The Vatican Experience
I suppose my visit to the Vatican Museums yesterday ended up as a no-score draw. The truth is that I didn’t actually find the Chiaramonti Caesar. This was largely my fault. I had naively assumed, from its name, that it was in the Chiaramonti Gallery but after a major campaign of examining every ancient bust in that large gallery twice, both the husband and I concluded it wasn’t there. We kept a close eye on every other bust we passed during the rest of the afternoon (a very large number of them), but didn’t spot him.
When I got back home (temporary home, I mean), I did what I should have done in the first place: that is looked up where actually it was. Indeed it had originally been in the Chiaramonti Gallery (a wonderful creation of Canova), but for many a year had lodged in the Sala dei Busti. Now I think that this was actually closed on the afternoon we visited. Nothing on the Vatican website actually gives you a plan of the place, beyond something as schematic as a tube map. It strikes me that the Vatican Museum authorities have no interest in letting you know where you actually are (some people inside did seem to have some kind plan, but I suspect it came with the audio guide; we certainly were not given one, nor found one). But consulting the diagram in our old Blue Guide, it looked as if the Sal dei Busti was beyond the statue of the Apoxyomenos, which we had seen, but couldn’t get to because of a very uncrossable barrier.
Anyway that tells you a bit of the visitor experience. We did, let me admit, see some amazing things. I had also wanted to look at a ‘young Octavian/Gaius/Lucius Caesar’ and we found him in the Chiaramonti. I got a real good close up of their ‘Death of Caesar’ tapestry. And, outside the classical world I was much taken with an early medieval gaming board from a catacomb. But overall as a visitor experience it was somewhere on the spectrum between sub-optimal and ghastly.
We had bought a ticket online, but still had to queue to have the print-out converted into a different ticket (that's the entrance at the top of the post). The crowds of people all herded in one direction (there may be a way of avoiding the route through the Sistine Chapel but we didn’t find it) made it difficult to look at anything properly. Most people appeared to be in zombie mode anyway. Apart from the obligatory selfies, they were blindly moving to whatever was highlighted by their tour leader or audio guide, so creating more bottle-necks (this isn’t snobbish elitism: the whole thing is set up so that is the only way you can behave). There were very few helpful labels, and no place to sit down (probably strategic to get us out quicker, but I did feel that Jesus would have liked those of us with arthritic knees to enjoy the treasures too). When you came out, the taxi touts were a definite rip off (one fewer man with a gun, I thought, and one taxi dispatcher might have been a good idea).
Now I can see the museum authorities have real problems and are trying to overcome them (there was a nice new display, with decent signage, of material from Papal excavations, for example). They are struggling with something close to 6 million visitors a year. The Louvre, the BM, the Met and the London National Gallery all have more than that, but unlike the Vatican they were built as public museums in the first place, which gives them a head start. In the face of this, the Vatican’s answer seems more and more rigid control of the visitor’s route, which in many ways makes things worse. They don’t seem to have taken on board that some people (a minority maybe, but still some) do not want to see the Chapel. So we were crammed at snails pace down some narrow stairs and pushed through the place in a fairly unfriendly manner, when we didn’t even want to be there.. The best comparison is a visit to the interior of Lenin’s tomb (but at least you have chosen to go to that).
I don’t have a ready solution and it can’t be easy to find one, though it must be possible. And it must have something to do with loosening up a bit (and maybe providing everyone with a plan).
There’s something close to criminal in sending thousands upon thousands of visitors past some of the greatest works of art in the west and not creating conditions in which they can SEE them meaningfully.