I want to preface this post by saying that I have added another page to my blog at the top of the home page that is reserved for reporting news related to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, the implications of that, and developments on his successor and the Papal Conclave that will be convoked in March. I will try to keep it updated as often as I can as news is constantly coming out of the Vatican related to this. Also, I’ve decided that my post on Florence will come later in the semester as I am returning to Florence again and plan to explore the city even further and I want to be able to give the best possible picture that I can of Florence.
My visit to the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica comes at a time of transition and importance within the Church. No Pope has done what Benedict XVI has done since Gregory XII in 1415 (who stepped down to end the Great Western Schism within the Church) and no Pope has stepped down voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. In sum, the Church is heading into extremely uncharted waters; Vatican officials are scrambling to interpret Church law to see what should be done with Benedict after he resigns, such as how he will be called, what he will wear, and what he will be allowed to do within the Church. The Church is corrupt enough as it is, making the presence of a former Pope while there is a new Pope a likely dilemma even though Vatican officials insist that there is no chance of Schism or division within the Church.
Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world, occupying an area of just over 100 acres and a permanent population of just fewer than 800. To a tourist who has never visited the Vatican before, it is not always obvious of what the borders are between the Vatican and Italy. Thick walls surround the majority of the city, but the part of the border that is on the cusp of St. Peter’s Square and Via Della Colonzione is nearly non-existent and one can come and go as they please from the square without having to show their passport and only passing through minimal security. But make no mistake: Vatican City is a sovereign country with its own laws. If you commit a crime within its walls, you are subject to the jurisdiction of the Vatican, not Italy, and face possible time in a Vatican jail.
The Vatican is one of the most corrupt and secretive institutions in the entire world. Only a handful of officials that work within the city’s walls are fully in the know of what is going on within the Church. This has been true since the beginnings of the Church two millennia ago all the way up to present day. But to the nearly 25,000 visitors each day who pass through the halls of the labyrinth that is the Vatican Museums, you would never know that some of the most influential decisions that affect over 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide are being made beneath your feet. Or maybe they are being made above you, in the Apostolic Palace, the residence of the Pope. We have a concrete layout of where different offices and departments are located within the Vatican, but as to what goes on inside them, the world may never know.
You could spend months if not years exploring the Vatican Museums in their entirety. I met our tour guide (my visit was an excursion included in my program fee) at the entrance to Musei Vaticani located on Viale Vaticano. Once we passed through metal detectors which essentially act as the border of this tiny state, I was officially in another country and on my way to seeing some of humanities most treasured works of art. Pope John Paul II had the entrance to the Vatican Museums completely renovated to celebrate the 2000 Jubilee in Rome, an occasion celebrated every 25 years, the next to occur in 2025. While one might expect to walk into the Vatican and be met by dust and deteriorating conditions because of its advanced age of two millennia, the interior reality is quite the contrary. The new entrance is bright and ultra modern, with a grand escalator that carries you from the ticket offices all the way to the top where there are restaurants and the museums begin. Notice that the word museum is plural; there are several distinct museums with collections ranging from Ancient Egyptian art, to Etruscan art, to art of Ancient Rome and of course some of the most iconic works of Christianity.