Monday, April 11, 2011

The Big V

With Paige and Julia on their way home, I turned my attention to my aunt and uncle, and we started off two weeks of big adventures, from running to the Vatican Museum for our appointment time to exploring Naples to an overnight flight up to Venice. We also spent some time relaxing at home and enjoying the view. We'd scheduled a timed entry to the Vatican Museum prior to our drive home to Naples on Paige and Julia's departure day. I'd been extremely nervous about driving our station wagon into downtown Rome, so we'd booked a hotel on the outskirts that had a car service to the airport for Paige and Julia, but was also near the Metro for Mike and Katrina. Taking the Metro into the center of Rome, we walked to the Trevi Fountain, a Baroque flight of fancy marking the end of one of Rome's ancient aqueducts. The aqueduct was used in the Roman times for about 400 years. Reopened in the 1400s, Trevi Fountain was built in the mid-1700s to mark the aqueduct's end. Throwing a coin into the fountain is said to ensure one's return to Rome - a handy bit of marketing for the city of Rome, since an average of 3000euros per day is thrown into the fountain. We did our bit for the city coffers as well.

From there we walked over to the Pantheon, stopping on the way at a walk-up pizza/focaccia window and found ourselves eating a delicious, take-away lunch. This scenario repeated itself over and over - any time we just stopped in somewhere, we had delicious food. And yes, it is possible to get bad food in Italy, but I do admit that it's a rare event. A quick pop-in to the Pantheon and some gazing at the dome that inspired the domes of the Florentine Duomo, St. Peter's Basilica, and the U.S. Capitol building, among others, and then we set off for our Vatican Museum timed entry. I'd allowed 30 minutes for the walk, and as we approached 12:15 and were still nowhere near the Vatican, our steps turned into fast walking, then really fast walking, until at 12:25, we were at an all out sprint to make our 12:30 entry time. Thankfully, there was no line for security, but we were still almost 20 minutes late, flushed, faint, and dehydrated. Getting our entry tickets (thank you, kind entry ticket giver-outer for allowing us in), we collapsed on a nearby bench for awhile. Having walked/run what felt like miles already, now we prepared to stroll through miles of overstimulation for our eyes.

Map Gallery
I have never seen anything like the Vatican Museum. Whereas most museums have displays and exhibits, the Vatican Museum itself is  one of the exhibits. There is not a single, restful surface to lay your eyes. Every room is filled with glories, from the actual artwork on display to the mosaic or inlaid marble floors to the frescoed ceilings to the intricately carved paneling. We were following a tour out of our guidebook (Rick Steves), and while his tour is wonderful and focuses on the highlights, I can definitely see the value of a guided tour (although we would have missed that completely given my underestimation of walking time to the Big V.). We were trying so hard to focus, but there is so very, very much. I shivered to think that of all we were seeing, as overwhelming as it all was, these things represented only a small portion of the museum's holdings.

We saw breathtaking paintings, intricate tapestries, statues upon statues upon statues, carved sarcophagi, brilliantly frescoed ceilings, a 1/4 mile long hallway painted with 16th century map (see pic above), writing tablets dating back to the time when writing was invented, and finally, the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's crowning glory and the commission he didn't want to take because he claimed to be a sculptor, not a painter. And yet, he painted the hand of God touching the hand of Adam, those two hands with outstretched fingers about to connect forming one of the most reproduced images in the modern world. I wish seeing the Sistine Chapel in person was a spiritual experience, but it's just not. Hundreds of other people are herded into the room with you, the noise level slowly building until the frowning guards start shouting out something that means, "Quiet," or making their way through the crowds to menace over those who ignored the "No Photography" signs, growling all the while. I can't say I blame them since they're given charge of enforcing hundreds of crowded together people to follow rules, but all in all, seeing the Sistine Chapel in person is much like going to St. Peter's Basilica for Christmas Eve mass and getting shoved aside by determined nuns on a hunt for their view of Il Papa.

Another big plus for paying for a guided tour...there's a shortcut exit from the Sistine Chapel that spits a body out right at the next stop: St. Peter's Basilica. Currently, this little door is open only to guided tours. So...although all we wanted to do was see the Basilica and then get to the Metro to get off our aching feet, instead we had to go all the way back to the entrance then around the outer walls of the Vatican to the Basilica, approximately a mile walk and and an extra, needless 30 minutes.'s all worth it to see Michelangelo's Pieta (Mary holding the body of Jesus just off the cross), sculpted when he was only 24 years old and as his first big commission. St. Peter's was built on the spot where Peter was crucified back in 67 AD or so. The Basilica is magnificent, and it's reconstruction into the grandiose church we see today sparked the Protestant Reformation.

It happened like this: When the Pope sent a monk to Germany to sell indulgences in order to raise money for the building the Basilica, a virtually unknown, German monk and theology professor wrote to his bishop a letter of protest against selling indulgences. The letter later became known as Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses, one of which asked why the rich pope was using the money of poor believers to build the Basilica rather than using his own. Luther believed only God could forgive, so the church was wrong in trying to sell forgiveness. Luther's letter was never posted on church doors in a grandiose gesture, as Protestant legend has us believe. Rather, Luther's friends translated his letter into German (it had been written in Latin), copied it off using that newfangled printing press, distributed it, and it made the rounds throughout Europe with great speed. The Reformation has a great deal more history behind it, but how interesting that the very church building which was supposed to symbolize the verse Matthew 16:18, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" became the same building that sparked one of Christianity's greatest divides. For the want of money.

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