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The Holy See

Rome is unique in housing two sovereign states. One is the Holy See comprising the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Vatican .

travel Updated: Sep 14, 2010 14:34 IST

Dan Brown has aroused a lot of curiosity about Vatican City with his Angels and Demons. I am no exception. I have reserved a whole day for this and booked my ticket online to avoid the queues. I have heard from several people that they stood for half a day outside Vatican Museum but could not make it to the head of the queue. And its correct. When I arrive at the Ottavio Metro station at 7.30 am, the queues have already formed and my friends the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs have set up their stalls and are raring to do business. 

Rome is unique in housing two sovereign states. One is the Holy See comprising the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Vatican . the other is the Sovereign Military order of Malta which took refuge in Rome after losing Malta to Napoleon in 1834.

Vatican has been the center of Catholicism and the home of the Pope since 1378. The Pope lives papal apartments in the city which is all of .44 sq km. It comprises of St.Pepter's Basilica, St.Peter's Square, the Vtaican Museum and the Vatican offices. Traditionally the Vatican has been guarded by Swiss guards who still wear the colourful costume of old times.

I choose to see the museum first as I wish to attend evensong at the Basilica in the evening. The museum has over 1400 rooms but all are not open to the public. There are four different tours which will walk you to the piece de resistance the Sistine chapel from different directions.

Please keep most of a day to see the museum because every room has sculptures and paintings that you may have seen in art books. Like others, I too am most eager to see the Raphael rooms and the Sistine chapel but it would be a pity to miss the statues, maps, carpets, crystal and marble from different periods assembled under a single roof. So I choose to roam around at will, going from one section to another and taking my time about it. Guided tours tend to hustle you a bit.

The art gallery of Vatican is called the Pinocoteca Vaticano. It has many masters but Raphael and Michelangelo have been accorded most prominence. There are a series of rooms whose ceilings and walls were painted by Raphael and his disciples. I am particularly fascinated by a scene of old Greece where Socrates is teaching his disciples cheek to jowl with Euclid explaining a geometrical concept to his disciples.

Before going to the Sistine, I go through the rest of the Pinocoteca and in a stark white niche I find a jewel, a small La Pieta in a wood frame. I never knew Van Gogh had done a La Pieta, so it's a double treat. I see another one by Marc Chagall.

The Sistine Chapel was built from 1473-1481 as both the pope's private chapel and the venue for the election of the new pope by the cardinals. The Biblical scenes on the walls were created by several famous artists, including Perugino and Botticelli. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope to do the ceiling and the altarpiece. He was 73 years old then and is said to have protested that eh was a sculptor and not a painter. But the Pope persuaded him and he covered the ceiling with the story of Noah as well as the creation of man. For the altar piece he chose to paint The Last Judgment. My suggestion to all art lovers is to shed your guide at this point, find yourself a spot on a bench lining the wall and drink in beauty without looking at your watch and thinking about the next thing to do. This , to me, is the only way to really experience the Sistine and the grandeur of the work there. The sheer size, the detailing of figures, the colours, everything is mindblowing. And all this was done by a 73 year old man, lying practically on his back in special metal contrivance that he had designed himself. Photography is prohibited, so make your eyes the camera.

Take a break at the Vatican café which serves fruits, drinks and pizzas/sandwiches. You may then like to take a walk through the beautifully laid out Vatican gardens.

Exit the museum and walk around the Vatican walls to come into Saint peter's Square. This too was designed by Michelangelo and the two galleries that reach out on facing semi circles are said to represent the all embracing arms of the Holy Church. The security is strong and you have to wait sometime in a line before you get in the huge bronze doors of the basilica.

The present church is built on site of St.Peter's tomb. It is said that a set of bones found inside a very old wall have been carbon dated and are presumed to be his. On the right side of the entrance, behind plate glass is the world famous La Pieta. Michelangelo had made many versions before he finally completed this masterpiece in white marble. The marble looked grey and translucent but the Pieta is as beautiful in person as in pictures.

The cathedral holds the tombs of Popes as well as many members of successive royal families. All the vaults are lined with impressive statuary. At the time of evensong, a small cordon was created around the main altar but those who wished to worship were allowed free ingress, You may like to visit the catacombs beneath the cathedral. Only a small portion is open to visitors. You can see the marble casket of Pope John Paul I and the plain granite slab over the resting place of Pope John Paul II. And no, St.Peter's grave is not in bounds.

There is no fee for visiting he Basilica or the catacombs but there is a fee for going up the dome of St.Peter's to get a bird's eye view of Vatican city and Rome/ Outside the Vatican walls is the Castel San Angelo. This castle was built by Emperor Hadrian as his tomb. You can walk to it and see the Pont Nuov Angelo over the river Tiber.

Dr.Ajjanta Chakravarty is a management consultant and an avid globe trotter. She can be reached at

ajjanta@ajjanta.com