How to See the Vatican/Chapter 1

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In this book I have traced the story of the Vatican Hill and the Vatican Palace from their earliest days. I have endeavoured to reconstruct Old St. Peter's out of the fragments that survive, and have lingered long in the Crypt of St. Peter's, which, with its memories and remains of the ancient basilica, is both as a monument and in history the most important part of the Vatican. My purpose in this volume has been to initiate the British and American public in the sights of the Vatican which visitors do not generally see.

I shall not take up their time by describing again in detail the parts of the palace which are already adequately described in a score of good books. We shall need all our space for the particular object we have in view.

Of all the secret places of the Vatican there is none which fires the imagination of the visitor more than the Garden of the Pope, so often called his Eden. The allusion is inevitable for at the very gates of the Vatican, on the pinnacle of the Castle of Sant' Angelo, is the great Bronze Angel with the drawn sword, whom the Pope will not pass, because the tomb of the heathen Emperor below is filled with the soldiers of the re-born Rome, which dispossessed the Church of the kingdom of this world. Once past this cordon, he would be out of his dominions.

But the simile is incomplete, because the World without, and not the Garden within, is the Eden to which the Angel bars the way. Yet the garden must be a very Paradise to the Popes, because it is the only spot where they may listen, as Numa Pompilius listened on this very hill, to the vaticinations of Nature, the wise counsellor of the weary brain.

In these narrow limits are wood and vineyard—a classic garden buried from the wind and open to the sun; the voices of falling waters; and the garden-pavilion of the fourth Pius, with its haunting beauty in the image of a Roman Emperor's pleasure house. It is full of memories of the saintly Carlo Borromeo—but it is easier to credit it with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

How thankful must he be, whose feet never pass beyond his gates, that in Italy the flowers of the field assert their right-of-way to every nook
How to See the Vatican, 1914 - Court of the Casino of Pius IV.jpg

The Court of the Casino of Pius iv. in the Vatican Gardens.

uncumbered with masonry. The shady groves, where he walks, when the heat of the summer day is a burden, have, in the bright leafless days of Spring, a joyous carpet of violets and anemones, squills as blue as Roman skies, and crimson cyclamens which embalm the breeze.

But more than all these must he prize, as he stands on the towered wall, built a thousand years ago by the fourth Leo to guard the Holy Hill from the heathen Saracen, the view of the open road, of the spacious Campagna, and the distant sea, which is to him the world—the Vineyard where there is no cold shadow of Italian Monarchy falling, as the shadow of Elijah fell upon the sunshine of King Ahab.

Prosaic as may be the suggestions of the word coach-house in unlovely London, romance lurked till lately in the coach-house of the Popes, shadowed by the stately stone-pines of his Garden. For here were shown the trappings with which the successor of St. Peter rode on his white mule down the Sacred Way, climbed by the Scipios and Cæsars in their Triumphs, to take seisin of the Lateran, the chief Church of Christendom, the proto-palace of the Papacy. That great coach, all scarlet and gold, with the flying and trumpeting cherubs, carried Pius ix., the last of the Pope-Kings, in his royal processions, surrounded by all the Papal Court on foot, on the four great days of the year. Six huge white horses drew it, and one of their postilions lived to tell the tale among the relics of the former grandeur.

In these days, when the Pope never drives from the Vatican Gates, the coach-house has surrendered its unneeded chambers to the Pope's pictures and the swelling Archives of the Vatican, many of which made the lorn pilgrimage to Avignon, in the years of the First Captivity; and have only come back in these latter days.

From the archive rooms you step into the noble Leonine Library, which Leo xiii. established to receive all the printed books of the Biblioteca Vaticana.

There is a pathos haunting the Leonine Library, like that which stalks in the deserted halls of Holyrood, for here the first of the Popes to wear no earthly crown strove to carry on with undiminished dignity the more than royal ambition of the immortal Nicholas v., to make the Vatican the light of the world, to maintain on its hill a city that could not be hid.

He laid the foundation of not one new hall, he added few books that were not printed in his own Papal presses, but he turned the famous and immemorial Library from a stagnant pool into a stream of living waters, which should flow to the ends of the earth. For he made the springs of learning—the innumerable Archives—the priceless manuscripts, the half-million of printed books gathered in his own halls of study, mingle their currents for every scholar, of whatever country or creed, who thirsted for the river of learning, strewn with golden sands for discoverers.

The new halls in which Pope Leo stored the printed books are, in architecture, as they are in virtue, the foundations of the noble Sala Sistina, which is the outward and visible glory of the Vatican Library.

This vast hall, over two hundred feet in length, frescoed with gay arabesques perpetuating the designs which Raffaelle and Giovanni da Udine copied from Nero's Golden House,[1] when it was first rescued from the earth of jealous centuries, is at once the most brilliant and the most dignified, though not the best in art, of the imperial Chambers of Rome. In it, cased in glass, are the most famous manuscripts in the world. It is still the most princely of libraries as it was in the days before the Spanish Armada, when the superb Sixtus founded it. But when you are in it you have no heed for him; your thoughts go back another four generations to the fairy changeling who was turned from a humble scholar—from a poor priest who tolled bells—into the most brilliant monarch who ever sat on the throne of St. Peter. In that same year, 1447, when the little Ligurian of Sarzana was turned by chance into the head of Christendom, and burst upon an astonished world as a rose opens in the night, the great Ligurian city of Genoa gave birth to the greatest of all the sailors and citizens who sprang from the Republic of the Dorias.

Christopher Columbus was born just as Nicholas v. became Pontiff. Truly the world was promised, if not a Renaissance, a fresh dawn, in which the clouds of Papal Schisms and Italian Wars should lift for a day of matchless brilliance, wherein the ships of Europe were to swim to Africa, India, and America, and the writers of Greece to come back across the Styx.

Few of the nine thousand manuscripts collected for the most magnificent and munificent of the patrons of learning by the great scholars of the Mid Quattrocento, like Poggio Bracciolini, the forerunner of Angelo Mai, but have gone the way of all the earth like the eight resplendent chests which contained his choicest treasures. Splendour was the language in which Nicholas would have the Vatican proclaim its message to the world. And even of the buildings with which he sought to make the Vatican Hill the rival of the Palatine, only one cell remains in the glory with which he clothed it—the tiny chapel which glows with the masterpieces of Fra Angelico, though it was Nicholas who built the walls of the Appartamenti which Pinturicchio frescoed for the Borgias, and of the Stanze which Raffaelle immortalized for Julius ii.

Of the thousands of marvellous manuscripts, and the paintings of the Classic Age, gathered in the Library, of the Vatican Codex and the Nozze Aldobrandini, and the bits of Old Roman life from the Catacombs, I speak in their place.

The immortal grace of Raffaelle in the Stanze and Loggie, the magnificence of Michel Angelo in the Sistine Chapel, the masterpieces of the Vatican Picture Gallery, even the visions of Greece in her glory, which people the Sculpture Halls of the transformed Villa of Innocent viii., I pass by in silent wonder, for they are not in the secret places of the Vatican.

But it is not everyone who can effect a visit to the Borgia Rooms which Leo xiii. rescued from the tall bookcases of the library, and restored to apartments for Princes. Here till recently, like his forerunners when their high office was first created, dwelt the Cardinal Secretary of State amid the almost matchless splendour of the halls which Alexander vi. caused to be frescoed by Pinturicchio. The Borgia Apartments are the most sparkling gem in the Vatican's golden crown of art.

Apart from the duty or the curiosity which takes you to attend a reception of the Cardinal Secretary, or the Maggiordomo in his apartments, it is well to pay the visit to appreciate the atmosphere of the Papal Court, its dignity, tempered with approachability; its simplicity, tempered by quiet richness; its unmistakable air of a Royal presence.

Though it may be visited without leave, it is only on one day in the week, and therefore, where a hundred see the Apollo Belvedere, barely one sees the storied arras richly dight, which Raffaelle designed for Leo x. to hang under the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. These tapestries, woven in the looms of Flanders four hundred years ago, suffered from fire and sword in the evil days of the Constable of Bourbon and his Protestant Landsknechts, but they are still the world's premier tapestries: their colours still glow: their genius is such that we can only think of the Apostles in the forms in which Raffaelle created them: and in the Gallery of the Candelabri, which you visit with them, is a collection of masterpieces.

Nor are these the only tapestries in the Vatican, for there are two other rooms where the Pope and his Cardinals robe, and State banquets are held, and the officers of the Swiss Guard have their mess, which are hung with the noblest
How to See the Vatican, 1914 - Dalmatic of Charlemagne.jpg

The Dalmatic of Charlemagne in the Sacristy of St. Peter's.

tapestries of the sixteenth century, some of them woven for the profuse Farnese Pope, some from the Gobelins looms, given by the Roi Soleil to commemorate his betrothal—all reputed to be priceless. Priceless, too, are some of the Papal treasures in the sacristies of St. Peter's and the Sistine.

The chief treasures in the Tesoro of St. Peter's are the dalmatic worn by Charlemagne when he came to Rome a thousand years ago to be crowned; and the candlesticks wrought by Benvenuto Cellini to grace the High Altar when the Pope is celebrating Mass. In the Sistine Treasury are preserved the lace robe worn by Boniface viii. at the first Jubilee, six centuries ago, and the first Golden Rose from which have sprung all the Golden Roses conferred by the Papacy on its benefactors. But here the special treasures are lost in the marvellous richness of the suites of robes worn by the Pope and the Cardinals in functions of special state, such as the black robes woven on gold in which the officiating Cardinals stand round the catafalque of the dead Pope, and the trailing robes, as rich and white as snow, in which the Pope is borne into St. Peter's like a saint in glory, on his Sedia Gestatoria.

Every visitor must needs enter the Vatican by one of three entrances: by whichever he may enter he must be dead of soul whose imagination is not fired.

If it is the gate in the little pavilion, as graceful as a Classical temple, which admits the unprivileged to the Pope's Garden, the Vatican Library and the Museum of Sculpture, the Sistine Chapel and Raffaelle's Stanze and Loggia, he will be met by a procession of the gods of Greece, chiselled out of fair white marble in the workshops of two thousand years ago.

If he stops and enters at the Portone di Ferro—the iron gate at the foot of the hill—he is in the oldest part of the palace, whose dark and frowning towers, more in keeping with the fortress of Avignon, rose in the age of the Borgias and della Roveres; the tall, dour Swiss, who guard them, still wear the motley liveries, and, on occasion, the pikemen's armour of the Middle Ages. On either side, as he passes in, rise the Sistine Chapel and the Palace of the Borgias—all of the fifteenth century; and this is the way by which, in the old days of the temporal power and pomp, the Papal cortège issued.

To the stranger in the gates the chief entrance of the Vatican must always be the great Portone di Bronzo—the Bronze Gate, which opens on the stupendous Piazza of St. Peter's, and the temple-like colonnade Bernini.

Here, too, are the picturesque Swiss, and a
How to See the Vatican, 1914 - Map of the Vatican.jpg

Map of the Vatican.

vista, more regal if not so ancient or historical. The stranger will not heed the closely guarded staircase on his right until he knows that it is the Jacob's ladder to the apartments of the Pontiff himself. His eyes will be taken up with the Scala Regia (the giant staircase, royal in name as well as in magnificence), which leads up through a stately colonnade to the Sala Regia—the

Royal Hall—where, surrounded by vast frescoed triumphs of the Catholic Faith, beneath a fretted ceiling as rich in gold as the waters of Pactolus, the Pope-King was wont to receive the Ambassadors of his brother Kings. The very passage which leads off it is of such dimensions and ambitions that it is called the Ducal Hall.

The Vatican is full of chambers with lofty and romantic names such as the Hall of the Beatifications, where saints on earth are canonized; the Gallery of Inscriptions; the Christian and Profane Museums; the Hall of the Popes; the Hall of the Madonna; the Hall of the Lives of the Saints; the Hall of the Credo; the Hall of the Sibyls (the last five in the Borgia Apartments)—not one of which but is worth seeing, not one of which but can be seen.

The Vatican, like Janus, the God of Rome, has two faces. Seen from the one side it is the Pope's Kingdom; seen from the other it is his home. On the first you may gaze on any weekday morning; the second none may behold but those who are bidden.

Who shall complain? There is little to observe in the Pope's apartments but his private life—and that he who lives the life of the man with the iron mask has a right to keep sealed from observation.

Apart from the aura of Sanctity, apart from venerable associations, this portion of the palace has nothing to show within which would compare with the work of the Borgias and della Roveres. It is only three hundred years old, and recent Popes have returned to Apostolic simplicity.

But it contains a few noble chambers, like the Hall of the Consistory, and is rendered impressive by the atmosphere and the velvet-liveried retainers of a Court.

What the Vatican lacks is architectural nobility. When you gaze on the glowing vaults of Raffaelle's Loggia, the triple tier of arcades which surround the superb Court of Saint Damasus, even when you move in the gorgeous baroque immensity of chambers like the Sala Regia, you feel their majesty. But the Vatican has neither the romantic splendour of Windsor, nor the grandeur of the Louvre. It looks more like a Parliament House than a Palace. Everyone, who lifts his eyes to it, must wish that Nicholas v. had lived to accomplish his gorgeous visions, and had crowned the royal and hold hill with ramparts and towers and soaring white palaces till it rivalled the Palatine groaning under the palaces of the Cæsars.

  1. Called by scholars now, The Baths of Titus.