Roman Holiday (Part Three)

Saturday, 8 Mar: There’s No Place Like Rome

Today, apparently, is our Vatican day. We spend the morning in the Vatican Museum, which…well, it goes on pretty much forever. There’s just so much stuff in there – so much stuff – that it’d be impossible to actually study it all, to give it the attention it deserves, and the museum is a constant mass of people. We pick a lovely day to wait outside in the line (sunny, blue skies, finally), and get there early enough to gain entrance pretty quickly. Once inside, I’m totally fine through the Egyptian and Greek and Etruscan collections, but by the time we reach the endless galleries of Christian art, the endless rooms with magnificent carvings and painted ceilings, I’m hungry and I have to go to the bathroom and my body is rebelling against the Museum Walk – you know, the terrible slow shuffling motion that, after a few hours, becomes unbearable. We keep turning corners and seeing more and more seemingly infinite series of galleries, and even though I pride myself on having a greater museum attention span than most, by this point my brain has totally shut off. Even worse, the crowds inside the museum are making it impossible to just rush through to the Sistine Chapel (the anticipation of which is the only thing keeping me sane), forcing us to move at an infuriatingly bovine pace. Let’s go, I want to shout at the tourists, forgetting, of course, that I’m one too.

Finally, just before the Sistine Chapel, we find bathrooms (sweet relief), and book it through the last few rooms to the grand prize awaiting us at the end of the line. The Chapel, of course, is jam-packed with people, but after a couple of minutes we find spots on the long bench at either side of the room. Sitting down, I’m much more able to appreciate the ceiling – which is, of course, incredible, and thanks to its most recent restoration in 2000 (or thereabouts), is exactly as you would hope it to be. The ceiling is impressive purely by its scale, of course, and by association with Michelangelo, but the more I look at it, the more details I start to notice, the more I start to appreciate it. Michelangelo’s sense of humor comes through in the most subtle touches – the expression of a face here, the angle of an arm there – and the overall composition and rendering is textbook Renaissance. Religious art has never been my favorite field, aesthetically speaking, but the Sistine Chapel is really incredible.

We break for lunch at a nearby restaurant recommended to us by Flatmate Kathleen’s father (a professor of Italian with a well-documented love affair with Rome), which is nicely appointed without being expensive, non-touristy without being exclusive. It’s a great place. Ragno D’Oro (The Golden Spider): look it up if you ever go. Our hunger satiated with pizza (yes, more pizza), we head over to St. Peter’s square to see the basilica.

It’s when we walk through the arms of the sweeping colonnade and into the square that it hits me – this is another country. Standing there in the massive square, looking up towards St. Peter’s imposing façade, it’s suddenly quite evident that I’m standing in the very center of the Catholic world. I don’t have time to think too hard about it, though, because we want to climb the dome of the basilica, and that means another wait in line. Seven Euros, an elevator ride, and three-hundred and twenty-two stairs (the most interesting stairs I’ve ever met, let me tell you) later, we emerge from the depths of the dome’s structure to find the most beautiful view possible of Rome. It’s just…incredible. The city sits in the strong afternoon light, seemingly quiet; it’s strange how something so messy and confusing (and wonderful, of course) is made so calm by the perspective gained from distance. Huge landmarks – the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Tiber – all appear much smaller than you’d expect, and it’s possible to see that there is, in fact, a world outside of Rome, a thought that somehow hadn’t really occurred to me before this. The distant mountains and clear sky are beautiful and, ironically enough, make me homesick for Colorado. I could stay all day up here, at the top of this massive dome, looking down and around at the Eternal City. From here, it’s not hard to imagine why Rome earned the nickname.

What is it about vistas? What do we humans love so much about being able to see things from such great heights? Anthropologists and psychologists will no doubt tell us it has something to do with a primal defensive instinct – the better you can see, the less likely you’ll be surprised by a rampaging mammoth or something – but I prefer to think of it as something a little more poetic, something about the poignancy of feeling very small next to this great big world, something about the potential of a horizon and a sunny day.

A few gulls are cavorting in the air above Vatican City, occasionally sweeping close to the dome to taunt us tourists – “We see this every day,” I imagine them gloating – and I’m fascinated watching them, the way they seem to literally hold the air beneath their white wings. From this distance, I can see the trim of each feather, the subtle adjustment of each tail and wingtip. When the bird closest to me wheels suddenly away, I have the same thrilling in my stomach that I get when I’m watching out the plane window and the ground drops away during takeoff.

We eventually descend to the ground – approaching rainclouds always look more threatening when you’re that high up – and enter the basilica itself. Let’s just say there’s a reason St. Peter’s is the usual location for the papal address; the interior is…massive, intimidatingly so, and incredibly beautiful. I know people who love St. Peter’s (hi, Hannah!), but I’ll be honest: for me, it’s almost too perfect, almost too beautiful. But it’s absolutely an incredible building – the story of its evolution is fascinating. It’s a supremely educational visit, one I’ve very glad to’ve had the chance to make. We spend a fair while in St. Peter’s, and as we leave, strolling slowly across the square, evening falls. A stop for gelato, and we head off to our next task, because no, the day’s not over yet.

Before we’d come to Rome, Flatmate Kathleen’s father gave us another recommendation – a particular view from the Capitoline Hill from an out-of-the-way spot, down across the Forum to the Colosseum. We grab pizza (yes, still, get over it, it’s Italy) on the way, and have a pleasant stroll up the Via dei Fori Imperiali; the night is pleasantly cool, not too chilly or windy. After scaling the Capitoline (Rome’s highest hill, naturally) and skirting to the right of the museum, we find the vista; our second of the day, I suppose. It’s as advertised, just a wide spot in the road (literally) with a railing and a stunning view. It’s still so incredible, for me, seeing the ruins of Ancient Rome, and from the Capitoline you get an even better picture of how the Forum was laid out. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, or maybe it’s because it’s dark, or maybe my imagination’s running high with the philosophical conversations the four of us keep on having, but for some reason, standing here, I feel closer to the history of Rome than I have yet this entire trip.


2 Responses to “Roman Holiday (Part Three)”

  1. 1 pianola March 29, 2008 at 3:52 am

    Ah, so you did visit St. Peter’s. So you’ve seen four of my five favorite buildings, then. Are you forgetting the hours we spent in the Boston Public Library last April?

    I’m sorry the interior was mildly disappointing. It certainly is… grandiose. I take it you didn’t see the Roman necropolis underneath the Basilica? Perhaps that would change your mind.

    And at least you got to do the climb to the top. Aren’t those stairs baffling? Nice job with the subtle Ben Gibbard allusion, by the way.


  2. 2 Colin March 30, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I’m still only counting three: St. Peter’s, King’s College, and the Boston Public Library. Unless…oh, wait. Did you mean the Hacienda at Fountain Valley? Because then I’ve been to four. I thought you meant some, uh, other Hacienda.

    I wouldn’t call the interior of St. Peter’s disappointing at all! Aesthetically, it’s wonderful: gorgeous to look at. I was just personally kind of intimidated by the building. And no, we didn’t get to see the necropolis (shame – good thing I plan on returning to Rome at some point in my life), but I thoroughly enjoyed the dome’s vertigo-inducing stairs. Especially the parts where you could look up between the layers of the dome and see the exposed understructure. So cool.

    (Hee. I’d hoped someone would catch the Postal Service hint. Love!)

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