Venice, Florence, Sistine Chapel—check!
A travel editor’s bucket list
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
When I was in high school, I read a Time Life book on art that illustrated the creation by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. I found it so powerful and beautiful an artistic work that I never forgot it. And so on a trip to Rome in 1996, I stood in line for what seemed hours to enter the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. In the end, I gave up. I never visited Venice or Florence either, something that represented a hole in my education.
So when a Swiss friend wrote me recently that she wanted to do something very special to celebrate her birthday, I thought about this clear goal on my bucket list. As a travel writer and editor, I receive lots of promotional emails from travel companies, and an email from Globus Journeys had sparked my curiosity. I had never taken an organized tour before, but here was a one-week tour from Venice to Rome that included a reserved visit to the Vatican Museums. I would not have to wait in line! (Or so I thought. It turned out that the crowds, even in March, are so huge that even with a reserved slot we had to wait more than an hour in line. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The plan was to meet my friend in Zurich, take the train to Milan, about a three-and-a-half-hour train ride, visit that city for several days, and then continue by train to Venizia Santa Lucia station, another two-and-a-half hours by train, where we would meet the tour group at the designated hotel.
I had read that Venice is under assault by pollution and old age. But our arrival by train was easy, and Hotel Bellini was literally within steps from the station. It was on a main artery, a veritable shopper’s playground with food shops, souvenir shops and stands, and restaurants. Many of the so-called streets are canals, and the water bus or more expensive water taxi are favorite modes of transportation.
St. Mark’s Square, the heart of the city, is filled with tourists and pigeons and is a constant source of interest. But it is the Doge’s Palace that is part and parcel of the legend and lore of Venice. Considered a grand civic structure by many, it dates to 1340, though a fire demolished much of the original building in 1577. The Bridge of Sighs links the Doge’s Palace with the Palazzo delle Prigioni, where cells incarcerated the prisoners who felt contemporary justice. The “sighs” in the bridge’s name comes from the many victims and their last utterances before being condemned to a life of bread and water in a dark cell where torture often led to death in the name of medieval justice.
For the art lover in Florence, the Accademia Gallery is the highlight. Here is a great collection of paintings that span the 14th to 18th centuries. From Veronese to Titian and Tintoretto, everyone you read about in Art 101 is represented. But without a doubt the most important work is Michelangelo’s marble depiction of David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created between 1501 and 1504. Originally commissioned as one of a series of statues of prophets to be positioned along the roofline of the Florence Cathedral, it was later placed in a public square outside the Palazzo Vecchio, and then was later moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873. It soon came to symbolize the defense of civil liberty embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states. Judging by the crowd encircling the statue today, it is a timeless and riveting piece of art.
But for me, the apex of the tour was Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican museums house a series of lavishly adorned palaces and galleries built over the centuries. The independent city-state may be tiny, but the museum complex looms huge and is filled with resplendent ceilings and walls. The Sistine Chapel is a must. Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. And if you have seen the movie, you remember that he labored for four years, from 1508 to 1512, and that the ceiling frescoes were physically taxing for the artist. In addition, he had to live with the pope’s constant urging to finish the work. It is indeed ironic that the project that Michelangelo was loath to take on is the one he is most famous for. His ceiling panels, taken from the pages of Genesis, include the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the creation of man. Here God’s outstretched hand imbues Adam with life. Michelangelo depicts God reaching out to touch Adam, who, in the words of 16th-century Italian art writer Vasari, is “a figure whose beauty, pose, and contours are such that it seems to have been fashioned that very moment by the first and supreme creator rather than by the drawing and brush of a mortal man.”
Restoration of the Sistine Chapel in the 1990s was necessary, because the works were on the verge of collapse from age and weather. No longer dark, the frescoes are today bright and pastel. Their inherent power remains, although I have to admit the ceiling is so high, I was a bit disappointed that the work was not as close as an illustration in a book. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos, so you will have to take my word that this item has been checked off my bucket list.
How was my first organized tourist trip with Globus Journeys? It was certainly a success. We covered a lot of ground for a reasonable price—I could not have done it on my own as efficiently. All local guides were excellent, and our tour guide, Errica Brocca, was always there to explain everything and anything, including a personal explanation of the uses of the bidets that people noted in every bathroom in every hotel. What’s next on my bucket list? Let’s see! Andiamo!
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.