Best Uniforms Ever

We’re all partial to the uniforms of our favorite sports teams, of course, and I think the U.S. military uniforms are pretty darned cool.  But whenever a new Pope is selected, and we get a glimpse of the workings of the enclave of Cardinals, we must all grudgingly admit the truth: the uniforms of the Swiss Guard for the Vatican are the greatest uniforms ever.

I mean, look at these things!  Just look at them!  Multi-hued, horizontal-striped pantaloons, leggings, and tunics.  Huge shirtsleeve cuffs and ruffled, lacy collars that look like they belong in a Rembrandt painting.  Steel conquistador-style helmets with their sharply curved, pointed brims, burnished to a gleaming pewter glow and topped with bright red ostrich feathers.  And they carry pikes for weaponry.  Pikes!

With this one uniform, the Swiss Guard has managed to combine the rococo stylings and trappings of countless different military forces into one bold, harlequin-like statement.  These aren’t uniforms made for camouflage or sneaking up on an opponent, no sir!  No, the Swiss Guard will be going through the front door, beating a drum, tapping their pikes against the floor in rhythmic tempo, singing in perfect pitch, and doing intricate marching maneuvers like the Wicked Witch’s palace guard in the Wizard of Oz.

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Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Uncle Jim posted a comment on my last entry asking where I post from. Usually, I post from internet cafes, which are common in the cities I’ve been to. It’s difficult writing in them because they are mostly visited by immigrants who use Skype to call their families, making them very loud and crowded.

To use internet cafes in Italy, you have to supply your passport. The first time I was asked for mine, I thought I was being scammed, but then I noticed a photocopy of an Italian newspaper article on the wall that had “terrorismo” and “passaporto” in it a lot, and I realized that they take down your information because internet cafes are thought to be used by terrorists to communicate with each other.

Fortunately, the hostel I’m staying at in Rome – the Happy Days hostel – has computers that are free to use, although the owners like to play loud music in the hang-out room, which makes it hard to write here too. It’s hard to complain about a hostel that gives you a room a few blocks from the Vatican for 18 euros a night, though.

The Circus Maximus.

I arrived in Rome on Friday morning. After getting stuck in a few slow-moving crowds of tourists, I decided that I would wait until the weekend was over to go to any of the main tourist sites. I’m spending ten days here, so I have plenty of time. I spent a large part of Friday buying groceries and doing other errands. After getting all that out of the way, I wandered around the city to get a sense of where the major sites and the major roads are. I also checked out the Circus Maximus, where they held chariot races in Ancient Rome. You might remember its depiction in the famous scene from Ben-Hur. None of the original structure is left, but the impression of the track is still in the ground, amazingly.

I spent most of Saturday at the Villa Borghese park, which an English guy in my hostel recommended to me. It is behind the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it the last two times I was here; it is so large (226 acres) that it looks like a big green stain in the middle of my map of Rome. The park was crowded, but mostly with real Romans just spending time with their families on a Saturday. I walked to each part of the park and read a little bit there, discovering some beautiful areas. My favorite area had lots of an elegant-looking kind of tree that I’ve only seen in Italy. The trunks of these trees are really thin, with no branches until the top, where the foliage looks like a cloud. However, I think the lower branches are cut off to make it look this way.

My favorite area of the Villa Borghese park.

I planned to spend Sunday relaxing in a different park, but I started worrying that I was wasting my precious time in Rome, so I set out for the Baths of Caracalla, which I correctly assumed would not be crowded because they are on the outskirts of the old city and are relatively unknown.

I sort of got what I originally planned for the day anyways, because the baths were like a park (there were even lots of the trees I mentioned above) that included magnificent ruins. I actually took out my book and read on a bench there for an hour. For some reason, the act of relaxing somewhere that was once a place of great importance – that was built at great expense and with a lot of thought and hard work, that was a setting in the lives of thousands of people, and then spent centuries in disuse and decay – really appeals to me.

According to one of the plaques there, the baths were abandoned after the Visigoths blocked Rome’s aqueducts in the early 6th century. It must have been a blow to the Romans that their society, which was capable of such brilliant, ambitious engineering, could be defeated by a bunch of barbarians.

The Baths of Caracalla.

That afternoon, I trekked over to the National Roman Museum, which was included in the 23-euro Rome Archeological Card I bought at the baths. The museum had an interesting collection of early Latin writing, showing how it derived from the Greek alphabet. Also on display were many gravestones and sarcophogases. It is amazing how much you can infer about people’s lives from these. I remember one of a freedman, his wife and his son. The writing next to it explained that the fact that the freedman’s son was shown in his toga shows that the man wanted to emphasize that his son was born free. The boasting in the description of his career, as well as the fact that his grave had elaborate carvings in it, made it clear that he was proud of his success after being freed from slavery.

I drank some wine and had a political discussion with two German medical students that evening at my hostel. Around 11, some Americans asked us if we wanted to go to bars with them, and I went, despite the fact that it was already past my usual bedtime and I had pledged to limit my spending in Rome, where everything seems to have a 150% “being in Rome” tax. I planned to buy a single beer for 4 or 5 euros, but I ended up buying one of the many 15 euro pitchers of beer we consumed over the night.

I woke up the next morning hungover, and I already had plans to go to the Vatican with Bryanna, the American I hung out with in Palermo. I thought the Vatican wouldn’t be crowded at 10 AM on a Monday, but I was wrong. The entire city was one big sea of people that it took skill and stamina to navigate. To enjoy Rome, you have to learn to like being in a crowd of tourists – to like watching them, hearing the different languages, appreciating their energy and the fact that they just want to experience Rome like you do. Unless you make peace with them, you will be frustrated all the time, because they are everywhere.

St. Peter's.

First we went into St. Peter’s. Like the previous times I visited the cathedral, I was struck by how massive and opulent it is – which is not really to my taste. The real jewel of the Vatican, from a tourist’s standpoint, is the Vatican Museum. My body seemed to sense how awesome the museum is, because my hangover temporarily abated while I was inside.

The amount of amazing stuff in the museum is overwhelming. After walking down a hallway of classical sculpture, satisfied that I had read the plaques for all of them and given them all due thought, I would turn the corner to see that I still had three more hallways to go.

Sarcophagus of a Roman boy.

Like in the National Roman Museum, I was moved by many of the examples of Roman stonework. I took a picture of a sarcophagus of a young Roman boy that shows his parents giving him food to take on his journey to the underworld. There were walls and walls of busts and statues of determined-looking Roman statesmen. There were also many busts of Gauls, Parthians, etc., with looks of anguish on their faces, which I suppose the Romans made out of a sense of pride from having defeated them.

A vanquished enemy of Rome.

Some of the statues I admired just for the craftmanship and detail, such as one of a man that represented the river Nile, reclining on a Sphinx, holding a thick batch of wheat, with crocodiles and cherubs swimming around him. I also admired the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons being crushed to death by snakes after he tried to persuade the people of Troy not to let in the Trojan horse, against the will of the gods.

The river Nile.

Laocoon.

There are also rooms of Greek and Etruscan art that could constitute the entire collection of a different museum, but that seem sandwiched between the classical sculpture and Renaissance portions of the Vatican Museum.

The Raphael rooms contain dozens of beautiful paintings that illustrate important moments in Christian history and serve as a reminder of the Church’s role in supporting the Renaissance. The four walls of the first room tell the story of the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity: his vision that he would defeat the enemy in battle if he adopted the sign of the cross; his subsequent victory over Maxentius in the civil war; his baptism by the pope; and his bestowal of Italy to the Church (which was cited by the Church to justify their political power, but didn’t actually happen).

Constantine's vision.

Constantine's victory in battle.

Constantine's baptism.

My favorite Rafael room is probably the most well-known. Used as the pope’s study, its four walls are painted to represent philosophy, poetry, justice, and faith, respectively. The philosophy wall is the famous School of Athens painting. The room makes you feel the love that Renaissance scholars had for knowledge, and the way they connected it to their faith.

The goddesses of poetry, philosophy, justice and faith above the four walls of the pope's study.

We then made our way to the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is at the end of the museum, so once you get there you are exhausted from walking so far, taking in so much information, and being around so many people. Yet, your exhaustion is nothing compared to that which Michelangelo must have felt every day of the four years he toiled to make the ceiling into a moving story of humanity’s downfall that I actually found entertaining to look at. I don’t think Michelangelo had a high opinion of the human race. In the famous Creation of Adam portion, Adam’s posture and facial expression seem to me to be those of a spoiled, lazy brat. The Last Judgement painting on the wall at the end shows Jesus casting most of humanity into the darkness of Hell, where they are tortured by demons with cruel smiles on their faces.

The Last Judgment (not taken by me).

After leaving the Vatican, my hangover returned stronger than it was in the morning. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed. I always feel stupid when I’m hungover, but I felt especially stupid when it was preventing me from making good use of my time in Rome.

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Save The Sistine Chapel

The chief of the Vatican Museums has raised concerns that the enormous number of sweaty, dirty, dusty visitors to the Sistine Chapel are posing risks to Michelangelo’s monumental masterpiece.  His comments raise the possibility that climate and dust controls, access controls, and other techniques may be instituted in hopes of preventing harm to the artwork.

Kish, Richard, Russell and I were among the sweaty, dirty, dusty visitors who has the privilege to gape in awe at the Sistine Chapel during our wonderful Italian trip.  It is a staggering, mind-boggling experience.  It is difficult to believe that a human being was able to create something so majestic and otherworldly — but Michelangelo obviously did.  I would be in favor of doing whatever is necessary to ensure the the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Micheleangelo’s Last Judgment are preserved for many future generations to enjoy.  They are an irreplaceable artistic triumph.

Italian Journal, Day 2

St. Peter's

St. Peter's

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.