Adventures in Italy: Day 21, Rome

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April 23rd 2017
Published: April 23rd 2017
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Italy Day 21, Monday, October 24, Rome

Finally, a trip we had all anticipated. After so many Italian churches, we were going to tour the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Cathedral, the greatest of them all. It was a beautiful, sunny day, cool enough to be comfortable. Renato came with us on the bus and as we passed the Villa Borghese he told us the Globe Theater who had come to present Shakespeare in the park during the summer months. There is so much to do in Rome that, like most cities, unless you live there, you are relegated to the necessary tourist sites to check off your bucket list. But I will return for a more leisurely and relaxed exploration of the essence of this city as if I were a local. Sometime.

This was my second visit to Rome, the first when I was 21, and Dave’s first visit. Much has changed, most especially me, and I planned to have my picture taken in St Peter’s Square to compare to the one of me so long ago. The Vatican was celebrating an extraordinary Holy Year. This celebration, considered the year of mercy, is from December 2015 ending November 22, 2016. The Jubilee Year is celebrated every 20 years which is perhaps why we saw so many pilgrims, but then, it is the Vatican after all. The name “Vatican” was already used during the Roman Republic for a marshy area on the west bank of the Tiber River across from the city of Rome. It was derived from the name of an Etruscan settlement, Vatica or Vaticum meaning garden. St Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel and museums were built on Vatican Mount.

Early Romans used the area now known as the Vatican Gardens for horse racing. Later, the garden areas were used to execute Christians including Saint Peter. The gardens date back to Medieval times when they had orchards and vineyards, but the gardens were formally established during the Renaissance and Baroque era with beautiful fountains and sculptures. The gardens are located on Vatican Hill and cover approximately 57 acres. There is no public access but one can take a guided tour. Unfortunately these tours were not included in our day in Vatican City.

Things have changed a bit since 1970. Now, to enter the Vatican Museums we had to walk around the the Vatican walls from the Piazza Risorgimento to enter thru a new opening on the wall. Thankfully we arrived with our group early with our prepaid tickets or we would have had to stand in line for a very long time. We were visiting on a Monday and I read that since the museum is closed on Sundays, Saturdays and Mondays are especially busy. Another bonus, we were visiting in late October but even so, the crowds were there. But I also realized there was little opportunity for a ‘peek at the Pope’ since he resides 25 miles away at Castle Gandolfo.

Once inside I was glad for a guide because I know I would have gotten lost. Meandering inside and outside through corridors, and tunnels, we arrived in the area called the court of the Pigna, where we found a beautiful 2,000 year old bronze pinecone fountain or Fontana Della Pigna depicting, what else, a giant Pine Cone, created by sculptor Publius Cincius Salvius. It was originally located in the Campus Martius, still known today as Pgna after this statue.

According to our guide, Pope Julius II commissioned the Vatican to be built the in the early 16th century in large part because he wanted to be buried in a huge mausoleum. The Vatican Museums, one of the largest museums in the world, consists of 54 galleries including the Sistine Chapel, and contain some 70,000 works of art yet only about 20,000 are on display. Numerous scholars and art conservationists maintain this large body of work. We were told there are 3 1/2 miles of museums inside the Vatican complex. On the last Sunday of each month, the Vatican Museum is open to the public for free to one of the world's most extensive collections of art.

One would need several days to see all of the museums inside the vast complex that is the Vatican. We began our tour in the Gallery of Tapestries. Four hundred years ago, tapestries were among the most prized objects in palace collections. Beautiful and portable, they also helped to keep the stone castles warm by hanging on the chilly walls. Tapestries are made of silk, wool and silver that flickered in candlelight dazzling the early view with sparkling light. Barberini’s Life of Christ tapestries are among the many tapestries hanging in the 75 meter long Gallery of Tapestries in the Vatican. Our guide pointed out the bees in the corner of the his tapestries as a signature of Barberini. In fact these bees are seen throughout Rome on everything from properties to frescoes. I thought of the industrious Mormon Beehive and wondered if there was any similarity in the symbolism. Not to be forgotten in this gallery are the amazing frescoed ceilings that hover above, but one really needs a recliner or a neck brace to view them for any length of time.

Similarly in the Gallery of Maps, the longest tunnel of the Vatican Museums measuring 120 meters, paintings, frescoes and statues light up and adorn the arched ceiling as if blanketed with gold. The rich ceiling frescoes illustrate stories from the lands depicted on the maps on the walls. The brilliant blue painted topographical maps of Italy based on drawings by friar and geographer Ignazio Danti, cover the walls of this beautiful gallery and stunningly contrast with the vibrant golden ceiling. Pre-dating the unification of Italy by almost 300 years, the gallery was commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. It took Danti over two years to complete the forty panels (some 15’ by 16’) in this gallery. The Pope rarely left Rome so by commissioning these giant maps of Italy, he was able to “explore” the peninsula without leaving the safety of Vatican City. I love maps and am always amazed when I see the works of talented explorers who ventured out to map the early world.

Thanks to the extraordinary talents of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) in Vatican City has become one of the most famous art galleries in the western world. Sistine chapel, modeled after a Temple in Jerusalem, was named after Pope Sixtus IV who commission the work.

Before Michelangelo was involved, in 1481, Sixtus IV called to Rome the Florentine and Perugian painters Botticellli, Rosselli, Ghirlandai, and Perugino to decorate the walls of the chapel with frescoes. It is possible that Luca Signorelli was among those called but there are conflicting records. The side panels are covered with their important work. The ceiling had been painted with stars by Piero Matteo d’Amelia but Pope Julius II della Rovere had other ideas. He later commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the ceiling. Michelangelo was asked to paint the Twelve Apostles and ‘a few ornaments’ on the ceiling of the chapel, but as he began working he conceived grander designs ending up with a painting of over 300 figures. Between 1508 and 1512 he painted scenes from Genesis in dramatic and moving detail starting at the back and working to the front creating a more three dimensional fresco as he painted that could only be depicted by a sculptor. He was contemptuous of fresco painting and yet his work is beyond reproach and likely some of the most important in history. Sadly Michelangelo was forced to paint in the dark, standing, not lying on his back, damaging his kidneys and eyes.

Against his wishes, (Michelangelo preferred sculpting over painting) he was called back in his 60s to paint The last Judgement on the altar wall. The face of the skinned St Bartholomew is that of Michelangelo and Bartholomew’s face is the Pope’s face. Michelangelo’s face also appears in the lower left corner watching the dead rise from their graves. Cardinal Biada da Czenia was painted with a snake biting his privates because he complained the paintings looked like a brothel, but how would he know if he hadn't been in one? Throughout his frescoes, some body parts were covered and some were not. Those “sensitive parts” of nudes were later painted over by students. The work was commissioned by Pope Clement VII and Pope Paul III. The Last Judgement is both striking and powerful. It was the largest fresco of the century and is still an unquestioned masterpiece.

We left the Sistine Chapel taking no photographs and trying to memorize as many details of this magnificent work of art as possible. Porphyry, marble and lapis were the most expensive materials at the time and were paid for by the popes to be used throughout as a statement of power and importance. On my way out I noticed the

family crest of Pope Leo on the marble floor. Our next and final tour would be of the Basilica of St. Peter.

In 324 Emperor Constantine began construction of a great basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter. By the 15th century it was decided that the basilica should be rebuilt. The construction of the Papal Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican, or more simply St. Peter’s Basilica, was begun on April 18, 1506. April 18 was my father’s birth day and I wonder if during his papal visit in 1924, he knew the about the coincidence of that date. It would have meant a great deal to him. In 1547 Michelangelo took over the building of the Basilica’s dome using Brunelleschi’s plans as a reference to design St Peter’s dome. Michelangelo died in 1564 leaving the drum of the dome complete. Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome to completion in 1590. The completed dome rises 448 feet from the floor of the Basilica to the external cross and is the tallest dome in the world.

Because the Basilica was allegedly (I say allegedly because in 1953 a discovery of bones of a 60 year old man thought to be Peter’s was found on another site) built on the site of Saint Peter’s crucifixion and his burial site. Saint Peter’s Basilica, called “the greatest of all churches of Christendom”, is considered one of the holiest Catholic shrines, despite the fact that it is neither the mother church nor the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Saint Peter’s tomb is said to be directly below the high altar of the Basilica. Because of this, many Popes since the early Christian period have been interred at St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s is a famous destination for pilgrims and while we were there we saw many such groups, carrying their cross, lining up to enter the Basilica.

Popes and wealthy patrons such as the Medici family supported masters such as Bernini and Michelangelo during their lifetime and as a result we can enjoy such masterpieces as displayed in St Peter’s, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

Among Michelangelo’s masterpieces, his first, and perhaps best known, his Pieta was created when he was only 28 years old. It took him one year to sculpt and one year to polish and is the only piece he ever signed because nobody knew him at the time. The word Pieta is latin for compassion, a very fitting description of this cherished work.,

I was lucky to have visited St Peter’s in 1970, when I had the opportunity to touch the smooth marble of the Pieta where it was sitting against a wall in St. Peter’s Basilica. Shortly after, in 1972, someone took a hammer to the Pieta saying “I am Jesus and this is not my mother”. It is now protected under bullet proof glass.

Bernini was commissioned to create a canopy to “show off the Pope” as our guide said, the last masterpiece under the dome of St. Peter’s. The monumental baldacchino canopy shelters the papal altar and the holy relics of St. Peter, and fills the great space under Michelangelo’s massive dome. You might think the canopy is not that tall but at 92 feet it seems dwarfed by the 452 foot high dome that towers over it! Bernini used bronze taken from the Pantheon to construct his canopy. In fact most materials used in construction of the Basilica and the Vatican were “recycled” from the ruins in Rome. At the foot of the baldacchino and papal altar is the sunken Confessio, a 17th-century chapel named in honor of the confession of St. Peter that led to his martyrdom here. Symbols of the Barberini family can be seen throughout, including a golden sun and bees.

The Holy Door or 'Porta Sancta' is only open during a Holy Year. On the first day of a Holy Year, the Pope strikes the brick wall with a silver hammer and opens it to the pilgrims. Pilgrims can go thru the Holy Door after confession and mass. The message imparted by the Holy Door is that God's mercy reaches out to mankind's frailty. Historically other churches had paid indulgences for such privileges. Luther objected to indulgences, reforming the Catholic Church to create the Lutheran Church. His followers agreed and said your can’t pay your way into heaven. Pope Francis was to meet with representatives of the Lutheran Church the week after we left.

Our guide gave us a little history of the 60 year cold war that resulted in the unification of Italy. Historically there had been a lot of nepotism in the church. “The church was more power than faith” said our guide, and the nephews of the wealthy and powerful were appointed Cardinals, who in turn elected the Pope. “The church was run as a monarchy, not a democracy” she said. Throughout a tumultuous period in Italy, Pope Pious IX had said “no” to the unification of Italy, but in defiance, King Victor Emmanuel took all the papal states, formerly ruled by the popes, entered Rome and made it the capital, then forced Pope Pius IX into what is now Vatican City, its own city-state. Between 1861 and 1929 the status of the Pope was referred to as the “Roman Question”. Because the Popes did not recognize the Italian king’s right to rule in Rome, they exiled themselves in the Vatican compound, under their own rule. The dispute was resolved in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty. King Victor Emmanuel was excommunicated from the church for his refusal to obey the pope. He died in 1878 refusing to meet with the pope’s envoys who could have reversed his excommunication. He was buried in the Pantheon.

As a result of the Lateran Treaty, certain properties of the Holy See that are located in Italian territory, including the Papal Palace of Castle Gandolfo and the major basilicas, enjoy a status similar to that of foreign embassies. Castel Gandolfo and the named basilicas are patrolled by police agents of the Vatican City State and not by Italian police. The Pontifical Swiss Guards, de facto military of Vatican City, are stationed at the Vatican as a small force maintained by the Holy See, responsible for the safety of the Pope. No passports are required for visitors entering Vatican City and there is free public access to Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica including the occasions of papal general audiences or announcements.

In October 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a solar calendar replacing the Julian calendar with the intention of stopping the drift of the calendar with respect to the equinoxes and solstices. In particular, the Roman Catholic Church considered the date of the seasonal drift of the Easter celebration to be undesirable. A regular Gregorian year consists of 365 days. It was coordinating the leap years that proved additionally contentious. Transitioning to the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, restored the holidays to the times of the year in which they were celebrated when they were first introduced. It also made harmony with those who had issues with the leap year plans. After many discussions and objections Phillip of Spain decreed the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar affecting much of the Roman Catholic world at the time. Eventually the calendar was accepted by the Protestants and is now generally accepted throughout the world for the convenience of trade and travel. As we were leaving the Vatican Museums we passed a statue of Pope Gregory XIII in an alcove of what was once the face of the building now covered by the Vatican wall.

Bernini also designed the great St. Peter’s Square creating a dramatic approach to the great basilica. Two fountains grace the square, one by Maderno, the other by Bernini. In the center of the square is the 330 ton obelisk that had arrived on a boat to Rome from Egypt, the first monumental obelisk raised in the modern period. It is the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled since Roman times. During the Middle Ages, the gilt ball on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. The ancient metal ball was later removed and is now in a museum in Rome. The obelisk was moved from Nero’s Circus some 275 yards away to its present location by the order of Pope Sixtus V in 1585.

When we left, St. Peter’s Square was filled with visitors and, by contrast to my visit in October of 1970 when the square was nearly empty, this year it was filled with chairs and people. A stark contrast for sure, but then, this was after all, a Holy Year. After visiting the gift shop and purchasing some rosaries to be blessed later by Pope Francis, I stopped to watch the Swiss Guards opening the gates to privileged visitors.

Dave was tired and decided to return to the hotel by himself. Donna, John and I stayed on, ready to explore the Castle Sant’Angelo, but first we needed sustenance. Numerous restaurants lined the Via della Conciliazione (Road of the Conciliation) but we were looking for something quick in order to spend more quality time sight seeing. We finally discovered the aptly named Snack Bar where we had ham and cheese croissants and orange juice.

Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) is a short walk from St Peter’s Square. After our lunch break Donna, John and I headed down the Via della Conciliazione to explore the castle that is actually Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Once the the tallest building in Rome, this massive mausoleum must have been an imposing site. This gigantic round building was initially commissioned by Roman Emperor Hadrian to be used as a mausoleum for himself and his family. His ashes, (Hadrian died in 138 A.D.) and those of his family and succeeding emperors (ending with Caracalla in 217 A.D.) are lost to history allegedly pillaged by Visigoth looters in 410 A.D during the sacking of Rome.

To me the castle looked more like a fortress than a mausoleum. I soon found out it was both being aptly used as a fortress by the popes as well as a castle some time later.

Under the papacy of Nicholas V work began to convert the mausoleum into a fortress. A parapet walk called the Marica Ronda was used as an embattled walkway at the top of the external defensive wall surrounding the castle . This walk was used by guards to withstand the powerful attacks of the newly invented firearms .

The Tower of Borgia was built between the fortress and the Tiber River by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI to guard the entrance to the castle. He also ordered a deep moat to be dug outside the mausoleum. When Pius IV completed the pentagonal exterior wall he demolished the Borgia structures.

Boniface IX turned the castle into his residence, complete with a drawbridge, making the unassailable fortress a symbol of the worldly power of the popes. The Passetto di Borgo, created by the popes, is intriguing and historically fascinating. An elevated fortified corridor commissioned in 1277 AD by Pope Nicholas III lead from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo (thank you Dan Brown) guaranteeing the safe passage of the popes in dangerous situations most especially during times of war and sackings.

Like most castles this one had a dungeon complete with a torture chamber. Four openings or air shafts of pyramidal shape, at equal distance from each other, served to give light and ventilation to the corridors. These openings were converted in the Middle Ages into horrible jails, with the prisoners being lowered down from the top. Tiny, dank, dark and terrible cells confined the prisoners awaiting their horrible torture or execution. The Hall of Justice can be described as suggestive and disturbing at the same time; it was where all the condemned people were sentenced to death. It was here that Pope Clement VIII ordered the death penalty for Beatrice Cenci, and where Giordano Bruno was tortured and imprisoned for six years. I learned later that the Chapel of the Crucifixion (or Condemned) is where the bookshop is located today.

On the Terrace, close beside the Archangel Michael, is a large bell called the Bell of Mercy. Beginning in the mid 1700’s it was wrung to inform the people of capital executions of the prisoners while a prison. This prison courtyard is the setting for Puccini’s opera where Tosca threw herself from the Castle’s ramparts after the treacherous murder of her lover Cavaradossi.

The castle has a complex network of basements, cells, rooms, loggias, stairways and courtyards. Walking up and down many long dark interior circular passages, decorated with frescoes and lit with a golden light from wall lamps or an occasional window, lent another mysterious intrigue to the castle.

We walked through magnificent frescoed rooms among them, the many frescoed Hall of Apollo, Pope Paul III Farnese’s highly decorated Pauline Hall, the Hall of the Library, the Hall of Justice and the Treasury. The Hall of the Treasury is where precious treasures of the Vatican were kept locked up in a chest in the secret archive of the popes, which was preserved in the castle since the time of Pope Julius II. Just off the library, in the center of the small room are three strong boxes where the treasury of the papal state was kept, together with precious utensils of the church such as chalices, monstrance, etc.

The Rooms of Clement VII, named after the pope who commissioned their decoration by none other than Michelangelo, were reserved for the pope’s personal use. A lift was designed to move up and down. There is a private Stufetta or Small Bath House of Clement VII, “a gem in the crown of the architecture and decoration of the first half of the 16th century”. This “Renaissance bathroom” was the pope’s personal bathroom with a bathtub, changing room and a room below where water was heated. Contemporary for its time, hot and cold water spouts would have been positioned next to a basin full of water.

A legend tells that the Archangel Michael appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword as a sign of the end of the plague of 590. This gave rise to the castle’s present name. Another legend tells a story that Pope Gregory heard that the Christians of Rome had begun worshiping a pagan idol at the church of Santa Agata in Suburra. A Vision urged the pope to lead a procession to the church. When they arrived the idol miraculously fell apart with a clap of thunder. When the pope returned he had another vision of an angel on top of the Castle of Sant'Angelo, wiping the blood from his sword and sheathing it. Although he interpreted this as a sign that God was appeased, Pope Gregory continued to destroy sites of pagan worship in Rome, continuing the practice of destruction and removing materials from these sites to build churches.

The ‘Angel Terrace’ offers dazzling views of Rome from several directions. So does the wonderful little cafe and restaurant Caffetteria Ristorante Le Terrazze Castel Sant'Angelo on the upper level of the castle, but it is a climb to get there and I doubt there are any elevators. Had we known this charming cafe was there we would have bypassed the Snack Bar where we had a quick, very average lunch between the Vatican and the castle. We did buy something to drink at this cafe and stopped to explore the charming vine covered terrace with its intermittent archways open to spectacular views of Rome. Shaded and quiet, a small table and chairs sit in each archway, cozy and so romantic. It is a perfect place for a sandwich or quick lunch (I don't think they offer much more, but the sandwiches looked really good) and were quite reasonable but you still have to pay the 10 euro fee to enter the castle. Since we arrived mid-afternoon it was likely not as crowded as it might have been during the busiest lunch hours but even on a Sunday mid-afternoon in October, there were few tables available, but plenty of pigeons to pick up the crumbs.

Angels decorating the Ponte Sant’Angelo or Bridge of Angels, (in Hadrian’s time known as the Aelius Bridge) were commissioned by Pope Clement IX and begun by Bernini in the early 18th century. The bridge was completed to span the Tiber River in 134 A.D. by Emperor Hadrian. It has five arches that are faced with travertine marble. Ten angels guide pedestrians over the bridge to the castle. The name of the bridge changed from Aelius Bridge in the 7th century to Sant’Angelo Bridge because of the legend of the Archangel Michael ending the plague of 590 A.D. Facing the bridge is the Loggia of Pope Julius II with an excellent view over the Tiber River and the South part of the city.

We left the same way we came heading back towards St Peter’s Square passing the beautiful statue of St Catherine of Siena. This striking statue, located in the magnificent gardens of the Castle Sant’Angelo was sculpted entirely out of white marble. With her head bent, she is wrapped in a long plain cloth that gives her a humble and charitable appearance. Four base reliefs depict scenes from her life. The monument was designed in 1961 by Francesco Messina, creator of the famous Dying Horse in the Viale Mazzini. Catherine’s beautiful, plaintive face is the first thing you see on the way to the Castel Sant’Angelo and the last thing we saw as we left. A wonderful memory to take with me.

We all ended our Grand Circle Tour of Italy at the Ristorante Casa Mia on Via Simeto near our hotel. All of us who remained for the extended tour poured into the small restaurant sitting at long tables arranged for us. The menu was prepared ahead of time for a large group so again wine, eggplant, bread and for dessert a ricotta cake. Since a large number of us entered the restaurant at once, it wasn’t until we were leaving the restaurant that I spotted the fish. The fresh sardines that I had been craving for 21 days were here, and I missed them! Sometimes, no matter how hard you plan, you get tired and eat what is put in front of you. Guilty as charged.

I had reservations about taking this Grand Circle bus trip through Italy for 21 days, but now, reflecting on the many sites, adventures and friendly and interesting people who accompanied my husband Dave and I, I find that I am most pleasantly surprised. The tours were well organized thanks to our GCT Program Directors Ben Slavin and Renato Ricci. Ben worked hard to make the bus rides interesting and educational. Plus, I must say, renting a car in Italy, for us, was out of the question, and some of the out of the way locations we visited would not have been possible on a train or other conveyance unless we took twice the time to tour. Additionally I was most grateful to have Ben speak Italian on our behalf when visiting a doctor and apothecary with my husband in Chianciano. Renato made Rome feel more like home with his warm and informative tours.

There was so much to see and absorb in nearly three weeks of travel in our three major locations, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, and Rome, that it could easily have become a blur had I not taken notes and photos. Looking back on what we accomplished I am really amazed at how rich and full our trip was. I hope to hear from some of our fellow travelers as they journey on this culturally exciting globe. As for Dave and I, we are already booked this summer on a trip to the Calgary Stampede, the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the Rocky Mountaineer RR followed by our own 3 week-long excursions through British Columbia, and Washington, Oregon and Idaho in the US. You will be seeing more posts on this coming summer trip after we return. I wish you all happy and healthy travels!


28th April 2017

What a trip!
Wow! Your photos and descriptions took me vicariously to that fascinating city! Thanks for sharing

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