Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Barbarians Conquer Rome

The second photo album of Rome with images of the Vatican, the Pantheon, and the streets of the city. Unfortunately several of the places we visited on the last day don't allow photographs so you may need to rely on my adjectives to get the picture (and pictures taken from Google image searches).

After another night interrupted by drunken roommates who had clearly had spent too much time together (“Ya know, I don’t think you want to be here. I think you hate it here!”) and another morning spent fighting for breakfast, we were on the street hiking past plazas and churches (you can’t walk through Rome without plenty of both) for the Villa Borghese gardens a large English-style garden that houses the Borghese Museum (go figure).

The Museum was once the home of Cardinal Scipione Borghese who was an early patron of Bernini. It’s a relatively small collection but it packs in the big names including all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Because of its size, they only let 150 people in at a time so we called two days earlier and got the 9 AM slot. We only had two hours to tour the place before we were kicked out and the next 150 got to come in.

The first floor features a series of rooms with Bernini sculptures and the occasional Canova in the center and paintings on the walls. Each room was a quiz called name-that-myth. Venus, Pluto, Apollo, and Mercury all made appearances along with special guests from the Bible like a more determined David than Michelangelo’s. I think the most stunning sculpture was Apollo and Daphne. Bernini carved them right as Daphne, a tree spirit, transforms herself. They didn’t let us bring cameras, so here’s an image ripped from the Internet. You really need to see the leaves:

Upstairs were the paintings with every school and country represented. Really the Borghese would be a great primer on Renaissance and Baroque art before tackling one of the expansive European museums like the Vatican or the Prado…I would like to take this moment to remind you that this is the blog of a paleontologist living in Germany. If you think I babble more about art history in countries other than Germany than about fossils, stay tuned. The fossils are coming. But also know one of the great experiences of this year has been learning about the history of Western Art by actually visiting all these incredible collections. I already knew I would learn a lot about dead animals. Back to excitement about art…

Finally we were ushered out, slightly disappointed that a finished work by DaVinci was on loan. After the Last Supper we were doomed to see the stuff he never finished painting. Then we wandered into the garden, having finished a museum before lunchtime. We sat by an idyllic fountain and listened to a man play Vivaldi and Mozart on his recorder. We might have sat there all day if, you know, we weren’t in Rome.

Our next destination was the Pantheon. The building was constructed first by Agrippa (a buddy of Augustus) then Emperor Hadrian (after the first burned down) who had the bright idea of capping the temple to “All-Gods” with a massive dome. It’s the largest, unreinforced concrete dome in the world. How’s that for a superlative?

The dome thins towards the occulus and the admixture of the concrete gets lighter (pumice instead of granite) as you get closer to the top. It’s spectacular.

Really gazing into the Dome is the only reason to go in. The niches used to house sculptures of the major Olympian gods, but the place became a church in 609 and the sculptures were hauled out. The religious art inside the Pantheon - or the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs, coincidentally the name of my Christian rock band – isn’t too inspiring, but the bodies are. Raphael is buried under the vault, along with the first king of Italy, Emmanuel II.

After staring upward in awe just a little longer, it was time to continue our journey south of the city to the Appian Way.

When Christianity started to take root in Rome during the 2nd century, the Christians needed a secret place to bury their dead. Fortunately the volcanic tuff around Rome is easy to dig out and sets like concrete once exposed to air. At least forty catacombs have been discovered around the city. The one we were headed for contained 15 km of tunnels on multiple levels that burrowed under the fields and roads leading to Rome. To get there we had to take a bus then actually walk the ancient cobble stones of the Appian Way. It was lined with farms and ruins. After a stroll past long lines of pine and olive trees we arrived at the Catacombs of San Callisto.

There wasn’t much to see, just a ticket booth and groups of older tourists wandering around. You must wait for a tour guide to enter the Catacombs and we were never given any timetable of languages and tours. We just waited and wandered aimlessly with the older folks.

Then a busload of Scottish Tourists arrived, excitedly discussing the workout they were about to undertake. They clearly spoke English (or Scottish as the case may be) and we thought we would probably have an English tour very soon. An Australian Salesian priest appeared and called for the English-speakers to gather. The Pope has charged the Salesians with curating the catacombs and the priests act as daily guides. Our Scottish companions were giddy with anticipation. After an introduction on the history of the site and the art we would see underground, Father started to lead us into the ground. Josh and I fell into the back, figuring we had the best ears in the group and would be able to hear over the rest of the Scots. We didn’t bank on the Spanish and Italians following close on our tails.

We did catch the important points though. We entered a room where the Early Christians met for the Eucharist. One group was discovered and all quickly became martyrs. The tomb of St. Cecelia was also in the catacomb. The Priest/Guide/Australian asked, “Does anyone know what she is the patron saint of?” Everyone chimed “Music!” And giggled with delight at getting the answer right. It was like being in kindergarten (not that I didn’t enjoy kindergarten). This furthered my theory that aging is really just an attempt to escape childhood followed by eventual acceptance of immaturity once again.

The walls were decorated with frescos of the Eucharist, Baptism, and the symbols of Christ like the fish and anchor. Many of the people who were buried in the catacombs converted at a dangerous time and are rightfully respected for their courage. What I think is more remarkable is how many were converted simply by hearing the message. There wasn’t a whole lot of literature going around. It was just people speaking about the gospel, and these people left families and traditions to follow something new. Talk about an intense historical moment.

The Scots were part of a church group and their priest started to set out the bread and wine and pass out readings in one of the worship chambers in the catacombs. We were invited to participate. Two forces were pulling Josh and I in two directions: The Rabid Tourist was drawing us back to Rome. There was still so much to see. The Guilty Catholic was compelling us to stay for mass in the catacombs (not a bad experience either). We received the tour guide’s blessing to move on. As we walked out he showed us Greek inscriptions and frescos that he wasn’t able to share with the larger, more geriatric group. We emerged from the Christian-made caves and walked back to the bus stop along the Appian Way.

Through the course of this Italian journey I was reading The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. It recounts his adventures with a tour group along the Mediterranean and eventually to the Holy Land. In it he described the Capuchin Crypt. His description fascinated me and forced me to put it on the itinerary.

In the 1500s someone brought some soil from Jerusalem and presented it to the Capuchin friars. Naturally, everyone wanted to be buried in the soil of the Holy Land. Soon there were more bodies than dirt. So the friars took the next logical step. The started piling the bones of their deceased brothers on top of the soil in the crypt. Well that didn’t look very good, so someone came up with the idea of using the bones as Lego bricks.

The skeletons of over 4,000 Capuchin brothers who died between 1528 and 1870 were used to construct the decorations of chapels lining the crypt. Columns of femurs and tibiae are crowned with skulls and mandibles. Fleur-de-lis made of ribs and lantern holders of illia and coxyxes hang overhead. There were even skeletal Putti made with a skull and two scapulae for wings. In the final room of the small crypt was a sign in five languages that read, "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be...” It was time to be uplifted. So we decided to climb St. Peter’s Dome.

We didn’t have time for it the day before, and we were running tight on time so we jogged to the Vatican. They let us in, we bought our ticket and we started up the first flight of spiraling stairs.

We emerged at the base of the dome (which was designed by Michelangelo) and were able to get close to the massive (that word is impossible to avoid when describing St. Peter’s, it doubles as an unintentional pun) mosaics and really appreciate the expanse of open space over the altar.

A service was going on below us, and the people were nearly impossible to distinguish from one another.

We were really high up and we still had stairs to climb.

The next flight followed the curve of the dome as we walked between the copper covered exterior and the cement, mosaic-encrusted interior. The hall actually warped as we rose to the peak and finally emerged and saw this:

Well, we saw this and a bunch of people trying to photograph this. It was tough to find a spot, but we elbowed in and started pointing out all the landmarks we could see and stood in awe of the number of domes this city can lay claim to.

With a final salute to the city, we climbed down again, past the famous statues over the facade of the Basilica, and did some souvenir shopping. Our most important purchase was real Italian cannoli. The ricotta, vanilla, and chocolate chip-filled pastry was perfect for capping a long day wandering all over the city.

After dropping off our gifts at the hostel, we needed one more meal. The Italians like to eat in several courses and Josh and I hadn’t done the full culinary tour that starts with an antipasta plate, then pasta (go figure), then meat, and finally coffee and desert. I mused on where to go and Josh sheepishly suggested La Montecarlo, the chaotic place we had been the first night in Rome. We’ve been well trained not to duplicate an experience on vacation, but we also felt we had rushed the restaurant the first time. We knew it would be cheap and we would be able to get the full traditional meal. Off to hang with Monty.

It was a Saturday night and the place was packed. A line had formed in the alley next to the restaurant where large groups of locals negotiated with the waiters and each other for a spot to eat. We stood back and watched the blur of food and motion and smiled. This was Italy. We were asked several times for how many were in our group, but never by the same person and never on a piece of paper or notepad. The party behind us was inexplicably kicked out, and the couple ahead of us was seated before the couple ahead of them. The inefficiency of the operation was frustrating to my American and new German sensibilities. I leaned in to Josh, “Remember, these are the descendents of the people who built the aqueduct. These are the people who conquered Europe before telephones. What happened?” At the same time the energy of the place was infectious. I was willing to wait and watch, even if it meant being seated at 10:30 PM and not getting our first course until 11:15.

We toasted the city and a successful journey across the Italian Peninsula. We ate fried artichokes, sipped wine, and spun real Italian spaghetti. We also were stuffed. Our dreams of getting through all the courses were quashed by a skewed Italian perception of portion size. After midnight, it was time to do some last-minute exploring. We needed to find the Trevi Fountain. It’s a Roman icon and if you pitch a coin into the water, you’re assured another visit to the city, or maybe a chance to fall in love, or even a new Vespa. I guess it depends on your frame of mind. We found some useless small change and sacrificed it to Neptune then watched groups of friends and lovers eating gelato and tossing coins. I really hope I get to come back.

We continued to wander and chat in search of a bar for a parting drink (a Kemble cup, if you will). Afterwards we made the unfortunate decision to walk back to the hostel. An hour-long hike across Rome, buzzed and tired, is not the way to cap off a Saturday night despite what you may have heard. We were tucked in at 3 AM and my alarm went off at 5:50 AM. Groggily we packed, brushed our teeth, and hurried to the bus station where my airport shuttle was waiting. Because of the rush, Josh and I exchanged a quick hung goodbye, and I was gone, rumbling past ruined aqueducts for the airport and my Ryan Air flight back to Frankfurt-Hahn. Josh left a little later by train for the International Airport. As I took off from Italy, last minute postcards recently dispatched, I tried to reflect on the previous two weeks. It was almost too much to process.

I can’t tell you how many paintings I scrutinized, statues I walked around, or times I said “wow.” I can tell you that I saw, did, and said all of that with my brother. The previous five years didn’t afford us very much time together, and this trip reintroduced us to each other as we start the unenviable task of becoming adults. We probably won’t be able to share as many memories together for a very long time, and that thought really bums me out, but for now I’m just happy we were able to share two weeks on the boot.

I hope you have some time to spend with your family, biological or surrogate, this weekend. Only two more months until I am reunited with mine!


The final Italian photo album. Have fun!

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