June 10, 2003:
We got up at about 9 a.m. (which is really sleeping in for me) and after our gratis continental breakfast we hopped onto the Metro and headed toward the Vatican. The Metro is somewhat mystifying — for some reason you can’t get change for your fare money from the machines — and the train itself was hot and stuffy. However, we only had to go 3 stops, and when we got off we had only a few blocks’ walk to the Vatican. It was another extremely hot day, with temperatures in the high 80s or low 90s and not a cloud in the sky.
The Vatican tour began with St. Peter’s Basilica, which is superb. The epic scale of the building, the monumental statuary, the extraordinary paintings and artwork all combine to have an overwhelming effect. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the crowd of loud tourists clad in shorts and flip-flops help to return the celestial to the mundane. For every Pieta there is a loud, profane tourist who seems to be unaware that the basic thrust of St. Peter’s is to be a church.
One of the more interesting things about St Peter’s is the statuary of the Popes over time. Many of the Popes, as I understand it, were cynical and corrupt politicians, advancing the narrow agendas of their families and often responsible for fomenting conflict and war. Nevertheless, all Popes, good and bad, are pictured with hands templed in prayer and faces turned toward the heavens with looks of beatific pleasure. The Catholic Church apparently makes no effort to separate good from bad when it comes to Popes.
We then went to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. The Museum, like the Louvre in Paris, is a case of sensory overload. Too many tapestries, ancient maps, globes, and painted cabinets to properly absorb and appreciate. The Sistine Chapel, however, cuts through the sensory overload and makes an indelible impression. The sheer beauty of the paintings on the ceiling is hard to grasp, and even more hard to fathom is the idea behind the paintings — such as the notion that there should be a minute bap between the fingers of God and Adam in the Creation of Man panel. That artistic judgment alone confirms Michelangelo’s genius. Sitting in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by such brilliance, is an awesome and humbling experience. Kish managed to put it all in perspective, however, by falling asleep on one of the benches at the rear of the Chapel.
After the Sistine Chapel we left the Vatican Museum, had lunch at a neighborhood trattoria, and returned to our hotel. Kish and the boys decided to hang out at the hotel, and I decided to strike off on my own. With the digital camera in tow, I went to the Fountain of Triton — a bit of a disappointment — and then the churches of St. Mary Maggiore and St. Peter in Chains. Both churchs were fine, but in different ways. St. Mary Maggiore was an ornate, overpowering-type church, with statuary and gilt and huge paintings and multiple apses and chapels. St. Peter in Chains was much simpler, and seemed more like a real church. I preferred the latter, and not just because of Michelangelo’s Moses, which is magnificent. St. Peter in Chains had a certain and atractive dignity and solemnity that befits a true, operating church.
I was amazed, as we visited various churches today, at the boorish behavior of other tourists as they visited these religious institutions. They wear clothes that seem inappropriate and talk much too loudly. I would like to see these visitors show more respect for the idea behind these churches. These are placed of deep faith and religious meaning. Is it asking too much to have visitors dress and act appropriately?
After St. Peter in Chains I saw that I was close to the Colisseum, and I found myself drawn irresistably to the Roman ruins once again. I took many more pictures and stumbled across the plain of crumbling ruins, once again awed and humbled by the age of the ruins, by the ideas they represent, and by the sheer chance that separates one preserved block of stone from another that was taken away or crumbled to dust hundreds of years ago. I could easily spend hours at the Forum and Capitoline Hill.
After I strolled back to our hotel Kish and the boys and I walked over to Piazza Navono, where we sat in a cafe and enjoyed an appropriate beverage, then we came back to the neighborhood of our hotel for dinner. My entree was selected by the waiter and was excellent. After only two days in Rome, I can say I like it a great deal — the pace, the food, the antiquity found cheek to jowl with more modern buildings. It has been hot, and dirty, and filled with graffiti, but those attributes cannot mask its other charms.