Why are all the statues in the Vatican Museum sporting fig leaves over their penises or worse yet – have their penises broken off? And what about Michelangelo’s masterpiece “The Last Judgement?” Why were some of the penises painted over? These were the questions I was left with after an exhausting visit to the Vatican Museum.
For those of you unfamiliar with it – the Vatican Museum houses four miles of eclectic art (often arranged in confusing collections) that holds a few gems in the main collections. Most people go there to see two areas – the Raphael Rooms, and the Sistine Chapel. To get to those rooms you are herded – like cattle – through a series of long hallways – cramped doorways, narrow stairwells, often filled with nothing but other people – until you can finally stand for a few minutes in a packed room to stare up at the frescoes.
The Raphael Rooms are four connected rooms covered with frescoes from the High Renaissance that were part of the reception area of the Papal Palace (now museum). They were commissioned in 1508-1509 by Pope Julius II, and completed under the tenure of Pope Leo X. Raphael’s work. At the same time, Michelangelo was working on the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. When the first of these was unveiled to great acclaim, Raphael (a fierce rival of Michelangelo’s / Michelangelo accused the younger Raphael of trying to poison him) painted a weeping Michelangelo into “The School of Athens,” perhaps his most well-known masterpiece. (I apologize for the crummy picture – but it was almost impossible to move, much less take photos in the room it was so crowded – and I don’t even want to talk about those pesky tour guides with their umbrellas held over their heads that blocked every photo shot.)
This masterpiece was not only technically brilliant, but the content paid homage to Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, content typically not found in churches during this period.
The Raphael Rooms are on the third floor of the museum at the end closest to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Before you reach them, you must go through a gauntlet of an entry process (make sure you buy advance reservation tickets), and miles of exhibits of varying interest.
After viewing the Egyptian collection (near the entrance), I was left wondering why the Vatican hasn’t returned the Egyptian antiquities back to Egypt. While I’m sure all the grave robbing occurred during Roman times, I still find it depressing to see so much of Egypt’s cultural heritage in foreign museums.
Then came a huge hall of Greek and Roman Statues. Many were from the Classical period (around 500 BC to around 200 AD). We couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the statues of males has been damaged – either by having the penises broken off, or covered with marble or bronze fig leaves attached by some sort of cement. Apparently this was the work of 400 – 500 years of middle-ages repression (in the Middle Ages only the “damned” were naked; the “saved” were clothed). It began with Pope Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). (As a side note – Michelangelo’s David was completed in 1504 – thank goodness it wasn’t housed in the Vatican Museum).
Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) preferred metal fig leaves to plaster ones, and asked for the remainder of the collection to be covered up. Pope Clement XIII (1758-1769) had the Vatican mass produce fig leaves for statues that still sported penises. Pope Pius IX (1857) did the most damage, ordering any statues that still contained uncovered penises to be destroyed. Source and source.
One of the gems in the Vatican collection is the Apollo Belvedere or Apollo of the Belvedere, thought to be a Roman copy (ca 120 140) of a lost Greek Bronze original. It was rediscovered in 1489. It doesn’t have a fig leaf – but the penis is missing. (The right arm and left hand were also missing, but restored by a pupil of Michelangelo).
More information here.
So what did Michelangelo think of all this? Michelangelo painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. He was commissioned to paint “The Last Judgement” behind the alter of the Sistine Chapel between 1936 and 1541 – by then in his 60s and well established as a master. The Last Judgement featured no less than 400 nude saints, sinners and saved souls spread across the masterpiece. This agitated the Pope’s master of ceremonies – Biagio da Cesena – who (according to this source) who pleaded with the Pope to force Michelangelo to paint the genitals out of the frescoes. Michelangelo must have had supporters, because he not only continued on course, but he also painted Biagio into the fresco, complete with donkey ears (symbolizing him as a fool or jackass) and with a serpent eating his penis – placing him in danger of losing his genitals.
Biagio appealed to Pope Paul III, who apparently found the entire thing amusing, and is rumored to have said something like “I”m sorry, but my jurisdiction does not extent to Hell.”
After Michelangelo’s death twenty four years later – one of his apprentices began work on covering up all the genitals. The pope died and the chapel needed to be used to elect a new pope, so the scaffolding was removed, so the cover up work was never completed.
This museum was not an easy visit. It was hot, packed, and there were little opportunities for shortcuts to avoid the crowds, because the pathway to the Raphael rooms was perhaps the most cramped.
Here are a few tips to make the visit more bearable.
If you don’t have advance tickets you should expect a two hour or more wait, or to pay through the nose to get last minute reserved tickets with a guide. I can not stress enough how important it is to buy tickets online. The four euro per person reservation fee is nothing compared to the misery you will experience if you have to wait in line hounded by the ticket vendors.
Make sure you cover your shoulders and knees. We saw people waiting in line in short skirts. I can not imagine the misery you would feel to wait in line for two hours only to be turned away. (This is a rule for all of the Catholic Churches in Rome and applies to men, women, and children, although it’s not always enforced. In other cities we’ve visited, it only applies to grown women. In another Basilica (Santa Maria Maggiore) we entered behind a couple – the woman was in a mini skirt. The three guards were on their phones when she walked by and didn’t notice until she was in the door. They called to her but she didn’t hear. Two of them followed her around, whispering to themselves, but they didn’t say anything to her. It was almost as though they weren’t allowed to ask you to leave once you got in – but they could refuse entry.)
Do not rent an audio guide. If you don’t, you have a shot at exiting through the “reserved for tour groups only” exit from the Sistine Chapel right into St. Peter’s Basilica (exit from the door on the far right – try to merge into a tour group and look like you belong.) Not only does that allow you to skip the long line for St. Peter’s (which is free to visit but packed), but it also saves you about a half hour of walking.