Is this the Vatican or a gay bar?
Brian Johnston gets an unexpected eyeful on a tour of the Vatican. It's almost enough to make a Protestant boy blush.
It's my first visit to the Vatican and I am bemused. Nude male statues, displaying melon-like rounded buttocks and dangling bits and occasionally draped in revealing togas, are crammed into corners. It's as if it is a Roman theme night in a gay bar.
Ceilings, in contrast, are painted with a feminist's nightmare of pink-nippled nymphs. No skinny supermodels here. Plump strumpets blow trumpets and don't seem to have noticed their wardrobe malfunctions. Bosoms and bottoms bulge, a fleshy show for pop-eyed saints and some bearded prophets.
I never thought the Vatican would provide such distractions. I'm on a tour of its museums with Insight Vacations, but perhaps these aren't the insights the company hoped to produce. It makes much of the fact that we get private access to a Bramante-designed staircase not otherwise open to the public.
But really, how much attention can a staircase hold, when just next door a grand room is decorated with bordello-like scenes to make passing nuns blush? I expect hushed solemnity and prayers at the Vatican, maybe the faint sound of chanting along a corridor. Yet from the moment we arrive, everything is over-the-top and frenetic.
Some 20,000 visitors a day cram the Vatican museums; the two-hour queue is circumvented only by our priority pass. The entrance is train-station huge, lined with ticket booths and clumped with tour groups whose members have a glazed docility. I wonder whether they're listening to their earpieces, thinking of God or just contemplating a shopping list.
Guards won't let in visitors with bare shoulders or knees, yet shortly we're among headless torsos and marble genitalia like some dreadful house of horror. These ancient nudes are only the start of an out-of-control papal collection: paintings and sculptures, tapestries, holy knick-knacks, cars and carriages, a purple bath from Nero's palace, bronze pineapples and the pet white elephant of Leo X. Our guide, Belinda, winks at a guard. He hauls open a grille with a clang to let us sidle past the fleshy buttocks of a Roman youth and on to the Bramante staircase.
Later, we arrive in the Etruscan Museum, where astonishing sarcophagi and terracotta vases, fragile as eggs, are survivors of a pre-Roman era.
Eyes soon glaze over, however. How many rooms are there? More than 1000, according to some, in which Borgias bonked and popes pranced.
I wonder what the Chinese and Korean tourists make of this nude-ceilinged, statue-studded centre of power that has so profoundly influenced the world.
Everywhere, frescoes are the Instagrams of the age: a pope on a white mule, a saint swooning. Look at me on my horse! On my throne! With my naked friends from the Bible!
We finish at the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo laboured here under protest for four years and ruined his eyesight. Crowds throng and guards shush, but the hubbub recedes when I turn my attention to the ceiling. The colours are luminous and marvellous, and for the first time I feel a little touch of heaven.
Our tour group emerges at the side of St Peter's Basilica. Its pillars are vast. Saints on the rooftop are the size of giants, flagstones the dimensions of double beds. Its interior absorbs sunlight into a black hole of marble and plasterwork. Statues peer from niches. Dead popes lie beneath. There's nothing on a human scale here, or anywhere else. The Vatican is built to intimidate, and is crammed with statues, depictions of hideous martyrdoms and silent nuns.
I was brought up an austere Protestant and, if I were religious at all, my religion would be about spirituality and the simplicity of confronting God alone. Maybe to Catholics, saints and miracles and God's intervention are just part of an artistic and storytelling tumult that leaks into everyday life.
One martyrdom I've spotted on the Vatican ceiling happens under the astonished gaze of a servant passing on her way to the market, who pauses open-mouthed at the sight. In the city beyond, religion seems similarly to be a part of everyday business. Romans mutter their prayers in church between a visit to the dentist and an early afternoon of sin.
The Vatican speaks little of religion to me. But it's a mad, magnificent collision of art and architecture, nudity and naughtiness, earthly distractions and improbable martyrdoms: a flamboyant, sensuous stage set for one of the grandest shows on Earth.
The writer travelled as a guest of Insight Vacations.
GETTING THERE Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Rome (5hr 30min) from July 15, or with codeshare partner Alitalia before that date. See etihad.com.
GETTING AROUND Insight Vacations offers several tours that start in Rome, including a 16-day Country Roads of Italy tour from about $5350 and 10-day Best of Italy tour from about $3752.5. Guests gain VIP entrance to the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel and Bramante staircase, accompanied by an art expert. See insightvacations.com.