Jan. 22, 2016: Rome/ Vatican City
Today’s destination is the Vatican, which though smack dab in the middle of Rome, is officially both a city of its own and a country of its own. We take a bus this time, a bus so inhumanly jammed with passengers that there’s no way we can squeeze in at the front door, so we shoehorn our way in through the rear door, taking care to brace ourselves against possible pickpockets. Finding it impossible to work our way up to the fare box, we reluctantly and inadvertently end up stiffing the bus company. Nobody seems to pay any heed, and we’re no doubt not the only culprits.
The main thing we’re interested in seeing at the Vatican is the Sistine Chapel. But it’s part of the Vatican Museum tour, so in order to get into this particular church, we have to shell out 18 euros each. In a rush to get to the real prize, we give short shrift to the other exhibits in the museum, which is a pity because it’s stuffed with a wealth of art and archaeology.
The artwork includes several paintings that we’ve seen reproduced many times.
And the architecture itself is worth spending many hours ogling.
One of the most surprising treasures is an array of stone tablets in Greek, with menorahs and other symbols etched in them alongside the words. They date back to a Greek Jewish settlement that flourished in Italy in the Third Century. Who knew? And they’re now on display at the world HQ of Catholicism. Who woulda thunk it?
At length we come to the piece de resistance, the Cappella Sistina itself. Despite its colossal reputation, it really isn’t very big; but then it isn’t really famous because of its size.
Unfortunately, we have no really good photos of the ceiling because management has a very strict policy against photography in the chapel – we actually see one fellow being rather gruffly ejected for violating it.
Unlike other church taboos, it’s not hard to figure out why this one is in effect. This rather medium-sized chapel is sardined with tourists even in the middle of winter. And most of them are gazing skyward at any given time. It’s not hard to imagine that people sometimes might trip, twist an ankle, and sue the Vatican for a hundred grand or so. Introducing photographic equipment into the equation would make the place even more crowded, slow down the traffic flow even more, and increase the hazards. Especially since the elongated shape makes it impractical to photograph the entire ceiling in a single frame.
In any case, while we understand (we think) the reason for the prohibition, it’s still a shame that the most splendid view in Rome is the one that you’re not allowed to bring home with you. There’s just no way a verbal description can do justice to a photograph can do justice to the real thing.
I’ve always admired Michelangelo, but today after walking through the Sistine Chapel, I’m absolutely in awe of him. The center panel you so often see reproduced is merely one of about 100 (and about 200 other figures) that he essentially painted himself, in contrast to other masters who often farmed out detail work. Each is brilliant in its own right, and they all fit together like a complex machine. (No, he did not paint on his back. He stood on a scaffolding system of his own devising.) The figures pop out almost like 3D, and move with overwhelming power, within an intricate web of symbolism.
It was a superhuman hand that executed all of this, and it was a superhuman mind that planned it all out. And to think he initially turned down the job; he was a sculptor, and didn’t consider himself much of a painter. In fact, he hated the job so much he wrote a poem (Did I mention he was also an accomplished poet?) about how it was wrecking his health. It may have made him sick, but it sure has the opposite effect on the rest of us.
Next we move out to St. Peter’s Square, where at times people assemble to wait for the announcement that a new pope has been appointed, and indeed where the pope himself makes appearances. Kimberly saw Pope John Paul II here about 30 years ago when she made a trip here along with some other parochial school teens. (Coincidentally, I saw the same pope at about the same time, but I didn’t have to come here – he came to me. Literally. On his tour of San Francisco, his motorcade drove right by the corner where I lived.)
As in other places, the Christmas nativity scene is still in place. But this one is life-size. Leave it to the Vatican.
Nearby are a couple of members of the legendary Swiss Guard, a tradition dating back some 500 years, in their very colorful, almost clownish uniforms — which are partially obscured by long black coats. Somewhere there’s a photo of me in a uniform like that, minus the black coat, taken when I was a super at the San Francisco Opera decades ago.
There’s a long queue that appears to be making its way into St. Peter’s Basilica, but it’s hard to be sure. I ask a policeman, who I notice has one brown eye and one blue, which I hope is an omen that he’s bilingual. No such luck, but I muster up enough Italian to inquire if this is the correct line, and he says si. Fortunately, the line moves quickly, and it’s not long until we’re inside.
The interior is striking, of course, perhaps even more so than the interior of Notre Dame. It’s definitely warmer, brighter, more inviting.
Kimberly poses at the approximate spot where she was standing three decades ago when Mother Teresa sauntered right by her.
She also poses in front of the tomb of Pope John Paul II, his final address after making all of his addresses outside. [We’ll cross paths with him again later when we get to his hometown of Krakow.]
There are also tombs of a couple of other popes, with their desiccated centuries-old remains displayed under glass. Creepy.
Another point of interest is a sculpture of Mary and Jesus, called the Pieta, carved by Michelangelo, long before they turned him loose on the Sistine ceiling. He was in fact a mere 23 at the time, an age when many of us are still living on ramen in our parents’ garage.
Somewhere in the labyrinthine passageways is a marquee listing all the popes, all the way back to St. Peter – whom the Catholics consider the very first pope, although the Protestants protest.
Across the street, in a little souvenir shop, I buy a postcard of Rome to send to my parents — I’ve committed to sending them a card form every place I visit. Meanwhile, Kimberly purchases a selfie stick for a mere 5 euros, half of what the street vendors are selling them for. And believe me, there are a LOT of street vendors selling them, thrusting them in your face everywhere you turn. They’re the hot item du jour in tourist spots. Now, with one of her own to clutch in her hand like a magic wand, we can fend the vendors off as they approach.
We go back across the street to the Vatican’s very own post office to buy a stamp and mail the card, so it will have a distinctive stamp of the pope and a Vatican postmark. It isn’t until later that I realize the cost of 2.50 euros is easily double what I’d pay anywhere else. When you operate a post office in your own little city and country, you can get away with charging whatever you want.
Then we’re footloose on the streets of Rome again.
Leaving the Vatican, we run the gauntlet of beggars, some of whom are clutching crutches (we wonder how many actually need them) who apparently matriculate here in hopes of capitalizing on legendary Christian charity. We hope the strategy pays off for them.
Then we come to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Dating back as early as the year 134, it was constructed originally as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian. Over the centuries it was expanded and modified, and adopted as a fortress, papal residence and prison.
Castles sometimes cause Kimberly to feel elated.
Next we make our way to the Piazza di Spagna, home of the picturesque Spanish Steps that sometimes get enshrined in motion pictures.
I’m reminded of a poem I encountered in a past life (a college lit class, I think) by the American poet Richard Wilbur, Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning:
I can’t forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square;
Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,- not then a girl
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;
As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and, circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip-
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.
The fountain is still in fine fettle, but the stairs themselves, like many other attractions we’ve seen in Europe, are undergoing restorative work, and are currently of such an appearance as never would have inspired Wilbur or anyone else.
He isn’t the only poet to have felt the lure of this neighborhood. Next door is the Keats-Shelley House, where English Romantic poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25. The house is now a museum paying tribute to Keats and his friend and fellow English poet Percy Shelley. A sailor who couldn’t swim, Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy the following year just before his 30th birthday. These Romantics believed in dying young. Although a great poet, Shelley is best known to the general public as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, who essentially invented science fiction by authoring Frankenstein at the ripe age of 19. But she probably doesn’t qualify as a Romantic, because she lived to be 54.
Hiking up to a park at the top of a hill, we get a good view of the many domes of Rome, all of them inspired (like other domes in the world) by a quintessential dome in Florence — which we’ll be seeing in a few days.
Back at home, we have a nice chat with the two Koreans, but see no sign of “Helena” or “Giorgio”. I’m starting to think that I was just being overly imaginative in speculating that he doesn’t really exist, when it suddenly hits me: his supposed last name is an anagram of her first name minus repeated letters. Mama mia!
After dinner, we can’t resist taking a stroll in the drizzle back to the gelateria for some more of the greatest gelato on the planet. It seems like a perfect way to bring the day to a Rome-antic end.