Amy’s alarm woke us at just after 5:00 am so all could be ready to go by 6:30 for breakfast and to be on the coach that took us to the Vatican for our VIP tour of the museum, Sistine Chapel, and the Basilica of St. Peter, the largest church in Christendom – I’ll get to that in a bit. First, however, each of us was refreshed and ready for the day after a good nights sleep.
The hotel breakfast was quite good, providing a variety of fare with something for everyone along with the traditional European breakfast fare of salad, cold cuts, and meats I was used to when I was traveling internationally for Gates a few years back. The ride over to the entrance to the Vatican was brief and the entrance process efficient due to the arrangements made by Emma, our tour director. We walked right by the long lines of tourists who had queued up for some time and still had a couple of hours to wait to get in. That felt pretty good I’ll admit.
One of the things I have come to appreciate most about traveling to these new places is the tremendous work Emma, our tour director, did to make our experience in Italy the best it could be. One of the many benefits she has provided is the arrangement of local specialists to manage our time in each new place. We had these locals in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Verona. For our guide on this day, we had the good fortune of having a local expert called Caramella, who spent the day with us and who provided the information we needed at each spot and who expertly directed us through each stage of the Vatican tour. Once we had gained access to the museum, we entered the Vatican itself and listened to Caramella relate some of its histories, from St. Peter himself all the way up through to Pope Francis today. So much has happened in this ancient city that I’ve been constantly amazed. It’s not called the “Eternal City” for nothing. Many of the stone buildings in Rome were ancient before the pilgrims even sailed to America!
Caramella led us through the museum galleries that are filled with treasures from Ancient Rome and Greece before telling exactly what to expect once we entered the Sistine Chapel. The building itself was originally known as the Cappella Maggiore and dates to the mid-1300s. It was then called the Sistine Chapel after Pope Sixtus IV who had it restored between 1477 – 1480. The chapel is most famous however for its renaissance frescos painted by a team of Renaissance painters that included Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, who created a series of frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ, offset by papal portraits above and trompe-l’œil drapery below.
The Sistine Chapel & St. Peter’s Basilica
Then came Michelangelo who produced 5,000 sq. ft. of scenes from the Old Testament on the ceiling between 1508 and 1512 at the commission of Pope Julius II and a depiction of The Last Judgement of Christ on the altar wall from 1535 – 1541 commissioned by Popes Clement VII and Paul III. When I was a teenager, I read the fictionalized biography of Michelangelo called “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone and since then have always had a desire to visit the Sistine Chapel and see these masterpieces for myself. I was moved to be in the same room where this magnificent work is still open for viewing as it has been for over 500 years. We stayed in the chapel long enough to take everything in or as long as our sore, craned necks could stand. We were told that the taking of pictures in the chapel was forbidden, so I took one from outside the chapel to keep to the letter of the law. The one below is courtesy of Getty Images, but it’s essentially the same view as what we saw. When we had told some friends of ours that we were going to visit the Vatican, they told us the proper door to leave from in order to avoid exiting and missing the basilica, so we kept that in mind as we exited and found ourselves correctly situated to enter the great basilica of St. Peter.
Since we followed both our friends’ tip and the instructions from our tour director, we made our way to the narthex, or grand portico, of St Peter’s. Before coming here, I had no concept of how large this church actually is. The sheer scale of the entire building simply dwarfs everyone who walks into it. The central nave with its framing aisles on either side leads into numerous sub chapels dedicated to various saints or former popes. Starting at the entrance from the narthex and walking in a straight line to the central point directly under the great dome, you walk more than two football fields in length. The “baldachin” (designed by Lorenzo Bernini between 1623 and 1634 is the impressive bronze canopy over the traditional seat of St. Peter) is a magnificent example of classic Baroque art that stands nine stories high, yet looks of quite ordinary height when viewed from the entrance. It forms a visual reference between the enormous scale of the building and the human scale of the people officiating at the religious ceremonies at the papal altar beneath its canopy. Only by seeing people standing beside it do you see how positively gigantic the entire building truly is.
In every sense of the word, St. Peter’s Basilica is truly awesome. It’s also wonderfully appointed with materials that are beyond price: marble for miles (much of which had adorned the palaces of the Roman emperors), great sheets of granite, precious metals, and glass mosaic depictions that look like oil paintings or frescos but are actually made of special glass pieces. If the interior appointments I have described were all that had been installed to provide a glorious and sacred representation of the feelings for Deity held by the church, it would be enough. However, many popes throughout history commissioned sacred works of art to further represent the various stories, events, and instances of God’s dealings with man.
The first masterpiece on display as one enters the basilica on the right is Michelangelo’s heartbreaking “Pieta” that he carved when he was just 24 years old. This particular sculpture is one I have been fascinated with since I was a teenager and was hoping to be able to get close to it. However, it is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel because, on May 21, 1972, as I learned from a quick Google search for the Pieta on Wikipedia, a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!” With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be painstakingly reconstructed from a block cut out of her back. While the “Pieta” is most impressive, it is only one of many, many amazing pieces of art that inspire and give a sense of awe including another very impressive work by Bernini for Pope Alexander II. Everything has been constructed to endure for centuries. I was impressed way more than I thought I would be. I believe everyone should visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s basilica at last once in their life regardless of religious persuasion or faith tradition. It is simply one of the great places in the world.
We exited the basilica and entered the “frying pan of Rome” which is what the locals call St. Peter’s square and is most notably embraced by Bernini’s embracing colonnade of pillars that surround a vast expanse of open, cobbled ground upon which are situated two fountains and an Egyptian obelisk with the cross of the Holy Roman Church mounted on top. Past popes called them “heaven’s needles” and commandeered them when they discovered them laying abandoned around Rome in the Middle Ages so you see them everywhere there is an important square, government, or church building.
Turning right, we descended the grand steps in front of the great Basilica and were treated to a couple of the famous Swiss Guard standing watch at the left gate to the Vatican. We left the Vatican property to have lunch, which we took in a place set up for large groups of tourists and came with the commensurate ‘tourist markup’ on anything a visitor might wish to purchase. For example, after we selected a single square of lasagna (which was surprisingly marginal) and a 14 oz. cup of fresh fruit to share (which was tasty), with three small cups of gelato (which were delicious) the tab came to over $40 factoring in the exchange from Euros. But that is the nature of a place that depends largely on tourist money to maintain itself since Italy’s economy is in a bit of disarray right now.
The Roman Colosseum
After lunch, we took a short walk into an underground parking garage to board the bus for our drive to the Roman Colosseum. This was the place made famous bu the stories of the gladiators, the slaughtering of the Christians before Constantine’s rule, and other seemingly amazing spectacles presented by the Romans. The edifice itself is massive in just the stonework required to erect it not to mention the engineering needed to make the entire place even possible. The afternoon we arrived, the temperature outside was near 100 degrees with about 70% humidity, so we were all a bit sticky and uncomfortable, but we soldiered on and spent a good hour and a half wandering through the different levels and concourses of that ancient edifice. I’m glad we saw it, but I wouldn’t go again.
Getting back to the bus took some walking up the grand avenue that ran along to the Palatine Hill where the ancient palace of Julius Caesar once stood and is now just a crumbling pile of stone ruins. We made our bus without getting pickpocketed and sat in the cool air conditioning while our driver navigated us back to the hotel in comfort. After a long, hot day, we were ready for a nap and a shower before the late afternoon and evening walking tour of the back streets of Rome, a visit to the famous Trevi Fountains, and a gelato.
Caramella again greeted us for a walking tour of the back streets of Rome. As the evening came on, the heat remained, yet each of us pressed on as we passed into the ancient neighborhoods and meandering lanes of the Eternal City. We learned about how the noble families positioned themselves for favors from the rulers and popes and how the common people worked hard to simply survive. I was very glad to live in our modern world even with our issues and problems.
As we emerged from a side street, Caramella stopped us and told us that we would soon see the famous Trevi Fountains, how they got their name, and the tradition of throwing a coin over one’s left shoulder with the right hand to ensure any number of good things, from simply returning to Rome, finding love, or receiving monetary blessings. When we emerged into Trevi square, we were greeted by about 1,000 people all milling about and jockeying for the best place to take a photo. It was pretty crazy, but we somehow managed to make our way to the front to see the fountains and each throw a coin or two. We also took some photos before escaping with a gelato to enjoy. Speaking of gelato, Italy’s delicious ice cream that differs from the ice cream we have here in the United States in that it has less milk fat in it and is churned at a slower pace thus creating a smoother, creamier result. It is also served very soft, almost like soft serve and is smooth, flavorful, and delicious. I tried both the fresh fruit flavors and the traditional sweet ones and I will admit that I preferred the fruit gelato over the others because they tasted more refreshing to me.
After the madness of the Trevi fountain, we meandered our way to the ancient Pantheon, Hadrian’s temple to all the other gods that didn’t have a temple or monument already built to them. The remarkable thing about the Pantheon is its size and shape. It employs the earliest use
of an architectural dome and is certainly impressive. It forms a perfectly symmetrical sphere inside in that it’s height and width are the same. Another interesting fact is that it has an open hole at the very top center called an ‘oculus’ for light to come in and that turns the entire structure into a giant sundial. It’s also the place where several important figures from history are interred including Raphael, the brilliant Renaissance artist.
After a few more minutes, we left the Pantheon and walked back to the bus. We did stop briefly on the way to take a final photo of St. Peter’s basilica from a bridge over the Tiber river at sunset, which was beautiful and a fitting end to two lovely days in Rome.
Ciao to Rome for now. Click – tomorrow we are on our wayto Venice.