Should tourism be restricted and limited? Having grown up in a town that swelled to two or three times its local population during the summer months, I have to say, I am very much in favor of regulating tourism. Living in Cooperstown, New York – home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, gave me an intimate look at the complex relationship between the tourist and the local. Many years later I would live in Key West, Florida and see the continued complexity of this question, this time in the form of cruise ships with massive numbers of visitors disembarking daily to visit the small island village.
Even as a tourist myself, I remain aware of how much of an impact the industry has on the local economy and infrastructure – both welcome and unintended. For the most part, I try and steer clear of the must-do, must-see places. Not because I have no desire to visit them, but because I simply do not enjoy battling the crowds.
Not long ago, a decision was made in Italy to limit the number of tourists allowed to access the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. These five small towns have long topped the must-see lists of many travelers and guidebooks, resulting in a situation that over taxes the areas infrastructure. In my opinion, it’s a perfectly reasonable decision. We visited one of the five towns a few years ago, early in the spring. It was well before start of high tourist season. It wasn’t particularly crowded, but it was such a small, delicate area that it did make you wonder how it could handle the vast amounts of tourists that regularly visit Italy each year. I mention this, because I was thinking about this decision, and my aversion to crowded tourist attractions when I was caught in the middle of another huge tourist draw – the Vatican Museum.
Once you enter the corridors of the Vatican Museum, you are caught in a maelstrom pulling you deeper and ever forward into the depths of the museum. Occasionally, you can momentarily pause and escape to the exterior of whichever gallery you’ve entered, but before long you are once again pulled forward, ever forward through the monstrous museum.
Not too long ago, we paid our first visit to the museum, and I’m not sure what we did see. The tour begins in the Egyptian exhibits, but with elbow to elbow visitors on the day of our visit it was difficult to appreciate, or even view the artifacts. Once we made it through the first few rooms, the crowds began to thin out a bit and we wandered through several more rooms of Egyptian antiquities. Although we tried to follow the maps, and traffic through the museum only runs in one direction, we quickly became disoriented in the 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) of interior exhibits. I know that we skipped the Raphael rooms because, after being caught up in the forward flow of humanity for what seemed like days, we were ready to find an exit. The museum is set up in a one directional flow, and all roads through it lead to the Sistine Chapel – eventually.
You know you’ve reached the chapel, because the traffic slows as you descend the staircase into an area where every head is turned skyward, and you are being urged forward to make room for the unending stream of visitors behind you.
The Sistine Chapel, while astonishingly beautiful, was simply too crowded to enjoy. We stood there, elbow to elbow in a room packed to the brim with visitors. You are told before entering that it is a holy place, you are told that you must be respectful – and photography is absolutely forbidden. But it didn’t feel holy to me, there was no refuge left in this chapel. It was crowded, and dizzying and one more overwhelming room in an overwhelming and crowded museum. I was not expecting the sheer volume of the paintings. Every surface, from the ceilings to the walls, are covered with paintings. Between the crowds and the number of painted surfaces it was impossible to take it all in.
You might think that I didn’t like the museum, which is not the case. I thought it was stunning, the paintings and statuary collected within the walls are spectacular. But it is a lot to absorb. We left the museum, and I felt unsteady on my feet. It took me a long time to begin to process all of the things I had seen that day, and to truly appreciate it would take several visits. I’m just not sure I could withstand the crowds again.
If you are planning a visit to the Vatican Museum, try and do it during the off season. We visited during an Italian school holiday, and it seemed to be really busy. Also, if you do plan on visiting, you absolutely need to purchase the tickets in advance. The line to purchase tickets wrapped down the street and around the corner on the day we visited. We had purchased the tickets on line that morning and were able to enter the museum without much delay. We rented the audio guides, but I had so much trouble following the maps that I didn’t think they were worth it. The children were given maps with a treasure hunt on it which was a lot of fun for them – when they could find the items.
The Vatican Museum while absolutely amazing, and stunning, is completely overwhelming, large, and chaotic. I found it incredibly difficult to appreciate the beauty I was surrounded by, simply because there were so many fellow visitors that it was impossible to pause and reflect on what you were viewing.
While it is arguably the most famous museum we have visited so far in Rome, the Vatican Museum is not the only museum that we’ve visited since moving here.
My favorite museum thus far, without question is Chiostro del Bramante. This relatively small museum tucked away on a side street, is fabulous. I visited during the Tissot exhibit, which ran from September 2015 to February 2016. I loved this exhibit and this museum. I visited on a weekday in January and was one of a handful of visitors, which gave me time to listen to the audio guide, read the displays and really observe the work. Although Chiostro del Bramante is not a large museum, it is fabulously curated. The displays were beautifully exhibited and interesting. I am looking forward to visiting it again when the next show I Macchiaoli opens on March 16.
Another museum that is deceptively large and far less crowded is Maxxi – a museum of modern art on the northern side of Rome, not too far from Ponte Milvio. I must admit, I am not a huge fan of modern art. For the most part, I just don’t get a lot of it, but for the right price – admission was free for women on March 8 (Festa della Donna) I figured I had nothing to lose.
The museum is quite a bit larger than I thought it was going to be, with several special exhibits running simultaneously. The first exhibit I visited was Istanbul, Passion, Joy, Fury. I felt a little lost in this exhibit, as I don’t know much about political movements in Turkey, so I meandered through them somewhat aimlessly. It gave me a sense of something, although I wasn’t entirely sure what.
Next I headed to an exhibit called Transformers, artist who created something new out of everyday objects. According to the website, the works of these artists / social activists combine to create a space where “reality is transformed into another reality, which sparks the imagination, stimulates reflection, encourages sharing, experience, and looking beyond.” I don’t know about that, but I found the work of Pedro Reyes and Didier Faustino to be particularly thought provoking.
Reyes transformed weapons into musical instruments, which eerily played music without human accompaniment. Faustino’s work transformed plastic baskets into a forest of green bulbs, through which the visitor must pass.
The next part of the museum housed the permanent exhibits, including a large glass igloo containing the Fibonacci sequence in neon lights. Finally, I ascended to the last exhibit on my tour, Jimmie Durham’s sound and silliness. I found this exhibit eerie. The room was nearly empty, except for a large screen of the artist doing something close to the initial steps of the Macarena. I was the only person in the room, and I was surrounded by greyness and discordant music. Leaving the museum, my ears were ringing – the displays were not silent, and my mind was racing. Maxxi left me with the idea that modern art is not only about creating something beautiful, but creating something that sends a strong message from the artist to the consumer. I would definitely recommend this museum, it may not have made me a connoisseur of modern art, but I definitely appreciate it a little bit more.
The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma was actually the first “modern art” museum I’d visited in Rome, but it is a bit more of a traditional gallery. Although this museum is a part of the Musei in Comune di Roma, it was very quiet. We were at times the only visitors in the museum which provides ample time to view and talk about each painting and sculpture. There were mainly Italian artists, and I don’t think I was familiar with any of them before visiting the museum. The kids and I had a great time in this museum discussing what we liked or didn’t like about each painting or sculpture, and what we thought the artist was trying to portray.
The Museo dell’Ara Pacis was another museum I visited, primarily for the special exhibit featuring the work of Toulouse-Latrec. The special exhibit was fabulous. Through this exhibit, I learned quite a bit about the life, works and techniques of an artist I was largely unfamiliar with, other than being able to recognize a few of his more well-known works. I thought the exhibit was well curated and I look forward to attending other exhibitions here. I was less impressed with the actual museum. The Ara Pacis is amazing to look a, but for the price of a ticket, unless you are really interested in ancient Roman architecture, I’d skip it. I found the self guided map and audio guide difficult to orient myself to – and there was only one room.
One of the kids favorite art shows was the Art of the Brick, which is being held over through April 26, 2016. This was a fantastic exhibit of art masterpieces and original works all created from Lego bricks by US artist Nathan Sawaya. This was one show that the kids could return to again and again. We went during the Christmas holidays, and although we arrived shortly after opening, we still needed to wait in line. It was a very popular show, but the layout of the exhibits provided enough space to comfortably observe everything. The Art of the brick is being held in the Spazio Eventi Tirso, not too far from Villa Borghese.
Another favorite of the kids was the exhibition of the machines of Leonardo DaVinci in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, not too far from Campo di Fiori. Not only was this a very hands on exhibit, but we timed it perfectly and nearly had the museum to ourselves.
On a recent rainy day, we visited another museum, located behind the Monument of Victorio Emmanuel. I was rather disappointed in the show “From the Musee d’Orsay: Impressionists tete a tete” held at the Complesso del Vittoriano. While there were several artists exhibited that I was familiar with, I just didn’t come away with a feeling of having seen something worthwhile. I thought the exhibition was poorly displayed and extremely small. I’m not at all sure I would visit this gallery for another show.
Of course if you are looking for art in Rome, one of the best (and least expensive) options is to visit some of the many churches, which provide beautiful artwork and a quiet refuge. Here are just a few of my favorites thus far: Santa Maria Maggiore, The Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, San Luigi dei Francesi, and Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi.
There are of course many more museums and churches to visit in Rome, and I look forward to continuing to explore them in the years I live here! And while I may not have a perfect solution to the question of balance between tourist and resident, I hope that being aware of the delicate balance between the two makes me a more responsible traveler.