Best to be frank. In two months time I will have lived in Rome for five years. Until today, I had not yet been to the Sistine Chapel.

I’m glad that's off my chest.

There are all sorts of reasons. There always are. None of them holds up. I’ll go another time. Yes, but when? It’s too crowded in the summer. It’s too crowded every day. The whole thing is an excessive manifestation of the Church's corrupt materialism. Yes, and, your point is ...? Go!

But it wasn’t until some best friends arrived in town and dragged me along that I finally made it. And I am glad that I did.

Rob and Lynn and Ellen are my trusted guides to Important Italy. I expose them to carciofi alla giudea and they reciprocate with Sorrento, Paestum and now the Sistine.

All the guidebooks let you in on this big secret that they’ve also whispered to a coupla million other tenderfoots: “Get there really and run all the way to the Sistine. Shut your eyes to everything else along the way. You’ll have the chapel to yourself for 30 minutes or so and may able to lie down on the floor and look at the ceiling properly. You can do the other stuff later.” Being realists, we didn’t even think about that, knowing full well that recuperative sleep, to say nothing of fresh cornetti and frappe, would derail us. So we sidled up at about 11 and there was no queue whatsoever to get in.

Not to get in, maybe. But to get anywhere else, you bet. Weaving through the crowds, intently ignoring the Raphaels, the maps, the ornate stuff everywhere, we ultimately found ourselves going down the somewhat dingy corridor where we were reminded in six languages that I counted to be silent and not to take any photographs, and then, there we were.

I rushed away from the altar to the back and waited a few minutes for a seat and then just sat there, somewhat amazed I have to confess. There is not, in fact, anything I can add to the reams and reams that have been written. The colours are bright and fresh. The work is both fluid and solid. And of course one wonders how he knew, up there, what it would look like down here. Most amusing to me, was the way that the reverent silence slowly gave way to excited whisperings and then quiet chat and then quite loud conversation. Suddenly a chorus of Shhhhs would erupt and before anyone had time to pipe down, out would boom the extremely loud recordings reminding one, again, to be silent and not to take photographs.

Which admonition I, like everyone else, simply ignored. But discreetly. The only point, of course, is to be able to say “I was there.” No snatched snapshot is ever going to do justice to the place, as the Vatican seems to realize given the number of kiosks selling reproductions of just about everything to the indulgent hordes.

There is actually something about places so steeped in spirituality, reverence, awe and global fame that brings out the naughty boy. so when Rob, suitably gobsmacked, expressed amazement that Michelangelo did the whole thing in just four years, I had to comment that even four years would not be long enough for me to cover the walls and ceiling with white emulsion. And the ground floor, as it were, all trompe l'oeil curtains, is obviously just a labour saving expedient for someone tired of painting monumental biblical persons.

In conclusion: I was an idiot to ignore the Sistine as long as I did. It is glorious. Having said that, I have a couple of observations. One is that I would gladly pay 10 times the price to have the place to myself and a couple of thousand close friends. The crowds really do detract from the experience. It would also be nice if there were a season ticket or similar for Rome residents. Then one could pop in and do just a little bit -- the Raphaels for example, or the early Roman relics -- without feeling guilty. And I wish I had had a friendly art historian along with me.

One thing I learned before this visit was that my notion that one of the only good things about organized religion is its ability to inspire sublime art is ignorant and naive. The church had money. Money bought genius. Genius did what it was paid to do.

For partial proof look no further than some of the stuff popes through the ages have had to accept with a forced grin of gratitude. The Boehm Company’s gift of swans to Pope Paul VI is just one of several unbelievably ugly items on display. and I bet there are even more in the vaults. Mind you, it probably helped Edward Marshall Boehm become the first American not of royalty, the church or a church family to have a wing of the Vatican Museums named in his honour.

Enough. Tomorrow, DV, the new and improved Museo Campidoglio.

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