I had invited a friend over for a late lunch a couple of days ago and was lying on my bed reading after I had cleared up when my phone pinged. Luckily, I looked at it straight away which I don’t always do. It was a text message from Eric, one of our choir members. Eric is an organ scholar under the aegis of our conductor who is also an organist. He has a beautiful voice which spans the tenor/contralto range and sings with the Sistine Chapel choir. Anyway, his message said that the Sistine Chapel choir were doing a recording of Palestrina’s secular music for a CD and if I got there in 10 minutes, he could get me into the Sala Regia within the Apostolic Palace, to listen.
I leaped off my bed and ran all the way to the Vatican. There are three gates into Vatican city manned by Swiss Guards, one can’t just walk in. Eric had to escort me and another choir member inside explaining the reason for our visit. The Apostolic Palace is where the Pope’s apartment and the Sistine Chapel are located and is patrolled by Swiss Guards. As we walked up the stairs, we could see one of them guarding the majestic door into the Sala Regia. Incidentally, Papa Francesco chose not to move into the Apostolic Palace but stays in another Vatican guesthouse which is much more homely. He meets visiting Heads of State in the Sala Regia and there is a door leading from it directly into the Sistine Chapel.
What an amazing room as you can see above. Beautiful marble floors and the walls are covered by huge frescoes depicting important events in the history of the church. We were able to look around us with completely unobstructed views, once the choir assembled, as there were just about ten people or less watching.
I happened to be sitting across from this fresco which mean’t nothing to me at the time but I spent a long time trying to figure it out. Back home later, I found out that it was painted by Giorgio Vasari and depicts the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 in which the Christian naval powers of Spain, Venice, and the Papacy, defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. It was a turning point in the history of Europe as it put a halt to the expansion of the Ottoman empire in the Mediterranean. The fresco shows the two fleets of rowing boats facing each other, the Ottoman fleet is on the right. The three figures in the bottom left represent Venice, the Church in the middle and Spain on the right. The map in the middle represents the gulf of Patras in Greece where the battle was fought. At the bottom right are allegorical figures representing fear, weakness and death. Notice the angels under the |Christian fleet bearing gold crowns while the angels under the Ottoman fleet are emptying a vessel of nasty looking creatures. I wish I had known all of this when I was actually looking at the fresco.
Back to the choir, the adult component of the choir comprises only about 20 people, obviously all with beautiful voices spanning soprano to bass. Eric is fourth on the left wearing a checked shirt. The choir also has about 30 young boys who weren’t involved in the recording. The man in the white shirt was the producer and he listened very carefully, picking out passages that he was not happy with and discussing these with the conductor and choir so that they could be repeated. We had to sit at the back of the room so as no noise disturbed the recording. The sound engineer seemed to have everything under control and was quite laid back during the proceedings but obviously could read music as he was looking at the score carefully.
There were a number of pauses so that the choir could walk around as well as rest their voices. This enabled those of us watching, to go around looking at things more closely and to take photos. Apart from the two doors to the Sistine chapel, the door behind the choir leads to the Capella Paulina which is the Pope’s private chapel and contains some magnificient pieces by Michaelangelo. We weren’t able to go into it nor into the Sistine Chapel but we were able to go into the Sala Ducale which consists of a long room also used for meetings of the Pope with foreign dignitaries and other related functions. It used to be two rooms but Bernini joined them together by means of a large archway decorated with angels holding up swathes of fabric. The vaulted ceilings are spectacular, decorated with grotesques which became popular during the Renaissance after having been discovered in the Domus Aurea, the house of Nero in the 2nd century.
I felt very lucky to have been handed this ‘gift’ as few people get to enter the Apostolic Palace. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to share the experience. Thank you Eric!