Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 31 December 2019

The floors of the Vatican

Andre Gide wrote a 1914 novel called Les Caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars), which I've not yet read. This post aims higher, but only slightly: it's about the Vatican floors.

The Vatican Museum is without doubt one of the world's finest, but visiting it is a frustrating, and often worse than frustrating, experience. This is because there doesn't seem to be any limit to the number of people admitted, and everyone wants to go there (or at least they want to see the Sistine Chapel, which is effectively part of the museum), so it's always crazily crowded. 

Crowds are a bad thing in any museum (or anywhere else, in my opinion), but in the Vatican it's even worse than usual because visitors are mostly obliged to follow one single route. (It's true that there are a small number of diversions that can be taken, but you eventually have to rejoin the main thoroughfare.) Never have I felt more as if I was on a conveyor belt, moving at its own rather than my own speed. This of course makes it hard to stop to look at anything: the current of the crowd drags you on inexorably, and even if you do manage to step out of the flow for a moment there are usually people in front of whatever you want to see. And don't bother trying to find somewhere to sit down if you're tired.

You can't hurry either, which leads to other problems. If someone needs the toilets (which are inadequate in number and badly signposted, just to make matters even worse) it's a toss up whether they'll find one in time. I've heard stories of people having to relieve themselves in the corners of rooms. And if there were ever to be a fire or other emergency, the result could be tragic.

In my experience the pressure of numbers does ease off in the late afternoon. On my most recent visit I had the picture gallery entirely to myself , except for the attendants, for the last 40 minutes; as I finished in one room and went to the next the door was shut and locked behind me. The attendants didn't make any secret of the fact that they preferred me not to linger too long.

This is a very grumpy and not even very relevant introduction, for which I apologise. 

The museum of course does have superb collections, and the buildings that house them are suitably grand. One aspect of this grandeur is the floors, most of which are mosaics, tiles or stone, and they're superb. If they were lifted, framed and put on the wall of a gallery they'd be lingered over by admirers. But as they're underfoot, they generally can't be seen because of the crowds, and even at the best of times they're ignored, because who cares about the floor? I did my best to photograph some them; you'll see feet and legs intruding on a few when waiting for them to become completely clear was a fool's errand. A fhandful of them are roped off, especially ancient mosaics, which means that people don't get in the way so much but that they have to be viewed from an acute angle. 

I can't tell you much about the floors, because the guidebooks I've consulted rarely mention them. Some of them are Ancient Roman mosaics (not in their original locations, of course); it's usually pretty easy to see which those are. Most of the others must be from the Renaissance and later, but this is not much more than a semi-educated guess. Even without background information they can be appreciated; they can stand on their own two feet, even when a lot more than two feet are standing on them.


Finally, it's nothing to do with floors, but while I'm looking at my photos of the Vatican, here's a small section of Raphael's great fresco The School of Athens:

Only three people in this large painting look directly at the viewer. One is Raphael's self-portrait, representing the Greek painter Apelles, on the far right of the complete picture (not shown in my photo). 

There's less certainty about the other two, however, so they've long intrigued me. Who are they, and why do they give direct address? Art historians can't even agree whether this figure is male or female; she is most often identified as Hypatia, a Neoplatonist philosopher and astronomer, and the earliest female mathematician about whom we have reliable evidence. Some, however, claim the model was a man, Francesco Mario della Rovere I, the Duke of Urbino and the Pope's nephew. 

This child is also androgynous. Perhaps he or she isn't quite looking at us, but off to our left. They are standing behind Averroes, a Muslim Andalusian philosopher and polymath (I don't know what the Pope thought about his inclusion), who is in turn looking over the shoulder of Pythagoras. What is the story behind the presence of this child in such august company?