An overhead view of the Vatican in Rome. (Photo: Zoran Djekic/Stocksy)
“Now we go to see a sexy naked guy,” our guide says matter-of-factly, as he scurries ahead of us into the next room. It’s not the sort of thing one expects to hear on a tour inside Catholicism’s international headquarters — but then again, this is no ordinary Vatican tour.
We’re being led on a gay-themed exploration of the Vatican’s massive and incomparable art collection, as part of the “Untold History” tour launched late last year by Italian LGBT travel company Quiiky. Our escort is the ebullient Tiberio Tassinari, who says he’s led thousands of groups in his years as a guide at the so-called Vatican Museums — but only recently, since working for Quiiky, has he been so freely able to share his knowledge of the gay backstories behind the world-famous art and artists housed here (thanks to masterpiece-hoarding popes of the past).
Apoxyomenos statue by Lysippus at the Vatican Museums. (Photo: imageBROKER/Alamy)
We soon see that the “sexy naked guy” to which Tassinari refers is the Apoxyomenos statue by Lysippus, court sculptor to Alexander the Great, himself a timeless gay icon. A powerfully fit athlete caught in the virile act of wiping sweat away from his body, Apoxyomenos was viewable only from the front on the day of our visit, cordoned off by a rope several yards away — a shame, Tassinari tells us, because “his B side is one of the best ever.”
Quite remarkably, given that we’re deep inside one of Christianity’s most hallowed sites, Tassinari shares his encyclopedic knowledge of gay art history — and often cheeky side commentary — without ever lowering his voice or toning down his excitement. Once or twice he catches the attention of nearby visitors among the bustling Vatican tourist throngs, but seemingly more out of sheer surprise than any sort of disapproval.
Famous classical marble sculpture Apollo Belvedere at the Vatican Museums in Rome. (Photo: Martin Beddall/Alamy)
A bit farther on, Tassinari brings us to the famed Apollo Belvedere, a stunning marble depiction of the Greek god (“handsome like the sun,” points out Tassinari) made during the time of Roman Emperor Hadrian. Later, our tour will include busts of both Hadrian and his male beloved, Antinous, together one of antiquity’s most famous and unabashed same-sex couples.
“Okay, that was the twink,” says Tassinari, using gay code-speak for a young and less masculinely developed guy, after giving us a moment to admire Apollo. “Now we go see the hunk.” Said hunk turns out to be Laocoön, a super-beefy mythological figure who’s depicted with his sons in what’s considered one of the finest extant examples of Greek statuary.
Laocoon and his sons in the Museo Pio Clementino at the Vatican Museums. (Photo: VPC Travel Photo/Alamy)
An often recurring gay-slanted subject in Vatican art is Saint Sebastian. who with his arrow-pierced near-naked body implying persecution has become something akin to a patron saint for LGBT people. Saint Sebastian was a particularly popular figure for Renaissance artists, who were — “in my humble opinion,” says Tassinari, “almost all gay.”
While the Vatican’s publicly displayed art and Quiiky’s tour thereof have a decidedly male slant, a few lesbian-popular artists are here, too — most notably, Artemisia Gentileschi, whose numerous depictions of strong Biblical women helped make her one the few Renaissance-era female artists to achieve widespread popularity.
The transgender community is also represented at the Vatican, if a little more clandestinely. Tassinari points out multiple instances of blurred genders in classic Renaissance paintings (“Like a lady Jesus,” he says of the particularly birthing-hipped depiction of Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration).
Related: Traveling While Transgender
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Photo: age fotostock/Alamy)
Like any Vatican art tour worth its salt, “Untold History” climaxes with a solid half hour in the Sistine Chapel, where Tassinari points out a few heavenly same-sex kisses included within Michelangelo’s sprawling overhead masterpiece.
Quiiky’s “Untold History” tour has by no means been sanctioned by the Vatican, but neither has it been forbidden. Understandably, given its unique and controversial subject matter, the tour has attracted a fair amount of attention in the Italian media, but Vatican authorities have so far mostly stayed silent on the matter.
“Fortunately we have only had some bad comments from a few Vatican experts and a bit of flaming on social networks, but in general we have not met much obstruction,” says Alessio Virgili, Quiiky’s founder and CEO. “Certainly the current pope’s relative openness toward LGBT people has been a factor. This is why many gay Catholics have returned to the church, and we’ve had an exponential increase in requests for this tour.”
Quiiky’s “Untold History” tour can be booked at any time that the Vatican Museums are open (Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). The cost of 105 euros (about $117) per person includes the three-hour guided tour, entrance fees to the museums and the Sistine Chapel, priority access to bypass the often massive waiting lines outside (this is, after all, one of the world’s most visited art repositories), and a drink afterward at a gay-friendly bar near to the Vatican. For groups of 10 or more, the charge for the tour is just 45 euros per person (about $50).
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