Warning: Beyond this place there be art.
Our hostel in Rome was one of the strangest I’ve briefly slept in. Josh and I woke up at our usual 7-ish and saw people! The showers were occupied and we puttered around, fighting for breakfast rolls and downloading photos from our cameras. The photo part took a little longer than expected and we got a later start than planned when we boarded the subway and started rolling to Vatican City.
We popped out of the station (with an Angels and Demons poster overhead. Clearly someone saw a marketing opportunity) and didn’t see much that would indicate a separate, sovereign country was nearby. Literally no street signs or big arrow that said “Vatican.” A very German-looking tour group was walking in a direction that seemed right-ish. We compulsively followed.
And there we were, walking along the massive wall that encloses the smallest country –by landmass and population – in the world. This independence has only existed since 1929. I’ve always thought it was pretty cool that the Catholic Church has its own country, but really it’s a shadow of its former real estate. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the only stable power in Rome was the Church. It ruled Rome for centuries. In order to keep the Catholics from meddling with Mussolini, he separated them from Italy. I just wish they required you to stamp your passport when you cross the border.
Because we were running a little late, we forwent the traditional entrance through St. Peter’s Square and went straight for the Museum. It was sprawling and at varying stages of modernity. Some displays offered detailed explanations of the art and artifacts (the Eutruscans were particularly well-covered) while others barely offered the artist's name (the Renaissance Picture Gallery). I waffled over getting expensive audio guides to accompany the journey. Josh just dove in. I followed. Really, he had the most to gain with the guide anyway since it would have shut me up. Maybe by now he’s learned his lesson.
We started with the Early Christian Art, most of which was recovered from the catacombs that surround the city. Early Christians used a very different iconographic language than their Medieval counterparts. Where Gothic churches are filled with images of the crucifixion and the Madonna (to the point where you wonder if there’s anything more to the Christian story than Death and Mary) the sarcophagi were covered with intricate scenes of redemption and miracles. God stays the hand of Abraham, Jonah makes it out of the Great Fish, and Jesus raises Lazarus.
The Good Shepherd (not actually a representation of Christ) was eclipsed by the Christ on the cross. There's an interesting psychological shift to think about.Why don’t we use these more jubilant images more often in Christian iconography? We’re still more interested in the martyred saints than the Love of God. But that’s just my two cents.
The Vatican literally has entire hallways packed with ancient statuary. Every patrician’s bust ended up in their vaults and every emperor is represented at least six times. The noble robes of politicians and bared flesh of the gods leads the way to some of the most important statues from the ancient world such as Laocoön and His Sons.
The doomed priest is famous for saying, “I fear the Greeks, even when bearing gifts.” The gods didn’t like his suspicions about the Trojan Horse, so they sent giant serpents to kill him and his sons. The bulging muscles and vivid expressions were shocking to Hellenistic Greeks and a revelation when they came out of the ground and people like Michelangelo took a gander. The statue was impressive, but not nearly on the scale I imagined it. Laocoön is life-sized if slightly smaller and fits comfortably in his niche in the courtyard of the Belvedere garden.
Another highlight of the Greeks was this bizarre statue of the Nile who seems to be suffering a plague of babies rather than a plague of frogs:
Mummies, Eutruscan jewelry, and Greek Pottery paraded by. We were flashing back and forth across 3,500 years of art history and the whiplash was starting to wear us down. It was time to settle comfortably in the Renaissance. Down a sequence of hallways that must have stretched for a half-mile were gorgeous Flemish tapestries.
Along a massive stretch of hallway were 40 maps, primarily of Italy, all painted by a single cartographer. On the ceiling were painted scenes from the lives of the saints and Bible that somehow corresponded to each region and country. It made me wish I knew my Italian geography better, not to mention the lives of the saints.
We were getting close to the Main Event as we followed signs for the Sistine Chapel. But first we needed to see Raphael’s masterpieces including the School of Athens in which all the heroes of the Renaissance get dressed up as Greeks. Davinci takes a turn as Plato, Bromante (the guy who designed St. Peter’s) is Euclid, Raphael as Apelles, a famous Greek Painter and so on.
Then it was time to see Michelangelo. Throughout the week Josh had been reading “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King and had been our source on Renaissance characters, especially Mike. He was grinning his dimples off as we finally stepped through a small door and looked up.
The ceiling is expansive and incredibly high. This is a key point because you need to crane your neck to take it in. You look up, then need to roll your vertebrae, and try to soak it all up again Figures ripple with motion and energy. As with so many other famous work’s we’d seen, it lived up to all the hype.
On the wall below the story of Creation is Michelangelo’s later Last Judgment. The Optimism of the Renaissance was fading in Italy (the Reformation had started to divide Europe) and the Last Judgment shows it. Instead of balanced figures elegantly aloof, we see pain and anger as a muscular Christ (with a torso borrowed from a statue of Hercules) hurls sinners downward. Something Baroque and Mike wasn’t ready to fix it.
Then we finally popped out of the museum. We had probably walked a couple of miles through the halls, but we still needed to see the object of our religious pilgrimage: St. Peter’s Basilica. After a quick sandwich at the cheap but poorly advertised museum cafeteria, we walked out and followed the wall through a colonnade and suddenly broke out into Bernini’s St. Peter’s square. Hundreds of columns formed massive arms embracing the devoted. We saw the windows the Pope occasionally pops out of (he was in the Holy Land at the time we were there) and searched for the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. We never located it.
Time to go in. Walking past yet another obelisk and more signs to cover our knees and shoulders, we crossed past the sealed Jubilee Door and entered the Cathedral. It wasn’t all that shocking. I think I was more moved by my first view of the Cologne Dome. It just didn’t seem all that big. Then I saw people shuffling around near the alter, barely discernible forms under what looked like a normal-sized canopy. But the canopy was 100 feet tall. The scale slowly sunk in as I realized the statues were two stories high. It was massive, but everything was massive. The figures ensconced near the ceiling were larger than those at ground level. With the perspective they looked like they were the same size and the roof closer than it was. It was hard to appreciate the scale without people crawling on the ceiling.
This scale is intentional. The building was built to hold tens of thousands (60,000 have crammed in before). That’s a lot of people and you can feel lost in a massive, distant place of worship, so the scale makes it feel smaller, more intimate like your worship space at home. Except my worship space doesn’t sport work by Michelangelo, Canova, or Bernini.
Under the grate is the tomb of Peter and the reason to build the massive worship space that surrounds it.I don’t know how spiritually moved I was as I gazed in awe at mosaics, the play of the light over gold leaf, or the Statue of St. Peter that has been an object of devotion for centuries. I wasn’t really thinking about God. I was thinking about the men who had conceived this project, who had built these walls, and installed the art. There is no modern building that took such effort. I know the logistics of building a sky scraper or stadium are daunting, but we use steel. We have motors. This was all built with simple machines and muscle in the 16th century. All for the glory of God, but also demonstrating the achievements of men.
Onto the street. On to food. We followed a Lonely Planet recommendation to a restaurant called “Dino and Tony.” The façade didn’t look like much. In fact we walked past it at first. It was roughly 7:00 PM when we poked our heads in the door. It was dead. One table sat eating. That was it. Suddenly the perfect stereotype of the Italian restaurant owner burst from the back. “To eat?” “Yes.” Suddenly another guy appeared the room was entirely rearranged as tables merged and divided. We stood and watched the swirl of activity we had somehow sparked. When the dust settled, we were shown to a neat table in the center of the room.
Tony asked something. Josh instinctively nodded. Another question. He nodded again. Tony was confused then turned to me, “Bianco? Rosso? (White? Red?)” “Bianco.” Then another question. We nodded.
Soon we had a feast spread before us. We had ordered a half-liter of white wine and an antipasta plate that was actually made up of three plates, one with a pizza, one with fried things, and a final cheese and meat plate. We had planned to just stop in for a snack. This was dinner. We watched Tony bicker with Dino and help a couple decide what kind of pasta they really wanted. I think he would be ready to make-up a whole new recipe on the spot if you wanted him to. When we told Tony it was time for us to move on without pasta, he looked hurt. After a day spent recharging my Catholic roots, my guilt almost forced me to order something.
But we made it out, and started to hike towards the Castel Sant'Angelo, a set piece in Angels and Demons, and refuge for Popes on the banks of the Tiber River. We thought it would be a nice walk around the building, but as we approached we saw a large gathering of people. We were curious what everyone was excited about. I saw a sign that said “1000 Miles” that had a Fiat logo on it. Then the engines roared and we saw a parade of cars from the 1930s go by. Reporters interviewed the drivers who were on a cross country race and had reached a check point. I really wanted to cross the Castel bridge which was near the main stage and the sitting VIPs, so I dove into the crowd. I also wanted to see the speaker’s platform. This was not one of my better ideas.
The crush of humanity increased its pressure around us as we got closer to the bridge. I haven’t felt that cramped since I saw Obama in Prague. Children were being passed over the crowd, or were nearly crushed under the spectators’ feet. Finally we broke onto the bridge. Josh gave me a look that said “Never Again.”
We sat and watched the proceedings from the bridge with our feet hanging over the Tiber, decompressing after a day spent absorbing some of the most important pieces of art in Western Civilization. It was heady stuff which meant we needed beer, gelato, and bed. Only one more day in the Eternal City…
The pictures one more time.