Italy - Day Three, The Vatican! (long day, long post)

Today was Vatican Day!! As we were getting ready and packing our bags for a day of walking (though we truly had no idea just how much walking was on the agenda), Ron was going through the Italian phrasebook practicing his burgeoning Italian. By the time we left he had down pat, “I am here with my girlfriend,” and the equally important phrase, which I said was directly linked to the first phrase, “I don’t want a blood transfusion.” We were set.

We grabbed the 40 bus which took us directly to the Vatican, sort of. We got off when it stopped and everyone exited, utilizing the sheep-method of travel, and then followed various nuns through the streets until we came to St. Peter’s Square. I think overall we spent at least six to seven hours exploring everything that was there and we could have spent days! We saw the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where many of the popes are buried, including John Paul II and even St. Peter’s tomb. In the 1940s excavations were conducted and bones were found. After forensic testing, it was officially declared that they were the bones of St. Peter, who was said to have been buried here between 64-67 AD. They are now housed in a very elaborate tomb and are apparently kept in special boxes designed by NASA.

Constantine built the first basilica at this location in the 4th century, on the site of Nero’s stadium. It fell into disrepair and finally in 1506 Julius II hired Bramante to design and build the structure that stands today. It took 150 years to complete, and over that time many different artists were employed, but it’s most famous was definitely Michaelangelo, who took over the project in 1547, when he was 72, and designed and painted the impressive center dome. (He had painted “Genesis” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508, and “The Last Judgment” above the alter in 1534-1541.) Ever fitting with our vacation themes, our pal Bernini was the last artist hired to complete the basilica as well as St. Peter’s Square and colonnade in front. He also has countless statues and tombs inside. On a side note, you may notice in some of the pictures that there is an Egyptian obelisk in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. You’re not wrong. This 25-meter high red granite obelisk was brought from Heliopolis, Egypt (where we currently go to CityStars Mall) by Caligula (reigned 37-41 AD). In 1586 it was placed where it stands now, and took four months, 1,000 men, 140 horses and 44 winches to get it in place.

Inside the basilica there’s almost too much for the eyes to comprehend. It covers over 15,000 square meters, and houses hundreds of works of art, including Michaelangelo’s “Pietà”. This marble statue, carved out of one single piece of stone, depicts the Virgin Mother holding her dying son. They say that Michaelangelo himself chose the piece of marble to be used, and it took nine months to transport it to Rome. As we were standing with the masses admiring the delicate folds of fabric carved from marble, there was suddenly some commotion behind us and some secret-service-looking guys bustled through clearing the way. We stood aside and Ron whispered in my ear, “There’s General Petraeus!” The General dutifully admired the Pietà before being whisked away to the next stop on his tour.

We continued on our own, trying to absorb even a tenth of what we were seeing. It has to be one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen. I’ll let photos try to convey what seems flat with mere words.

After the basilica, we visited the bookstore (by accident, or divine direction), then got caught in our first (of many) rainstorms. We sat under the colonnade and ate our granola bars before making our way to the Vatican museums, which was quite a little hike. I have a few complaints about the Vatican museums, namely that they don’t provide you with a map (I think you have to buy one, and in hindsight we should have), because my second complaint is that it’s so vast it seemed endless, and without a map it felt endless. The entire complex covers 5.5 hectare (almost 13.75 acres!), with more than 10 individual museums, more than 54 separate galleries, and display works of art from artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael, and da Vinci, in addition to Michaelangelo.

But aside from my whinings, I will say it was extremely impressive with the requisite Roman heads and statues, paintings, stunning woven rugs, a phenomenal Pharaonic collection, and of course the Sistine Chapel and “Last Judgment” paintings.

The issue with the latter, is that from the beginning we saw signs pointing to the Sistine Chapel, which we followed, turning this way and that, passing collection after collection. All was extraordinary; the paintings were amazing, the architecture stunning, the marble heads endless, but this elusive Sistine Chapel just never materialized. I started to get a little snippy and jaded when I saw these teasing signs, but finally, after miles and miles of walking (and muttering) we came to the Sistine Chapel! It really was amazing, and we sat quietly on the side benches (thank goodness for those!) staring up at the vastness, then reading the guidebook, then staring some more. The details are infinite, and due to the height often indiscernible, but the guidebooks were of great help.

When we were in Florence I bought a book about Michaelangelo that gave some very interesting insight into his works, including “The Last Judgment” which is on the wall above the alter in the Sistine Chapel. Following its completion in 1541, Pope Paul III convoked the Council of Trent and one of their “reformations” was to hire another artist to add strategically-placed fig leaves, pants and drapings to many of the nudes. Fashion History 101: “Reformation Collection, 1541”.

By this point, we had reached our goal. Unfortunately we still had more galleries, walkways, rooms and artwork to pass. I had hit my culture-saturation level by this point, so my personal goal was to just “get out of the Vatican.”

You’d think by this point we’d be calling it a day, but no, we had more museums to see! We visited the Crypto Baldi Museum and the interesting thing here was that it was built over some discovered Roman ruins that you could see below. The collection was well-presented, but we had hoped to explore the ruins, but that was prohibited. By now I seriously had reached the culture flood plains and piles of potsherds weren’t renewing my energy so I was ready to call it a day.

From here we decided to wander and see what we could find for dinner. As we were walking down a main road the rain started to really pour down, so we ran down a side street, solely because it was draped in twinkling lights from one side to the other (it's the Tinkerbell theory). I actually started to run because of the rain and I ran passed a very old-looking round building and as I came into the open square I turned to look and saw that we were standing in front of the Pantheon! What an amazing find! We decided, despite the rain, to eat outside, facing the lit-up Pantheon, under an awning with gas heaters. It was beautiful and incredibly romantic. Unfortunately it remained pouring and halfway through dinner was I freezing, despite snuggling up to the gas heater and Ron. So we entered back out into the rain to catch our bus home.

For an added treat (and because I was a little whiny and begged Ron), we stopped off a few blocks from our hotel at Giuliani’s Café where we got one cannoli to share and I got a hot cocoa to go. Having visions of a Starbucks-like cup, I was delighted to receive a small plastic Dixie-like cup instead with a “lid” made of a napkin tied around it like a kerchief. It was adorable, albeit ineffectual. But the cocoa was tasty, even if lukewarm, by the time we got back to hotel, and the cannoli was definitely one of the best I’ve ever had in my life!