Don’t Stop in the Sistine Chapel!

Hundreds of people under the high ceilings. A constant flow. People pushing and being pushed, while trying to take pictures.

It was a mild and sunny mid-November Saturday in Rome, when we arrived at St. Peter’s Square. I remembered the first time I’d stood there, more than fifteen years ago, and how overwhelmed I was by the beauty and sheer grandezza of everything around. I remembered the first time I’d set foot into St. Peter’s Basilica, and how the feeling of being awestruck by beauty, art, marble and gold changed into a kind of repulsion. That was where all the wealth had gone while the people suffered, where it had been transformed into art and tombs and altars.

A certain rabbi who’d been called Jesus wouldn't have approved of it.

I remembered how I climbed the narrow stairs up the cupola, how I thought that obese persons couldn’t make it, and how I laid my eyes upon the statues of Jesus and the apostles from up close. Not only were they enormous, but I saw the lightning rods on their backs, that one can’t see from the square.

I remembered the second time I arrived at St. Peter’s Square, and how it was packed with people on a warm day in May, and how I joked with the woman I was with that we’d eventually get a glimpse at the new pope. Cardinals and bishops and priests were standing in front of the basilica beside a pedestal, greeting pilgrims from all around the world in their mother tongues, and whenever someone welcomed the faithful from Peru or Nigeria or Indonesia or Poland, somewhere a group would start cheering and shouting and waving flags. Benedictus XVI had just been elected, and in a small bar in the small town of Paliano, up in the hills of Lazio, halfway between Rome and Naples, where I was working on a novel, I’d watched the end of the conclave and the white smoke coming through the chimney; when the new pope was presented, everyone went silent, before someone said, after a sigh: Uno tedesco. A German.

Yet it turned out to be true, and I witnessed the first general audience of the new pope, who was driven around the square in the Popemobile amidst loud Renaissance music, his every move and blessing of the crowd broadcast on gigantic video screens, before he came to stand under a velvet baldachin in front of the basilica. To his right were four rows of people in wheelchairs, and he’d walk up to them, everything in close-up on the big screens, present his hand, have his ring kissed, before blessing them, one after the other. There was someone who’d just given up his old name and slipped into a new one, an old one really, with a history and obligations and an agenda to it. We were standing amidst a group of Peruvians, the atmosphere elevated and cheerful. Later, we sat in front of a café not far from the Vatican, when three Americans joined our table. It was the most beautiful day in my life, an old lady in a wheelchair said, still sobbing. She’d kissed the Pope’s ring, and he’d blessed her.

I remembered the third time I was at St. Peter’s, with my girlfriend, and how we’d strolled through the basilica, looking at Michelangelo’s Pietà for a long stretch of time, and how she’d had to sit down on the stairs right upon leaving, an hour or so later, not far from the Swiss Guard in their (some say) Michelangelo-designed uniforms. She’d had to close her eyes and breathe. Overcome by beauty.

This time there were the queues again, and all the people that offer you a shortcut and ask you where you’re from. Kenya, I said, every time someone wouldn’t accept that one really didn’t want to fall into their trap and wasn’t interested in a special offer, and didn’t want to engage in conversation at all. We wanted to visit the Vatican Museums, where I’d never set foot, because of the perennially long lines. We just cut them and cut them and moved into the right lane that was reserved for people with reserved or group tickets, and in the end we stood amidst a group of Peruvians, pretending to be a part of it. It was breathtaking, of course, all the stairs and rooms and busts and paintings and statues, but amidst thousands of people, it’s hard to contemplate or really look at something. There’s a beautiful room with tapestries on the walls, showing old maps of the Italian provinces. Masses flooded through it, a pulsating stream flushing straight on, everyone filming and taking pictures with their cell phones to look at everything later, if at all. Walk on, don’t stop, guards would say while, really, everyone was channeled towards one direction.

It was bizarre. Hundreds of people under the high ceilings of The Sistine Chapel. A constant flow. A water gate. People pushing and being pushed, while trying to take pictures. Silence! shouted the guards. No photos! Don’t stop! Move! One is not supposed to stop in the one place everyone came for in the first place. One is not supposed to see the chapel one wants to see. One sees backs and heads and grim guards. The painted walls and ceilings. The place where the conclave congregates. Where Michelangelo and Botticelli and Ghirlandaio and so many others, especially their pupils, worked. One is carried away by the flow — towards the exit. Don’t stop! Walk on! I stopped. I tried to look. No photos! I didn’t take one. They’re all over the internet and in books, in better quality, without hundreds of heads and guides’ umbrellas. I tried to feel the atmosphere. It was impossible. I moved.

If there was one thing I could tell Papa Francesco, with whose social agenda I tend to agree, it would be: Stop this. Please. You don’t need the money. It’s not democracy, if everyone sees nothing. Those are not the values one is supposed to endorse. Think of the Cleansing of the Temple. Or of Saint Francis: He would have walked over glowing coals to change this. For really, I was not in the Sistine Chapel.