Tour Day 8
Today we explore Christian Rome: Vatican City–seat of the Catholic Church, the unsurpassed collection of the Vatican Museums, and the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica.
We anticipate an enormous day, so it is nice to have free time in the morning to regroup, do a little laundry in the shower, and take care of business.
Patricia meets us late morning. We process to the subway station as a group. The presence of machine-gun toting Polizia is strong here. Patricia distributes subway tickets, and instructs us in the use of the underground transportation system. The Rome Metro system works very much like other subways we have ridden in Washington, D.C. or New York City. A few stops later, we exit at the Vatican. We must fortify ourselves before we go in. We sample delicious pizza by the slice from Habemus Pizza, then ice cream from Old Bridge Gelateria around the corner.
If we thought we had seen big crowds before on this trip, they were nothing compared to those at the Vatican, where over five million visit each year. We meet our local guide outside the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The crowd is vast, noisy, aggressive. No way would my traveling companion and I attempt to negotiate this without a trusted guide. And she teaches us how to cope: she waves her arms over us and says, “Put your head in a zen bubble!” I love that concept; I vow to apply it to other situations in life.
“Put your head in a zen bubble!”
We enter the building without waiting in line. We cannot take in all fifty-four galleries of the Vatican Museums. We cannot take in the entire history of Western Art, or the 20,000 pieces on display. But several great works must be noted. First, three ancient masterpieces of sculpture: the Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso, and the Laocoon. The Greek sculpture of Laocoon and his sons writhing in agony was discovered in Rome during Michelangelo’s time. The well-defined musculature of the Belvedere Torso we shall see again in Michelangelo’s figures in the Sistine Chapel. And the pose of the Apollo Belvedere reminds us of David. So these Greek marbles inspired the Renaissance master, and are a fitting way to begin our art tour.
Paintings by Raphael are not to be missed, especially The Transfiguration, The Annunciation, and The Adoration of the Magi. And one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance, The School of Athens. Here, Raphael looks out at us from the bottom corner. In this painting of philosophers, Raphael placed Da Vinci’s face on Plato, the architect Bramante’s face on Euclid’s body, and Michelangelo’s face on Heracleitus, right in the center of the work. This painting, and the Greek sculptures, are my traveling companion’s favorite works.
To me, the Gallery of Maps is the most jaw-dropping, unforgettable masterwork at the Vatican Museums, because I like maps. The gallery is 400 feet long, and consists of forty topographical map paintings by the artist Danti. These frescoes depict the entire Italian peninsula and prominent cities in 1580. The vaulted ceiling is heavily decorated with gold relief scrollwork and decorative panels. As we walk down the long hall, we are encompassed by the world’s largest pictorial map study.
Ornate ceilings and floors abound in the Vatican Museums. The Rotunda Room is especially beautiful, with a dome based on the Pantheon, and intricate mosaics underfoot. Our local guide expresses concern that six million visitors a year are walking upon the ancient mosaic floors, removed from Roman villas and other historical structures. We agree that these floors should be conserved and protected.
See more Mosaics
We take a short break on the terrace to collect our thoughts before entering the madhouse that is the Sistine Chapel. We pass the giant bronze pinecone, the Fontana della Pigna, that once decorated a fountain in ancient Rome. Our local guide takes a few moments to explain the artwork that we are about to see, because there is no talking in the Sistine Chapel. In theory.
We enter the Sistine Chapel. The space is packed shoulder to shoulder with people. To see the ceiling, we must crane our necks all the way back. Truly, it looks like the photos we have seen, but with people everywhere, bumping into us. Michelangelo’s colors are brilliant. We are surprised at the size of The Last Judgement on the back wall, and its intensity. We try to contemplate the frescoes in the chapel, but a voice comes over the crackly loudspeaker every few minutes, repeating “Silenzio, silenzio. No photo, no video,” sounding like the Wizard of Oz. The noise level in the room goes down a few notches, but people cannot not talk, and the volume eventually rises. We have thirty minutes to spend in the chapel, and feel relieved when the time is up. It is not the spiritual or artistic experience we imagined. We would have been happier with half the time in the space, if there was half the crowd and half the noise level. We wonder why the visitor experience to the Sistine Chapel isn’t managed differently by museum officials.
“Silenzio, silenzio. No photo, no video.”
Shell-shocked, our group enters St. Peter’s Basilica. We stand inside the doorway in awe, trying to take in the magnificent interior of the world’s largest church. A crowd is gathered in front of a side chapel. We cannot get close to Michelangelo’s Pieta. The sublime sculpture is covered by a clear protective wall. The lighting casts a yellowish glow over the white Carrara marble. But we can clearly see Mary’s sorrow as she holds the limp body of her son. The circle of Michelangelo is complete. We have seen his work in Florence, and now in Rome, all the way up to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica that he designed.
We begin to focus on details in the church: numerous carved putti, the baroque splendor of Bernini’s Baldachin–the sculpted bronze canopy over the high altar, the way light pours down in rays from the dome above. Near the immense mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration stands a large wooden box for offerings. All through Italy, I have been carrying a holy card from my father’s funeral. This seems like a fitting place to remember my father. I slip the card into the slot for offerings, and say a silent prayer. I purchase a rosary with large beads from the nuns who operate a religious souvenir shop adjacent to the Basilica for my 97-year old mother.
Before we leave Vatican City, we observe the changing of the Swiss Guards. My, my, we think, they only hire male models for the job. Patricia has obtained tickets from the Guards for Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square. My traveling companion and I jump at the offer, though no one else in our group is able to go, as the event will happen after our tour is officially over. Patricia surprises us with a souvenir, and it is one that we will always treasure: a Popener! Yes, it is a bottle opener with a picture of Papa Francesco, officially sanctioned, and somewhat rare. May all our beers be blessed.
Our tour group splits off in different directions for the evening. We follow Patricia for the easy walk back to the hotel. On the Via della Conciliazione, we turn around for the long view of St. Peter’s Basilica, and try to picture the square full of 200,000 people.
We walk out of Vatican City, past souvenir stands set up along the Tiber River, and stop to view the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo. This round castle served as a mausoleum, a fortress, and is now a museum.
We pass the most beautiful bridge in Rome, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels. This ancient Roman bridge was later topped with ten statues of angels by created by Bernini, each holding an object or instrument relating to the death of Christ, such as a whip, a crown of thorns, a lance. The bridge glows in the waning evening light.
My traveling companion and I have compiled a list of restaurants to try in Rome. But instead of searching for those, we discover a tiny restaurant around the corner from our hotel, Cantina Belsiana. The wine menu is written on a chalkboard, and the clientele looks like a mix of locals and tourists. We sip house wine, and eat delicious salad and eggplant. Later, we sit on the patio off our hotel room. We drink the wine we brought from Marco’s vineyard in Umbria, and eat chocolate and nuts to end the intense day.