries as well as of some of the ancients, and Raphael himself, peeping out on the right. I always throw him a kiss. A hymn to the human mind thrilled by science, philosophy, art – every intellectual endeavour expressed right through the fibre of one’s being.