While I was in Rome, I visited the Sistine Chapel. Only, I didn’t know I was in the Sistine Chapel (not for a couple of minutes anyways).
How can that be? The Sistine Chapel is arguably the greatest artistic achievement of the greatest Renaissance artist who ever lived. And yet, there I was, surrounded by Michelangelo’s genius and completely unaware. Seriously, how did that happen?
Well, for starters, the image you see above is the only painting from the Sistine Chapel that I was familiar with. It’s known as The Creation of Adam and though it is undoubtedly the most famous fresco on that ceiling, it is not the only one. That was news to me.
And, because The Creation of Adam is all I knew of the Sistine Chapel, I built it up in my head. I made it huge. I imagined myself walking into the chapel and looking up to find that single fresco front and center, splayed across the ceiling: God reaching down toward Adam, and Adam reaching up toward God, their outstretched hands nearly touching, but not quite. I even imagined the cracks in the plaster just as they appear in photographs of that revered painting.
It wouldn’t have surprised me if there were much smaller, complementary paintings on the outskirts of that famed fresco, but I imagined anything of the sort would act as a frame, not a forest—not something that one of the world’s most recognizable works of art could get lost in.
So, when I walked into the Sistine Chapel and didn’t immediately see that illustrious depiction of the genesis of man, I assumed I wasn’t there yet. The room was packed with tourists. Packed. I thought perhaps it was a waiting room of sorts; a very pretty waiting room, but not the main attraction.
I inched my way through the crowd, jostled by strangers, wondering how long I’d have to endure the claustrophobia before my turn came to enter the chapel (I’m not actually claustrophobic, just dramatic). When I reached the center of the room, I split from the slowly moving current through the crowd—not hard given the pace—and stood still for a moment. I looked up.
Then I saw it. Those famous fingertips, God’s and man’s, so much smaller than I always imagined it would be. It was just one fresco among many. And I was just one tourist smothered among hundreds of others. It’s not how I imagined it at all.
It was bucket list thing, you know … toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, take a gondola ride in Venice, “lean” against the “Leaning Tower” in Pisa. It was that thing I pictured myself doing that became synonymous with the city itself. Every time I think of a place I’ve never been, I imagine myself doing that one thing over and over again until it’s almost a memory. And, when I finally get there, if I’m really, really lucky, it will come close. But it rarely does.
You probably wouldn’t believe me now if I told you I’m not a cynic, but I’m really not. Chances are you do this, too. I mean, who in their dizziest daydreams accounts for sunburn or dead camera batteries or pop-up thunderstorms or droves of tourists with selfie sticks? You yourself are a tourist, one of thousands, and yet, when you imagine yourself in that place doing that one thing from your almost memory, you’re the only one there. The only one in the world. Maybe the people you came with are standing beside you, but no one else. And the sun is always shining, you are always smiling, and you have nowhere else to be. There’s no one ushering you out the door because the museum is closing, no signs prohibiting photographs, no tour guides telling you what to think. It’s just you … doing that thing … in that place.
So, naturally, when you get to that place and do that thing and it’s, shall we say, less-than-idyllic, you’ll probably feel somewhat disappointed. You may even feel guilty for feeling somewhat disappointed because you are in that really cool place doing that really cool thing, after all.
But you can’t help how you feel—only what you do about it. My mom taught me that. She’s a smart lady.
And so, this is a post about how I felt as a tourist among tourists, in touristy places doing touristy things, and what I did about it; starting, of course, with that really famous room I didn’t I was standing in.
Sistine Chapel // Vatican City
So, that was a kind of embarrassing thing to admit. And, at first, I was disappointed that The Creation of Adam was not nearly as big or as prominent as I thought it would be. I mean, it’s a beautiful painting—it deserves a ceiling of its own. But that’s just not what the Sistine Chapel is.
The real Sistine Chapel, I decided, is better. The multitude of stories Michelangelo painted on that ceiling is far more impressive than the size of any single one. He painted Genesis; not a story, but a book. And he did so brilliantly.
He spent four years craning his neck, face inches from the ceiling, brush battling gravity, paint dripping in his eyes. He painted in pixels, too close to his canvas to see the big picture. “Every gesture I make is blind and aimless,” he lamented (PoetryFoundation.org).
He hated painting that ceiling (more about that here), but just look how it turned out! It’s incredible.
I can’t even coat a ceiling in a solid color using a paint roller without it getting blotchy in places. My arms and neck start cramping after just a couple of rolls. And my feet—my feet were aching just standing there, looking up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I cannot fathom how his feet must have throbbed when he painted it.
So that’s what I decided I would do, despite my momentary disappointment and my aching feet. It was the very least I could do.
The others in my group found seats on the benches that lined the walls, and my feet were begging me to join them. We had been running around Rome for hours. We had been running around Italy for a month, but I can’t recall a time that my feet hurt worst than in that chapel. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to sit. A bit masochistic maybe, but what is twenty minutes compared to four years?
I stood to understand a little better.
Trevi Fountain // Rome
I was 10 years old when The Lizzie McGuire Movie came out. So, naturally, as a 23-year-old making a wish and tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, I still expected to open my eyes and find a handsome, Italian popstar named Paolo who would mistake me for his bandmate and take me on a whirlwind adventure through the streets of Rome on a Vespa. No such luck.
I should be more specific when I wish for things.
Alas, the Trevi Fountain during the day is not nearly as quaint as it is in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. There are no popstars or doppelgängers hanging around, just droves and droves of tourist. I know, I know: I am a tourist. But again, in the picture I had in my head, it was just me. Well, me and Paolo.
So it was somewhat disappointing—the experience, not the fountain. The fountain is lovely, with its marble deities and wild horses presiding over the turquoise waters. I imagined it could be a tranquil place. A place I’d like to come and sit for awhile if sitting on the stairs did not all but ensure getting trampled to death by the mob of tourists (See? Dramatic).
So we just left and got gelato, and told ourselves we would come back when there were less tourists bustling about. And that’s what we did, two of my friends and I. On our last night in Italy at 2 o’clock in the morning.
We had flights to catch later that morning. And we got lost along the way. But, when we finally got there, we practically had the place to ourselves. I could sit on the fountain’s edge without fear of being knock in by a selfie stick. And I have to say, the fountain was even more dazzling at night, all lit up. There’s nothing to compete with its beauty and nothing to distract from it. Just a beacon of blue water and white stone in the darkness. I always imagined myself going there during the day but this, this was better.
The three of us sat there on the steps for an hour so, reliving our past five weeks in Italy. Nostalgic end-of-trip type stuff.
We were in the heart of the country. A city of millions of people and thousands of years of history and yet, those stairs felt like porch steps. We just sat there, chatting. It was so quiet. No cars or sirens or crowds. Just our voices against the Trevi’s waters.
I never knew a big city could feel that small. It was nice. I wouldn’t have rather spent my last hours in Italy doing anything else.
Certainly not sleeping.
Gondola Ride // Venice
This is the most touristy thing we could have done in Venice, and yet we were treated like the attraction. When you go over a bridge in Venice, chances are there’s a gondola going under it. And on that bridge are least a half a dozen tourists taking photos of said gondola.
So, we’re going to be in a lot of people’s vacation photos. Which is kind of cool. Have you ever thought about that? How many strangers’ photos you must be in? Photos from momentous moments and meaningless Snapchats alike? Maybe you were behind them on the roller coaster or the next beach towel over. Or maybe you walked right in front of them when the shutter clicked and you unintentionally stole the shot. And what if that shot was of the moment someone popped the question or the split second a UFO’s invisibility shield short-circuited? And you blocked it! Crazy.
What was I talking about?
Gondolas. To be honest, you get about the same experience outside the gondola as you do inside one—they’re just a fun, uniquely Venetian thing to look at. However, determined to get the most out of that boat ride, I searched for something different about being inside one—a new perspective. What separated me from the tourists on the bridge? What is the one thing I can see that they can’t?
Under the bridge.
Going under the bridges felt truly magical. Like passing through a kaleidoscope, a portal to the fairytale world that is all of Venice. There were moments when the sun would break through the clouds just as we were passing under a bridge. The light bounced off the water and flickered across the stone like white flames. An incandescent dance of shadow and light. It’s what I imagine a spell would look like. A good spell. The kind that lifts the curse and restores everything to its former glory.
For most of my time in Venice, I was the tourist on the bridge. But during those few moments I was under them, I was … I was …
Well, I was the tourist under the bridge, but a very enchanted one at that.
I know that all sounds rather romantic and romantics have a rep of over-exaggerating. I have no defense.
I am a romantic. Venice is a romantic city. But is it over-exaggerating if you really see things that way?
I know I’m not nearly the first to have passed under those bridges and felt that. Because the magic or the beauty or whatever you want to call it is actually there. Anyone can see it. Sometimes you just got to look for it. You have to search for the fingertips in the forest of frescos, get lost in Rome at 2 a.m., notice the light in the shadowy places.
Millions of people have done all the things I just talked about before I did and, God willing, millions will after. Maybe you have. Or maybe you will. I hope you do. But more than that, whenever you get to whatever place you’ve been dreaming of going—even if it’s not what you were expecting it would be—I hope you feel everything and make the most of it.