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Mimi’s Virtual Angels and Demons Blog Tour continues: St. Peter’s Square

Creation of Adam
Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Day 3- The Sistine Chapel

Follow the path of the Illuminati in this Virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown’s book, Angels & Demons.

Today’s post will concern the Sistine Chapel, a site not included on the official Angels & Demons tour in Rome. To visit this famous church you must get a ticket for the Vatican Museums, then wait in a long line. However, much of the book takes place in and around the chapel, so we will add it to the blog tour.

“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea
of what one man is capable of achieving.”
–Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787

Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome

I own a book listing 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and goodness knows I live to travel… but truly, there are only a few locations that sustain unquenchable fascination and bring deep personal meaning. Such is the case for me and the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps the film, The Agony and the Ecstasy starring Charlton Heston made an early impression on my psyche? My curiosity peaked by a man who excelled in art, sculpture, architecture and was also an inventor and poet. Whatever reasons…I retain a love affair with the Renaissance, Michelangelo and his work.

I understand not all are interested in art, but I doubt anyone could enter the sacred shine and not be awed by Michelangelo‘s achievement. The Sistine Chapel is simply one of those places that must be seen firsthand.

Surprisingly, the space is rather small. Built between 1475 and 1483 for Pope Sixtus IV, the structure was to match the size of the biblical Temple of Solomon, 40.93 meters long by 13.41 meters wide. The floor is covered in multi-colored inlaid marble. However, the vaulted ceiling covers 5000 square feet, a measurement to which I relate.

The ceiling was originally painted as a blue starry sky. Great artists were called in to decorate the walls: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, and Signorelli. They painted scenes from the life of Moses and Jesus and portraits of popes.

Twenty-five years later, Michelangelo was commissioned to redecorate the ceiling. He didn’t want the project, tried to refuse, and who can blame him? He considered himself a sculptor, but Pope Julius II commanded him to paint. So, for four years, 1508-1512, he climbed the scaffolding to fresco scenes from the Old Testament, sometimes working sixty feet above the floor. What he created became one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.

Ceiling close up
Sistine Chapel ceiling close-up

Michelangelo worked in fresco, the application of paint to wet plaster, requiring rapid skill. He used the technique of trompe l’oeil to create beams and architectural structures that fool the eye, they don’t exist. The upper ceiling tells nine stories from Genesis. Surrounding these large scenes, he added images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones. In all, 336 figures are featured on the ceiling.

When a visitor finally enters from a side door, time is limited. People strain their necks to see high overhead, do backbends or lie on the floor. (Lying is frowned upon by the guards.) Find a spot on a bench, if possible, to lean backward with head support.

To attempt to describe the overwhelming aura of the room is impossible. The energy, the detail and three dimensional feeling is incredible. The video at the end of this post may help but I repeat, you must just go and see for yourself.

At the age of sixty, with failing eyesight caused from painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned. Pope Clement VII commissioned ” The Last Judgment,” on the high altar wall.

This huge work, much more somber in tone, shows Christ on Judgment Day. The Savior lifts souls up to heaven and others are damned to hell. Michelangelo includes a self-portrait, his face on a limp body which Saint Bartholomew carries toward God. I personally prefer the ceiling art to The Last Judgment.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment
Michelangelo's Last Judgment

Recently, from 1980 to 1994, the Sistine Chapel’s art was meticulously cleaned and restored, a painstaking process using computer analysis. The restoration included removing several “modesty” drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures. Specialists worked on the frescos for about 30,000 hours, the entire process taking twice as long as it took Michelangelo to paint them.

Art historians protested and debates were heated, but the project continued, reviving the vivid colors that had dulled with time. The end result of the restoration continues to be controversial.

So now, let’s finally get back to the Angels & Demons story: In early chapters we learn the pope died and a conclave is called. Conclaves are held in the Sistine Chapel. The College of Cardinals, clergy from around the world, meets in secret for the purpose of electing a new head of the Catholic Church.

The cardinal’s ballots are burned after each voting session. If white smoke blows from the chimney on the roof, the world has a new pope. If the smoke is black, they reached no decision and the Cardinals remain locked in as the conclave continues.

Contrary to popular knowledge, conclaves were not always held in the Vatican. In fact, the cardinals were first sequestered during an election in Viterbo, Italy, about an hour from Rome. Following the death of a pope in 1268, they couldn’t agree on a candidate and were locked in to try to hasten the vote. (Mimi visited Viterbo in 2008 and will write about this tale in upcoming weeks.)

But, our heroes, Langdon and Vittoria, are in danger. A bomb-like canister of anti-matter is hidden within the Vatican . Should the conclave begin? The countdown is on; the race to locate clues leading to the lethal device continues…

A Tour of the Sistine Chapel

St. Peter's Square
Approaching St. Peter's Square, Rome, Italy

Day 2- A Visit to St. Peter’s Square

Follow the path of the Illuminati in this virtual tour of sites depicted in Dan Brown’s book, Angels & Demons.

Our travels continue…Langdon and Vittoria head back to the Vatican after finding the demon’s hole, the clue representing “earth” in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Now they search of a clue for “air”–the second element of science.

To approach the Vatican complex is to instantly feel small, as if shrunk like a wool sweater in the dryer. You stand before the colossal church, St. Peter’s Basilica, and stare. The place looks ever so familiar, you’ve seen it on TV or in photos, but now you sense its force. “Come closer,” it whispers and you are pulled like a fish on a line.

The Colonade of St. Peter's Square

Stately white pillars placed in a semi-circle form the colonnade, which then turns a corner and connects to the sanctuary. They envelope you, their solid presence creating warmth and security, like arms reaching out for a hug. As I took a moment to stand and listen; I felt history, beauty and God.

Our virtual tour will not enter the Basilica today; the path of the Illuminati keeps us outdoors.

The area in front of the church swarms with people: tour leaders like mama ducks lead their customers in lines; school children hold hands to stay safely united; priests and nuns in clerical robes pass by; tourists queue up, some in ethnic dress giving a hint of their background. In 2005, an estimated one million crammed in and around the streets of this area for Pope Paul II’s funeral.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, the artist, architect, sculptor who was mentioned in the previous Santa Maria del Popolo blog, designed Piazza San Pierto. Although called St. Peter’s Square, it is elliptically shaped. Construction of the symbolically welcoming colonnade took place from 1656 to 1667. (FYI-The first Basilica on this site was built by Constantine around 320 AD, and the current one begun in 1506 and completed in 1615.)

Just like Piazza del Popolo, an Egyptian obelisk stands in the center of the public space. Made from red granite, the monolith was brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD. It originally stood in his (later Nero’s) circus, the turning post in the chariot races of ancient Rome.

Aerial view of St. Peter's Square

In order for the 350-ton column (81 feet high) to be centered, it was moved 275 feet by Pope Sixtus V in 1585. That’s a fascinating story, we’ll also leave for another day.

The obelisk acts as a sun dial, its shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the white marble disks in the paving of the square. The pedestal rests upon four bronze lions.

At the top is a “Chigi Star” in honor of Pope Alexander VII, a member of the Chigi family who oversaw the building of the piazza. Legend says the star contains a relic of the true cross.

Two huge granite fountains were placed in the square for symmetry, the south/left one by Carlo Maderno (1613) and the northern/right one by Bernini (1675). The splashing water sounds refreshing.

Bernini's Granite Fountain in St. Peter's Square

Between the obelisk and each fountain is a circular stone that marks the focal points of the ellipse. If you stand on one of these points, the two rows columns of the colonnade line up perfectly and appear to be just a single row. Oh, that clever Bernini.

West Wind
West Wind stone of St. Peter's Square

Around the circumference of Bernini‘s fountain lay oval shaped stones, marked with directional points. The stone labeled West Ponente is etched with a man’s face who appears to be blowing air. He is the West Wind, and the clue needed in our story.

Unfortunately Vittoria and Langdon are too late and they encounter a murder at this spot. Consequently, their hunt will have to proceed…