You, too, can give money to the Catholic church and regret it! Or, you can take my advice and skip this overblown tourist destination. Trust me when I say there are plenty of other ornate chapels you can visit in Rome. I could give you specific suggestions, but you could also just walk around the city. There’s bound to be at least one cathedral within a fifty-foot radius of you.
Why did I go to the Vatican when I tend to be miserable anywhere my organs are endangered by crowds with selfie sticks? As an impressionable teen, I watched Good Will Hunting over and over, and Robin Williams’ character convinced me that I was obligated to visit the Sistine Chapel:
“But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel,” he says to a petulant Matt Damon. “You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seen that.”
The first time I heard Robin Williams utter those words, the damage was done. I needed to smell the Sistine Chapel. Strategically, I planned my Italy trip for January. Colder temperatures, less sweat.
It was raining in buckets the day I went, an omen–I should have just gone shopping. By the time I made it inside (even with advance tickets, I had to wait outside for around thirty minutes), I was absolutely drenched, but nevertheless excited to spend several hours looking at Catholic artifacts. Triptychs! Papal robes! What could be more exciting than that?
Everything else, apparently. Much like the British Museum, the Vatican is mostly made up of artifacts stolen from other countries. Not very Christian! There’s a faintly cultish vibe there, reinforced by the language used by the Vatican itself, which refers to the exhibits as “The Pope’s Museums,” as if the Pope himself tenderly extracted each artifact from the earth.
If you’ve been to any big museum, you’ve seen this one. There’s an Egyptian wing, some illuminated manuscripts, some cool statues. The Gallery of Maps is admittedly stunning, but at the end of the day, it’s just another ornate hallway a la the Gallerie D’Appollian at the Louvre. Enter ennui.
Since I’ve started traveling solo, I’ve been struck by a weird sense of purposelessness. There’s a quote from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” that sums it up well: “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?” Once I’ve been to a certain kind of museum a number of times–archeological museums, for example–I start to wonder what the point of visiting one more is. How many Egyptian sarcophagi do I really need to see in my lifetime, you know?
The same question applies to flying buttresses. How many more flying buttresses will I need to take in before I am satisfied? Why do they seem ten times more impressive overseas than in America? There are no easy answers to these questions. Some aspects of the self will forever remain a mystery, and the fact is, I love a good flying buttress. I love fancy ceiling tiles, gory crucifixes, peeling frescos. I love the quiet cold of ancient sanctuaries, the echoes of footsteps. I love these things, so I thought I would love the Sistine Chapel.
For those who have never been, here is a photograph. You are not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, so I am not sure how this one exists. I am forced to assume the photographer has since been smote by God or eaten by the Volturi.
I don’t know, guys. Sure, Michelangelo really outdid himself here, but I couldn’t help but feeling underwhelmed. Perhaps the security guards shouting at everyone to keep moving sullied the atmosphere. Maybe it finally happened: my flying buttress limit was reached.
If the room had a specific smell, I’m sorry to say I don’t remember it. I am a failure who goes to Harvard bars and regurgitates Gordon Wood. To prove my olfactory senses are indeed intact, I present a list of places that smell way better than the Sistine Chapel could ever hope to:
- Fells Point, Baltimore: home to the H&S Bakery, this cobblestoned colonial neighborhood on Baltimore’s waterfront often smells like fresh-baked bread.
- Marché Aux Fleurs Cours Saleya in Nice, France: The flower market in Nice has so much more than flowers. Head there to buy Marseille soaps, homemade jams, and some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. If you’re short on cash, the smells are free.
- The Auntie Anne’s in Terminal D of LaGuardia Airport. Even the world’s worst airport has something to offer.
- The gelato place I stopped at after visiting the Vatican, Lemongrass Gelato: by the time I left, the sun had come out, the air was unseasonably warm, and I needed a palate cleanser. A few blocks away from the Vatican, I found exactly what I needed. Dark chocolate and lemongrass gelato. What could be more beautiful than that?