New Rules for Vatican Museums; a Turkish Display

Officials Working to Ease Long Waits

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The Vatican Museums rang in the New Year by inaugurating a new reservation system with an eye to easing the chaos of crowds and lines.

The Vatican Museums houses one of the world's most important art collections and receives over 20,000 visitors a day during the high tourist season -- from March through October. Anyone who has come to Rome at that time has witnessed the seemingly endless line snaking along the Vatican walls which occasionally invades the space of St. Peter's Square, a half-mile away.

Previously, groups with authorized guides could enter the museums 45 minutes before the 8:45 a.m. opening time, but by last year even the guide line was so long that those who didn't get in before the museum opened to the public had to join the long line for individual visitors. As of May 2006, groups habitually started arriving two hours early to ensure the best place in line.

The new reservation service is aimed to help guided tours enter, and for this the museums have pushed back the opening time for general public to 10 a.m. This gives tour groups a full two-hour window to enter.

The groups who enter from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. must have a reservation. These reservations are made through agencies registered with the Italian Chamber of Commerce, and to register the agencies must pay a deposit of €6,000 to the Vatican Museums.

The agency can reserve a one-hour time slot at either 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. The reservation can be made no more than a month in advance, and must include the number of people in the party, along with their names. The museums will then issue a reservation code and at the appointed day and hour, the group will join one of two lines organized outside the museum entrance.

One line enters at 8 a.m. and the other at 9 a.m. The museums will be issuing about 2,500 reservations for the first time slot and 2,000 for the second, so in the high season they are expecting to get 4,500 people into the museums in the first two hours.

The party with the reservation code must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Individuals cannot enter the museum with just a code issued by an agency.

The Vatican Museums have also raised ticket prices to €13 from €12. The reservation fee is €2, so reserved tickets are €15 each. If one is using a private guide instead of a large agency tour group, expect to pay a few extra euros on top of that. Student tickets have remained the same at €8.

At the moment, the museums are taking a pretty elastic approach to the new opening hours. There are so few tourists in Rome, that the reservation line finishes in 10 minutes and then the museums just open their doors to the general public, who, unaware of the new hours, have been lining up since 8 a.m. An hour before the museums actually open, there is no line at all. So for the moment, the question of reservations is moot. The mystery is what will happen when the tourist season picks up in March, and the lines begin forming in earnest.

With 20,000 visitors a day, of which 4,500 will enter the museums from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., what kind of lines await the other 15,500 people?

Public entrance at 10 a.m. will mean lines already back to St. Peter's. The closing time of the museums will remain the same -- last ticket will be sold at 3:30 p.m. from March through October, and 12:30 p.m. during the winter months. On Saturdays, by the way, the museums close at 1:30.

The staff at the Vatican Museums, to its credit, seems very open to tweaking this system, referring to it as an "experiment." Already, the early opening of the individual line during these slow winter months demonstrates a willingness to find solutions to ensure people manage to visit the famous collections.

The various people I have spoken with the at the museums, from the chief custodian to Dr. Riccardi, who organizes the reservation services, to the guards who are supervising these first days, all think of this system as a work in progress as they look at longer-term solutions like a public reservation service for the full day or even a new entrance complex. We'll just have to wait and see.

Further inquiries regarding reservations can be made by fax at +39 (06) 69 885 249 or by e-mail: ingressi.musei@scv.va.

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Jewels From an Ancient Past

As Italy remains divided over Turkey's proposed entry into the European Union, a new exhibit is trying to introduce the Italians to the rich cultural history of this ancient land. "Turkey: 7,000 Years of History" opened Jan. 11 and will remain on display until March 31.

The exhibit is free of charge and is housed in the Quirinal Palace, built in the late 16th century by architects such as Carlo Maderno and Gianlorenzo Bernini, and home to the papacy until 1870. Today it is the residence of the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano.

The free admission to this very exclusive site intends to draw as many Italians as possible to see the show and rethink their ideas about Turkey.

The exhibit is very small, only 43 objects in three rooms, but the works span millennia. Some are venerable for their great antiquity, while others are breathtaking in their splendor. They were lent by the Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara, the Museum of Topkapi in Istanbul and the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

The first cases contain artifacts from Catalhoyuk, the oldest urban settlement from the Neolithic age, dating from 8000 B.C. Nearby are objects from Hissarlik, the site of Troy, a reminder of the epic adventure that captured the imagination of Europe for millennia.

The show also highlights Turkey's unique geographic position as a country suspended between the East and the West. The magnificent Asian craftsmanship of a 17th-century Chinese vase of sculpted jade rests alongside a European enameled snuff box inlaid with diamonds.

Representing the Christian culture that shaped Turkey from 330, when Constantine founded his "Roma Nova" on the site of modern-day Istanbul, to 1453, the year the Ottoman fleet wrested the city from the Christians, are only two little works from the archaeological museum. A representation of St. Eudokia St. Eudokia in inlaid marble and a gold medallion featuring the Epiphany (labeled simply "medallion") are all that testify to the city that gave us the Hagia Sophia, the writings of St. John Chrysostom and four ecumenical councils.

On the other hand, Islamic crafts are lavishly displayed. A 16th century Koran bound in a gilt leather cover studded with diamonds and rubies commands a single case, while nearby a silver and enamel basin and ewer encrusted with jewels dazzles passersby.

The ornate wares displayed in the last room dedicated to Islamic Turkey resonated loudly with Italians at the show, as Italy is world renowned for luxury goods. Commerce, craftsmanship and connections to the East all impressed the visitors underscoring the economic advantages of Turkey's presence in the union.

Walking through this exhibit under the vaults painted with images of the theological virtues surrounding the coat of arms of Pope Pius VIII, one can't help but wonder that if this show is supposed to create a greater openness to Turkey and its cultures, must it be at the cost of suppressing our own Christian tradition?

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An Eye-catching Rome

While most people can conjure up a vision of Antique Rome or Renaissance Rome despite a notable lack of actual images, the Rome of the 1700s remains obscure in most people's minds, even with the myriad of drawings from that age.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) came to Rome in his 20s just as Rome was undergoing great transformations. New constructions were underway in every part of the city and, after the rediscovery of Pompeii a few years earlier, ancient ruins were being studied with renewed vigor. In this climate, Piranesi became of the foremost engravers of ancient and modern marvels of Rome.

The Museo del Corso has put on display the complete series of views produced by Piranesi, providing a rare opportunity for visitors to see the remarkable diversity of 18th century Rome, from the crumbling and buried ruins to the fresh new facades and fountains.

The exhibit opens with a series of maps. The first two are very accurate views of 1700s Rome by Giambattista Nolli and Giuseppe Vasi, while the others are highly fanciful reconstructions of ancient Rome by Piranesi which ignore archeological evidence in favor of exciting piazzas and structures created in the artist's mind, yet executed in the same precise hand of the cartographer.

Piranesi's relationship with ruins reflects the 18th century's passion for the "ideal." Artists mixed monuments from different sites and even inventing ruins to create an aesthetically pleasing effect. In one ideal view, a portico of columns carved with figures and vines lies semi-submerged in the ground. Fluted shafts and polished blocks are scattered about randomly, and at the heart of the composition sits the proud statue of Minerva, the ancient goddess of wisdom.

The brilliant engraver was also capable of accuracy in his scenes. Several images show the Forum completely filled in with dirt, then known as the "cow pasture." Several ancient temples are depicted as churches, which they were at the time, a reminder that the reason why the Temple to Fortune Virilis survives today is that it was preserved through the centuries as St. Mary of Egypt.

The most remarkable piece of Christian testimony among the ruins is in the engraving of the Colosseum from the Celian Hill. Looking down into the interior of the amphitheater, one can see the aedicules around the arena that were used for the Stations of the Cross. In the center of the Colosseum, there was a giant crucifix surmounting a chapel. What is today the preferred destination for tourists to recount tales of blood and gore, was then a site for pilgrim prayer.

Rome in the 1700s was a dynamic, cosmopolitan center shining with brand new monuments that still delight tourists today. The Trevi fountain, was captured by Piranesi immediately after its completion in 1762, along with the Spanish Steps and the new facades of St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and Santa Croce. The new sacristy of St. Peter's, unveiled in 1784, was also first represented by Piranesi.

The show closes on Feb. 25, and so will our little window to see this little appreciated, yet very exciting period in Rome.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.