7 Sure-fire Signs You're on the Wrong Vatican Tour

Advice From Guides for Finding a Guide

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 3, 2011 (Zenit.org).- When Benedict XVI launched the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization and then announced the upcoming Year of Faith, I found myself wondering how I could contribute to this momentous initiative. I couldn’t exactly quit my job, leave my children in Rome and set out as a missionary in Zambia.

On further reflection, however, I realized that as an art historian I have a very powerful means of evangelization at my fingertips. Nearly every day I watch unsuspecting pilgrims and tourists being fed misinformation about the treasures of Vatican art and the cultural contributions of the Church.

After years of doing tours in the Vatican, I have noticed that many Catholics come away dismayed or confused by their experiences in the museums. More often than not, this is the result of the guides who take them through the potentially overwhelming collections, drumming their own cynical viewpoints into the heads of Catholics who haven’t had the time or good fortune to understand why art matters so much to the Church.

I canvassed several of my best colleagues of diverse religious backgrounds for things that they have noticed over the years as signs of bad tours. (To be frank, one of the best — and funniest — answers I got was from an excellent non-Catholic colleague.)

So if you happen to tour in Rome, here are a few indications that you perhaps are hearing a falsified story about the Church, its history and its art, (there are far more than seven, but the number has a nice sacramental ring to it):

1) You have been approached by a seedy person in the line offering to help you «skip the queue» (line).

These are people who are taking advantage of those who have arrived to the museums without reservations and are surprised to find a line. The Vatican Museums welcomes more than 4 million visitors a year (this year it will be 5 million) and is one of the most popular and important museums in the world. You can avoid the line yourself by choosing off-hours (the museums stay open until 6 p.m., though the entrance closes at 4 p.m.. Alternatively, after 1 p.m., the line dies down or disappears entirely.) The museums also have a remarkably efficient reservation service — and you can even book tours through the museums. Or you can go to the information office in St. Peter’s Square and book same-day tickets from there. The line-parasites are exploiting visitors’ lack of preparation to earn a few euro out of your desperation to get out of line, but generally are not awfully concerned about the quality of information they give you once you get inside.

Note: You have really messed up if you are following a scruffy shyster down an alley when you know you would never do this in any other major city, only to find out you have to wait longer for them to gather a group than you would have spent waiting in line, if, in fact, there was a line!

2) Your guide dresses like (a) she has just come from working in a local pub where less clothes equals bigger tips, or (b) he has just crawled out of bed to do a tour.

If your guide doesn’t respect the beauty and history of the museums enough to groom or follow the dress code himself, how can you expect the guide to be able to convey the majesty of the collections? Just because Michelangelo painted nudes, doesn’t mean the guides have to emulate them!

Note: This type of tour is frequently accompanied by overt hints about how the guide is expecting a tip at the end of the tour, embellished by tales of how impoverished he or she is.

3) Your guide approaches the Vatican and the Church with cynicism.

It is one thing to be a non-believer who has taken the time to learn about the Church and respects its treasures, at least on a purely aesthetic level. There are many excellent guides who know art and the purpose behind it, despite a lack of any personal faith. It is very much another thing when a guide tries to build up his or her own importance by belittling the Church. It is a 2,000-year-old institution with 1.4 billion members, and accomplishments that no other institution in the world can boast of. No one pooh-poohs Apple or Microsoft as a petty little business, and the Catholic faith is far more established and has inspired even brighter minds than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Edith Stein, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, to name a few. This of course leaves out the millions of exceptional men and women who have contributed to the great body of Catholic culture (St. Catherine of Siena, Michelangelo, Dante, Father Gregor Mendel … you get the idea).

The most irritating aspect of the cynical approach is the absolute ingratitude, especially from foreign guides. The Vatican Museums provide them with the means to live in Italy, raise families or buy expensive accessories, and yet all they can do is bite the hand that has generously fed them. Would you really tolerate someone living in your home who constantly belittled you, and your manners and hospitality?

Note: Many guides are outstanding historians, archeologists or art historians. There are some who are more faith-oriented and others who are more fact-oriented. A little research goes a long way with guides. There are plenty of reviews of guides and guide companies out there. If you are looking for a little education about the Church on your tours, find out who is educating you. You wouldn’t select a school in a haphazard fashion.

4) Your guide doesn’t know basic Church doctrine and biblical imagery.

You probably wouldn’t want to be taken on a tour of the United States Supreme Court by someone who didn’t know anything about what the court does. Someone who knew a few factoids, but didn’t understand the competence of the body and why it exists, wouldn’t make an impressive guide. In much the same way, avoid the sort of Vatican guide (and there are, unfortunately, many) who confuse the Immaculate Conception for Virgin Birth, don’t know what the Pope does, or can’t tell you what the catechism is. If your guide starts to explain Christian teachings in a suspicious way (e.g., «We don’t really know if there was a historical Jesus»; «The Vatican is afraid of science»; or «Vatican II was all about opening the Church up to the new realities of birth control and premarital sex»; (these guides are frequently fixated on sexuality), don’t be afraid to ask questions to get an idea of how much the guide knows about what he or she is talking about. If they tell you that Pope Benedict XVI is trying to bring the Church back to the Middle Ages, ask which of Pope Benedict’s writings have they read. If they decry the «return of the old-rite liturgy» ask them the name of the apostolic letter (Summorum Pontificum) that allows for its celebration, whether they have read it, and what exactly it said. If they spontaneously bring up Benedict’s connection to Hitler or his guilt by association in the sex abuse crisis of 2002 within the first half hour of the tour, and especially if they whisper the word «pedophile,» you might as well leave — your tour is being led by someone whose sources don’t go farther than Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.

5) Your guide regales you with scandal stories about papal love affairs, bank scandals and murders, while failing to mention anything positive that the Church has done throughout the centuries.

Some guides assume that pilgrims go to the Vatican Museums for the same cheap titillation provided by a glossy magazine in the supermarket check-out line, or a racy historical novel. Along with very human and flawed persons in the Church, we have countless great and holy examples throughout the ages who thoroughly overshadow their less worthy counterparts. Think, for instance, of the heroism of the martyrs (these guides will probably tell you falsely that no Christian was ever ma
rtyred in the Colosseum), the selfless abnegation of St. Francis, the pastoral genius of St. Philip Neri, the generous service of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and the thoughtfulness and depth of Blessed John Henry Newman. Pope Julius II may have had his faults (and even these did not involve salacious behavior), yet he gave us Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael in the Stanze, the new St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Laocoon. Where would we be without this man who knew where his talents lay and how to use them for the glory of God and his Church? If your guide starts sounding like the «Borgias,» remember that a fictional television series bears little resemblance to Church history. There is no excuse for a tour based on novels or films that purports to be led by an educated «scholar.»

6) Your guide compartamentalizes the art of the Vatican into a few disconnected details without explaining its larger context.

I’ve heard them all. «Michelangelo painted God from the rear to ‘moon’ the Pope»; «Michelangelo painted lots of nudes because he was homosexual and wanted the church to accept this»; «the popes castrated the statues in the Vatican»; «Raphael was so jealous that he painted Michelangelo into the Stanza frescos»; «the Pieta is based on Michelangelo mourning the mother he lost when he was six»; and yada yada yada. All these juicy factoids are either false or silly, unsubstantiated conjectures that cheapen the works of art. If your tour is a collection of unrelated soundbites, intended for laughs while masking the importance of the art, you are amusing yourself at the expense of an enriching experience. Funny is great — I rely on it — but it needs to add sparkle to substance, rather than replacing it. Ask your guide three good books on Michelangelo or the Vatican that he or she has read — if you hear the words «code,» «secrets,» or «hidden symbols,» it’s a bad sign; if you hear «A World Lit Only By Fire,» go to the pharmacist and ask for an antidote for snake-bite.

7) Your guide gripes about the supposed worth and extravagance of the Vatican collections and then gets more excited about the gift shop stop than the Sistine Chapel.

When the most lengthy stop on your tour is the visit to a gift shop, you are wasting time. There are plenty of gift shops in the Vatican and environs. While there are several objects only available in the Vatican Museum shop, the fact that a guide builds a long pause into the tour for shopping isn’t a very good sign. Most guides get kickbacks from various shops, both in and out of the Vatican Museums — the practice is as old as guiding itself — and when the guide is more interested in the extra money he or she will make off of you while taking an extended break, you have chosen the wrong tour. This behavior is invariably accompanied by much griping about the supposed wealth of the Vatican and its collections, how it could feed some invented number of people in sub-Saharan Africa and how much «secret» treasure is hidden away in the basement — you might want to ask at this point how many times the Vatican has been sacked over the last few centuries, and what is left …

Christians, this is your heritage! Faith in the Incarnation, God-made-man, gave Christianity a unique vision of beauty and a sense of duty to relay that magnificent encounter with Christ through the arts, literature, music, architecture and painting. What other civilization has produced a Sistine Chapel, a St. Peter’s Basilica or a Chartres cathedral? The beauty of the invisible God rendered visible has fueled the most creative minds in the world for centuries upon centuries!

The joyous news of our salvation is proclaimed in every room of the Vatican Museums. Take your legacy in hand and remember that just because you’re on vacation, you are not on vacation from your faith. Respond with reason and a critical sense, learn about the wealth of your Christian art with responsibility. There is no sense feeding and funding those who would turn our artistic and spiritual legacy into an occasion for bad-mouthing everything we hold dear.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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