Why pull a page out of history when you can step right into the book? And in a repository of such eminence, every single step I took bore the entire awe and reverence of my being.
The art connoisseur’s fantasy, the historian’s paradise, the devotee’s sanctorum and the cynic’s crucible, this sovereign city-state, seat to the catholic authority − the Holy See − contains itself within two succinct square miles of the city of Rome.
Like a jewel, Vatican City stands, tucked within its impenetrable walls, in the middle of all the din and razzmatazz that the Italian capital is famous for. Inside, its serenity is as imposing as its flamboyant opulence. Where the present is a breathtaking legacy of yore and the past just eyefuls above, the psyche becomes a humble melting pot of emotions that linger on forever.
In this vast conglomeration of museums beyond compare, each sculpture, painting and tapestry, passionately delivered and blindingly precious, recites its legend. I drifted into a sublime state of consciousness when it sunk in that these works of art, panning walls and ornate ceilings, even to this day, bear the actual touch, hold the actual breath and have witnessed the actual toil of the great men who created them. I was not turning the pages of a sacred book, I was part of the air these greats shared. And around me, were original testaments of a history and lore that continue to mould our modern destinies.
How fitting then that this history, chronicled thus by those venerated for their mastery in an ancient era, should find tenancy in our times with the pious chaperones of a puissant contemporary faith − its own emergence woven with eclat within the very walls under its surveillance.
Could that be why the Vatican museums command such piety – the faith, the direction and the many secrets held within? Or is it the fiscal benefaction that every Pope-in-reign is endowed with, along with the parallel tradition of increasing his fold of (the religious faithful aside) collectible splendour and heritage, that demands the subservience of those fortunate enough to behold it all? Because, the pecuniary visage is staggering too. Or would it simply be the overwhelming confluence of art, that one might not otherwise chance upon within the merit of an area covering all of two miles parameter to parameter, that inspires the soul?
It is, truly, a poetic extravaganza to the romantic soul. Every artifact is an academic’s oasis. Even the less eclectic would struggle to escape the magnificence of imagination contained seamlessly within its tactile forms. While intellectual prowess dominates each work, as a lay person I am marvelling, as much now as I did then, at how such precision in line, light and colour could be achieved at that scale, with only manual dexterity and physical resilience to count on!
As I type this piece into a pulse-less, sanitised and virtual space, I look outside into an equally apathetic and dispassionate jungle of concrete and tempered glass. I look at the local art gallery window-dressed with paper prints of classic Monet framed in suitable imitations of gold foil craft. With all the gadgetry at the disposal of our workers of 'modern' art and architecture, there is always a suspicious 'artiste's freedom of expression', the inevitable corniche off the joint, an odd nail-head out of loop. And I sigh at the complex muddle of aspiration, yearning, emotion and dogmatic practicality that our lives have become translations of.
Pulled back into the aisles of my current realm of obeisance, the trance only gets deeper. From periods of defining hues to renditions in white lime with lines as transient as the rays of sunlight that strobe in on them, a journey has already transpired. An age cart-wheels into the next and then again, as Baroque, Renaissance and Medieval reflections transcend each other. New regimes cast their shadows, political commentary dons the veil of artistic expression and the likes of Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael become objects of ardent devotion.
Time is simply not enough to fully appreciate all there is to absorb. It has, in fact, been speculated that even if only a single second is committed to each piece in the museums, it would take years to cover its inventory. So vast is the Vatican and such is the greatness of the treasures it houses.
Deep within the entrails of these papal corridors, when I was beginning to panic that I might have missed my raison d’être, a dark recess opened ahead. A quiet sanctity emanated its stoic power and suddenly all voices dropped. We were entering the inner-most chamber, most famous for its vaulted ceilings and Michelangelo’s greatest enterprise.
The Sistine Chapel, sacred to believers and astounding anyway you look at it, is a vision in every sense. While my eyes took a brief moment to get accustomed to the dimness, mellow beams of the sun danced in from the window opposite me. Motionless, in the natural spotlight, I gazed, mesmerized, at what greeted from above.
Nine breathtaking frescoes by Michelangelo, illustrate the story of the biblical origin of man from the Book of Genesis. Starting from the creation of Adam and Eve, his fine detailing narrates the saga of the Apostles and ends with the tales of Noah and resurrection of Christ. This masterpiece resulted in three thousand figurines, immaculate in their scenic proportion and reality of perception.
Hoisted atop scaffolding and lying on his back for four dedicated years, little would Michelangelo have thought about the magnitude of his contribution to world culture and heritage or how he would be worshipped for his talent, in posterity. That he could not eat properly again or see very well for a year after completing the ceiling, seems a small price to have paid.
His genius brings together in one close space, an astonishing imagination, a thorough sense of form and grandeur of style. To a large extent, this is also true of all the other artists showcased in the papal palaces.
The immensity of wealth, religious domination and bounty of knowledge are simply too overpowering to walk away from. This supreme convergence of master craftsmanship, unconquerable, remains a prevailing remembrance in the pages of my mind.