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It's never been easier to visit the Vatican

Florida International Museum brings its splendors to town.

By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - Inside, a woman pointed to a cardinal's miter hat and whispered, "I wonder what it weighs?"

Out in the lobby, someone else marveled at how Michelangelo's cranky back held up painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In the gift shop, a Catholic priest exited with his new "Vatican Splendors" carry bag. Nearby, someone next to the "Jesus Loves Me" stuffed lambs considered buying "Bibleopoly - a Game of Fun and Faith."

A flavor of Vatican City was in the air.

So opened on Saturday the first day of the Florida International Museum's new exhibit, "Vatican Splendors from Saint Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guard."

It's one of the largest collections of art and historical objects from the Vatican, a display of 200 items that span 2,000 years of church history.

The hope is that bringing the coveted collection to St. Petersburg - the first U.S. city on the tour's itinerary - will provide a boost to the financially struggling museum.

The museum hopes to draw 100,000 visitors during the exhibit's St. Petersburg stay, which closes on May 11.

On day one, an estimated 750 people or more visited. Museum officials declined to say how those figures compared to openings of previous exhibits, though they say it was a healthy number.

"We've been getting a great response from people," said Kathy Oathout, the museum's executive director. "We've brought the Vatican to the city. We've re-created the Sistine Chapel. It's like bringing people to the Vatican in Italy."

The exhibit wasn't a make-or-break proposition for the museum, she said.

The St. Petersburg run kicks off a three-city tour for the collection, which contains many items that have never been viewed outside of Italy.

And the exhibit isn't just for Catholics, the museum says.

Indeed, many people in the first day crowd weren't Catholic, including Jeanmary Straub, 73, a nurse who lives in New Hampshire and is visiting Tampa Bay for the winter.

She was the person wondering about the miter's weight. Straub said she was delighted with the exhibit.

"I don't know if I'll ever get to visit Rome," she said, noting the exhibit seemed like a good replacement for a real visit. "It's like going to England and seeing the royal crown jewels."

Arlee Valentine, 59, a New York resident visiting Tampa Bay on business, walked under a re-creation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and immediately turned her mind to the artist's back.

"I really felt bad for him," she told friends.

Joan Muoio, 61, and husband Dennis Muoio, 60, snowbirds who winter in Spring Hill, said the exhibit fed an appetite for travel.

In the gift shop, they paused before deciding against buying a map of Rome.

"We'd just lose it before we got there," Dennis Muoio said. "But the museum is the next best thing to Rome."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or 813 226-3436.

FAST FACTS

"Vatican Splendors from Saint Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museum and the Swiss Guard" is at the Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, through May 11. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $20 adults, $17 seniors, $15 military and $13 children 6 and older. (727) 341-7900 or www.florida museum.org.