Monday, May 7, 2012


Rome – Day 32 – Monday

A lot of things in Rome are closed on Monday, but the Vatican is open, having been closed on Sunday.  I chose Monday to visit the Vatican for this reason.  Mama mia!  The line to get into the Vatican Museum was about four blocks long.  It took me four hours and forty five minutes to reach the entrance.  I got in line at 10:30 in the morning and was starting to worry that I would not be admitted before the deadline of 4:00.

It was a long wait.  I had water, but no food, since I hadn’t planned on being in line for more than a few hours.  It was alternately hot and raining.  Umbrellas came in handy for both conditions, but the presence of supermodel tall Eastern European women made it hard for me to hold the umbrella high enough to clear their heads.  It’s been a long time since I felt that short.  It was like being in sixth grade again.  No one around me spoke English or Italian, so I waited and listened to my entire library of Rick Steves podcasts about Rome.

Tour operators were constantly hassling us to purchase 45 Euro tours that insured no waiting.  I might have considered it after a few hours in line, but I didn’t have 45 Euros on me and didn’t want to be rushed through the museum by a guide.  Hah!  When I finally did get into the museum it was so packed that they herded us through like cattle.  I couldn’t see much of anything below ceiling level.

The Vatican Museum is like some hall of treasures in a fantasy novel.  There are four miles of corridors, most of which were roped off so they could herd us through faster.  There were two large halls filled with just animal sculptures.  Picture taking was almost impossible since exposures were slow in the low light and I was constantly jostled.  I did get one nice shot of a stained glass window illuminated by the late afternoon sun.

Sistene Chapel
Notable highlights were the hall of maps, Raphael rooms and collection of paintings, although many fine works were out of sight in roped off galleries.  Wait a minute.  Was that a Pisarro?  A Seurat?  The one thing that really struck me was a painting of Jesus being entombed by Caravaggio.  Next to that, everything else seemed lifeless, except maybe Leonardo Da Vinci’s San Girolamo.  The highlight of the museum is supposed to be the Sistene Chapel, but I found in disappointing.  The ceiling is so far away that the figures seem very small and I couldn’t see them clearly.  There was one figure painted where the ceiling curved upward that impressed me because he was so 3-D that I thought he was going to jump down at any moment.  THAT was an artistic achievement for any century.

St. Peter's
By the time I limped out of the museum, I had been standing for seven and a half hours.  I could barely drag myself over to St. Peters, but I consoled myself with the fact that everything I had read said that St. Peter’s was nearly empty at 6:00 and that was when I would be arriving.  By the time I stepped through the forest of columns and into the huge oval piazza, I felt like a pilgrim who had walked all the way from Spain.  What did I see?  Why, another long line, of course!  I was worried that I wouldn’t get in before they closed at 7:00, but the line moved quickly and I had enough time to see the inside of the church.  I had wanted to climb the dome, but I had neither the time nor the energy to do so.

St. Peter’s is large.  You could fit two football fields inside of it.  The dome is a football field tall.  Everything is so well proportioned that it doesn’t seem that big, but the canopy over the altar, put there to keep the worshipers from losing sight of the priest in the vast space, is itself seven stories tall.  The artistry of the sculptures is exceptional.  They are much more animated and lifelike than most church statuary.  Bernini’s sculpture of St. Peter arches over a doorway, the marble of its base seemingly draped casually.  I have never seen a marble sculpture that fluid.  If there is any artist who can make me see God, it is Bernini.  Michelangelo’s Pieta is no slouch, either.

It’s a long hike back to the metro station from St. Peter’s and my feet were killing me.  I decided that a nice dinner in a sit down restaurant was in order, since I had never eaten lunch.  The Vatican crowds were finally dispersing and I found a nice little pizzeria with empty tables.  I treated myself to a glass of proseco and had a pizza margherita so crispy and light that I was still hungry when I finished it.  Not in any hurry to get up and walk anywhere, I ordered a lemon gelato and limoncello parfait.  OMG.  That had to be the most alcoholic dessert on the face of the planet.  It was also tart and delicious and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was the highlight of my day.

Rome – Day 33 – Tuesday

May first is Labor Day in Italy and the reason that Rome has been so exceptionally packed this weekend.  I didn’t see any demonstrations, but I did see lots of speeding Carabinieri.  Something was going on somewhere.  This was my day to take in many, many minor sights and revisit a few major ones with a working camera.  Nothing was efficiently accessible from public transportation, so it was another long day of walking.  Rome may be built on seven hills, but at least they are nowhere as steep as Montepulciano.

I started close to the hotel with the National Museum.  This museum features an extremely exhaustive collection of Roman and later Italian coins displayed in a vault in the basement.  You’d have to be a numismatist to want to carefully examine all the coins, but the narrative explaining how and why the coins changed over time makes it clear that our current economic troubles are nothing new.  Say what you will about the Federal Reserve, but I’d rather have monetary decisions in their hands than in the hands of an emperor like, say, Caligula.

Rome Can Blow Your Mind

There is a fine collection of statuary on the first floor (which Americans would call the second floor), but I am frankly bored with Roman statues after months of tramping through Turkey and Spain.  There are some exceptional carved sarcophagi and an almost perfect marble copy of The Discus Thrower, the most popular subject of that age.  The second or top floor (which Americans would call the third floor and Italians would call the last floor) features a fascinating collection of frescoes and mosaics from ancient Roman houses.  How they manage to move these without destroying them is a mystery to me, but they have done an artful job of displaying them in such a way that visitors can get a real sense of what it was like to occupy these rooms.  They are colorful and show scenes of everyday life.  One room depicts a garden with scenes of plants and fruit trees on all four walls.  Sitting in that room is almost like being outdoors.  I would enjoy living there today.
Original Decoupage
Green Screen
Me "In" the Set
The ground floor (at least we can all understand that one, even if Americans would also call it the first floor) had a special exhibit about the Danish film production of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans.  Apparently, Queen Margarethe has a hobby of making decoupage scenes.  The film used her decoupages as sets and superimposed live actors using green screen technology.  The result was very effective.  The exhibit featured the decoupages themselves and the costumes from the film and also had a little studio where one could stand in front of the green screen and see oneself transported into the world of the film on a monitor.  Photographing this was tricky, because I had to look at the camera while taking a photo of the monitor.  If I look awfully serious in the photo, it’s because I was concentrating.  This was something like trying to rub your belly and pat your head simultaneously.

For English Sins
After the museum, I set off on a tour of early churches.  The first one I visited was Santa Maria Maggiore.  The rather homely church was built during the fall of Rome and has some very cool early Christian mosaics inside.  The next stop was San Pietro in Vincoli, known in English as St. Peter in Chains.  This fifth century church was originally built to house the chains that held St. Peter but, even though the chains are still there, it is now more famous for its Michelangelo statue of Moses.  I found the statue rather uninspired.  I preferred the numerous confessional boxes, offering absolution in several different languages.

San Clemente

Of the churches I visited, San Clemente was the most interesting.  This 12th century church, which sits well below street level today, is built on top of a fourth century church, which was built on top of some Roman houses and a Mithraic temple.  You can descend through all three levels.  There isn’t much to see in the Mithraic temple, but a spring provides the Roman houses with running water.  I had a nice chat in Italian with a Dominican priest while I was waiting to buy my ticket.  He was also a big fan of Montepulciano.

My longest walk between stops was from San Clemente to Trastevere, passing the Circus Maximus.  It was a pretty walk through a lot of open space with blooming red poppies.  As I was skirting the Palatine hill, it began to rain in earnest.  By the time I reached civilization on the other side of the open space of the Circus, the only thing I could think of was finding a warm, dry place.  I ducked into a cellar restaurant and had a delicious spinach and cheese focaccia sandwich and a Guinness.  The last focaccia I ordered was basically a crispy thin pizza without tomato sauce, but this one was a more familiar bread, baked in a wood fired oven and tasting faintly of salt and smoke.  It was wonderful.  Someone next to me ordered a cappuccino after lunch (Oh, those tourists.)  I raised my foamy Guinness and told the barmaid that was my kind of cappuccino.


Once the rain abated, I continued on across the river to Trastevere.  Trastevere literally means, “across the Tiber.”  It was undesirable low lying land outside the city where immigrants lived.  Many of the early residents were Jews who came to Rome for business reasons a century or two before Christ.  Having come to Rome directly from Jerusalem before the diaspora, they are neither Sephardic, nor Ashkenazi.  They speak their own dialect (or at least used to) and practice their own variety of Judaism.  They lived in Trastevere until the Renaissance when the Pope moved them across the river to a ghetto because it found it distasteful that Jews and Christians were living together in peace and harmony.

Today, Trastevere is a lively and fascinating place.  It is cramped and crooked, never having been subjected to modernization.  There are many shops and restaurants.  One shop featured a door frame decorated with a mosaic made from pieces of plastic and foam rubber.  The tradition of mosaic art lives on.  Only the materials have changed.  I would recommend Trastevere as a good place to stay in Rome if you’re not in the league of the fancy hotels above the Spanish steps.

Santa Maria in Trastavere

Santa Maria in Trastevere is an interesting church.  Built in the fourth century, it was the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It features a statue of St. Anthony nearly buried in a mountain of paper scraps bearing prayer requests.  Many of its architectural features were borrowed from earlier buildings and some exhibit pagan motifs.

After my visit to Trastevere, I crossed back over the Tiber to stroll the Jewish ghetto.  The Jews of Rome were confined in this walled, four block square area for 400 years, from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century.  There was a Christian church at every entrance to the ghetto and a convent within the walls.  Every attempt was made to convert the Jews to Christianity and they were forced to attend mass.  Even with all the propaganda, few converts were made.  The ghetto was extremely crowded.  Two thousand Jews lived in this small area.  The buildings in the ghetto are six stories tall.  Just outside the ghetto, they are three stories tall, although they appear almost as high because the ceilings are much loftier.  The crowding in the ghetto dictated the dimensions of the buildings.  Bernini, who was friendly with the Jewish community, sculpted a fountain for the ghetto and decorated it with turtles because they were ancient, tough creatures who carried all they owned on their backs.

After the unification of Italy, the Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto and the walls were torn down.  In 1905, a new synagogue was built to celebrate this liberation.  In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited this synagogue, marking the first time a pope had ever visited a synagogue and ushering in a new era of Catholic/Jewish relations.  The Nazis told the Jews of Rome that they would not be bothered if they could come up with 50 kilos of gold in 24 hours.  Miraculously, with the help of their Christian neighbors, they did so.  The Nazis took the gold and then proceeded to ship thousands of Roman Jews to Auschwitz, anyway.  Next to the synagogue is the plaza where, in 1943, these victims were detained.  Today, the ghetto has some of the highest real estate prices in Rome.  It is still the heart of the Jewish community, although many of the original residents have taken their windfall profits and moved elsewhere.

From the ghetto, I walked to Campo de’ Fiori.  It is a small plaza and was crowded with a market that was just shutting down when I arrived.  My feet were hurting, so I settled into a café and had a (decaf) espresso with whipped cream.  This was a wonderful thing.  It was sort of like hot coffee ice cream.  I wonder if I could get one at Starbuck’s?  Since I was close, I continued on to Plaza Navona to worship the Bernini fountains and then took another look at the Trevi fountain before hopping on the metro for a ride back to my neighborhood.  I stopped in the grocery store and got some cheese, crackers, wine, a pear and a white chocolate bar for dinner.  I was set.

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