But first a recap of the past two days.
Monday was our day to go to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.
We had a reservation for 2, but not knowing what to expect, we took a cab and arrived before noon. The guy checking vouchers at the reserved tickets line said it was a little too early and to come back in half an hour.
We went down the block and found a reasonable looking place for a glass of wine and some pizza. The restaurant is Francesco Primero, named for the current pope. The place was in good shape, but was it that new? Maybe they rename it with each new pope.
The pizza had a very thin crust topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and sausage. For some reason, maybe because it was the earliest we had eaten lunch on this trip, I ordered white wine. This one wasn’t bad. I didn’t take a note of what it was, but it was Italian and wasn’t Soave, which I have had before.
Whites usually taste lightweight to me, so I rarely drink them. The reds come across with much more complex flavors. How much of the difference is real and how much is suggested by the color, I can’t tell.
The line to buy tickets without a reservation stretches around the block, which is lined by a high wall (probably of the museum itself) that seems to follow the border between the Vatican and Italy.
The museum is nowhere as big as the Louvre, but there is too much to see even half of it in a day, so we didn’t try.
We breezed through the Egyptian and Etruscan stuff. Not because it was uninteresting, but because we had spent an hour in the painting gallery called the Pinacoteca and needed to move along.
There is a Raphael of the Transfiguration that was carried in his funeral procession and was completed by his students.There is an unfinished Da Vinci of St. Jerome, and a Caravaggio of the deposition from the cross.
The realism of Caravaggio is gritty. The faces are lit up and the background fades to black. But each face is a portrait of somebody the painter met, maybe at the local market.
Crowding in the museum gets oppressive at times. Sometimes, we were shoulder to shoulder with dense crowds and had no choice but to move with the flow. If you want to stop and study something, or read the Kindle for what Rick Steves has to say, you need to find a sheltered niche, kind of like an eddy in a stream.
I remember specific moments—lots of moments, mind—but disconnected and not always in sequence.
The Raphael rooms, covered with frescoes mostly painted by him, were done around the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They were working for Julius II. It was for Julius II’s tomb that Michelangelo had sculpted the great Moses. That tomb was never built
One of the Raphael rooms is devoted to themes about Constantine, the so-called first Christian emperor. One wall shows the “in hoc signo” vision, where he sees the cross and is told, “In this sign you will conquer.” The next wall, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, shows Constantine mounted on a horse trampling the enemy. He has a crown on. Another guy with a crown on is fast sinking with his horse into the river that the Milvian Bridge spanned. The eagles of Constantine’s legions are topped by crosses.
A third wall shows him being baptized by Leo, I think, III. According to a friend of mine, Pyrrhus Ruches, who knew about stuff like this, Constantine was baptized late in life, The shock of immersion into the water caused him to lose control of his bowels, which earned him the nickname Constantinos Copronymos. Literally, Constantine the Shit-named.
As usual, I am not sure of this, so don’t quote me on it. I include this detail only because it is irreverent.
The fourth wall involves the “Donation of Constantine.” It shows the newly hatched emperor handing secular, indeed imperial, authority in the West to Pope Leo. This formed the basis for papal claims to superiority over sovereigns in Western Europe after the document miraculously appeared centuries after Leo and Constantinos Copronymos were dead.
I couldn’t believe my luck, though, because another of the Raphael rooms is devoted to Leo IV, almost 500 years after Constantine and Leo III. The year 800, in fact. And on one of the big walls, guess who Leo is crowning. Yes, Carolus Magnus shows up yet again.
There’s no maroon dot in the painting, but that’s because this was in old St. Peter’s and the dot is in the new one. Nobody we spoke to at the Vatican, by the way, had heard of anything marking the spot where Charlemagne was crowned. But that’s all right. History, folklore, and bullshit—one’s as good as another when it comes to Charlemagne.
The route passes through the apartments of Alexander VI. Joanna and I have seen “The Borgias” on streaming Netflix. The rooms looked bigger on television, but then they were a set. The story was also highly fictionalized. Still, it was fun to remember that we watched the Borgia pope chase Julia Farnese through these very rooms.
“The Borgias” placed the discovery of the ancient Laocoon statue in the reign of Alexander. Notes in the museum say the statue, showing Laocoon and his sons being attacked by sea serpents, came to light three years after Alexander, during the papacy of Julius II.
We had seen a Laocoon somewhere else in Rome or Florence. I am beginning to lose track. But the Vatican apparently has the original.
It’s in a sculpure garden open to the sky and filled with Classical pieces, including another famous one, the Apollo Belvedere. When the Apollo was discovered during the Renaissance it was regarded as the ideal of artistic achievement. It is serene and balanced, yet there is natural movement suggested by the figure.
The collection in the courtyard includes a Roman river god, who according to Steves was the inspiration for Michelangelo’s Adam in the center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
In a nearby room is a fragment that I would have ignored except for Steves’s comments. It’s the Belvedere Torso, much admired by Michelangelo. It is muscular and appears to be turning. According to Steves, it was the model for the torso of the angry Jesus in the Last Judgment wall.
When you come into the Sistine Chapel, you are “invited” to be silent and to take no photographs. You pass some guards who are chatting and, if you’re lucky, you get to sit on a bench at the side. Like the rest of the Vatican Museum, it is crowded, but if you get off to the side, you can study the ceiling.
Joanna told me to take binoculars, and I’m glad I remembered them. When I walked in and looked up, I thought: OK, nicer than the Mona Lisa, but what’s all the fuss about? That’s partly because of the crowding, and mainly because I crave detail. When the chance came to sit down and use those binoculars, I couldn’t get enough. I handed them to Joanna a couple of times, but mostly I was reading the Steves book and then scanning the ceiling. Yeah, there it is. I see it.
The beefy, sculptural figures are coming out at you: sibyls and prophets, and the ancestors of Jesus.
Some of the Genesis scenes—God separating light and dark, and the land from the waters—aren’t entirely clear without some coaching. The creation of sun and moon was a little confusing because for some reason Michelangelo included someone’s bare behind. Maybe “mooning” was a term in use that far back and he was throwing in a little joke.
There is a constant buzz in the room, so every once in a while, the guards leave off chatting and one announces over the PA, “Attenzione. Silencio.” Maybe they’re throwing in their little joke. Anyhow, everybody stops to listen to the guy, and then goes back to murmuring.
I remembered the river god and the Belvedere Torso, and found them easily enough. I was trying to sort out some to the figures in the Judgment wall when they threw everybody out at 5:30.
Another Rick Steves tip, and the reason we went to the painting gallery first: You can usually sneak out of the Sistine Chapel by an exit reserved for authorized tour groups. It takes you directly to the porch of St. Peter’s. So we sneaked into the basilica.
As before, the area around the altar was inaccessible. Around six or so, they started turning off lights and ringing bells and threw us out.
We took a cab to Campo di Fiori and had another great spaghetti carbonara followed by a chicken leg with roasted red peppers.
We took a cab back to the hotel where I polished off the bottle of Sangiovese, which I had opened the night before.
After we checked out Tuesday morning, we walked past the American embassy at the corner of Via Veneto. Just for fun, we decided to stop. We were told it was “impossible” for us to go in. I didn’t mind because it was so much fun: We were American citizens turned away from the U.S. consulate by an Italian cop. Maybe we needed to book in advance.
We let gravity take us downhill to Piazza Barberini, where we checked the Metro. We were headed back to St. Peter’s and could save the equivalent of 40 bucks American by taking the subway instead of a cab.
There was political campaigning of some sort going on at the square.
We found that great place, La Stampa, where we had eaten the week before, and it was open. So we wandered the neighborhood for a while to build up an appetite. We came to more streets named for dates, one in November and another in May.
This brought us past a Classical site called Trajan’s market. We went in and before we could even look at the lobby a guard blocked our way told us we needed tickets. There wasn’t time or energy to tour a museum, so we left.
We ordered the carbonara at Trattoria della Stampa. When we ordered it before, it came as thick, crispy chunks of pancetta over spaghetti coated lightly with tomato sauce. This time it was the breakfast version, bacon and egg, and just as delicious.
The Metro was crowded. At one stop, a couple of ladies got onto the train. One stood in front of us, the other next to me.
A few minutes later, the lady next to me, whose hand was under a raincoat draped over her arm, tickled me on the hip. So she either thought I was cute or was trying to get my jacket out of the way to dip into my pocket.
I didn’t ask. I just watched her hand for the rest of the trip. She even adjusted the raincoat so that I would see her hand was empty.
When we got to the Vatican, I did my frequent thing when traveling and stopped for drink before church. After a Campari and soda, it was a little before 4 when we lined up for the security check. This was a little touchy. During our wandering we had passed a shop with a selection of stilettos in the window. Not high-heel shoes, but the switchblades that inspired them.
They were practically toys. I tried to shave the hair off my wrist with one blade but the edge was too dull. Still, the blade pops straight out. I had to buy one.
Knives, even wrapped in the store bag, aren’t allowed through security at St. Peter’s. As usual, the metal detector rang when I went through, and as usual, the guard ignored it. I smuggled a stiletto into the Vatican. How cool is that? Can I be a footnote to “The Borgias”?
The line stretched part way around the collonade when we joined it, but it moves fast. Maybe because the guards ignore the metal detector.
The 5 p.m. mass is in Latin, with music. This is the only place in the world where Latin is also the vernacular mass. Nobody speaks Latin as a first language. Nobody is a native of the Vatican, because everybody who lives there is celibate. This is all so appropriate it makes my head hurt.
The mass is in the apse behind the high altar that has the canopy and you see on television. Only the pope gets to use that altar.
As we passed it, we got to peek into the stairway in front of the high altar. You can see a glass case with bishops’ shawls and below that, according to tradition, is the tomb of St. Peter. Suddenly, St. Peter’s became really interesting. To see some of this stuff up close was very different from standing several yards away behind a fence.
Parts of the service were in Italian, so I didn’t know any of those responses. I did, however, get “et cum spirito tuo” in the right places. I was late on the “laus tibi, Domine” before the Gospel, but did get the “gloria tibi” after the reading. I was so proud of myself. Mrs. Dunphy, my high school Latin teacher, might also be proud.
After the service, they took all the fences apart and let everyone into the area around the altar.
We got to see the tombs of Paul VI and John XXIII. Now that they are saints, they have been moved up from the crypt into the nave.
This is getting too long. In brief: Back to the Barberini Plaza by Metro. Campari and soda again on Via Veneto.
Spaghetti pomodoro and grilled duck breast at the Priscilla Hotel’s restaurant (with Nobile de Montepulciano). Got to love that gamy duck.
The ride to the hotel near Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Fiumicino was 50 euro, very fair for the time and distance. The architecture of the whole area seems be airport modern, that brutalist midcentury stuff.
We weren’t safe, though. It’s maybe a mile from Leonardo Da Vinci Airport Hotel to the international terminal. The cab in the morning cost 25 euro, $35 U.S. Gouging is illegal, but am I really going to yell for a cop over what might amount to 20 bucks?
I get fleeced a little everywhere, and a little is part of the adventure of travel. But we have never been robbed so much or so often as at Rome.
It’s a colorful place, well worth a trip. There were times we laughed out loud just to know we were here.
Hell, Charlemagne was here, so you know it has to be good.
Love to all, and to all a good night.
P.S. home around 3, and headed to Egan's for raw oysters and an IPA.