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Author: Lonesome Traveler
Date of Trip: June 2003

Day One and Two – Arriving and Romeing ‘Til I’m All Poped Out

Tuesday: The interminable journey finally ended in the Eternal City. After the inferno of the flight, the purgatory of passing time in airports, and the limbo of lost hours, my first impression of a rapidly darkening but full moonlit Rome was a cross between the heavenly and the not so—with the latter, perhaps, predominating. Was it the Eternal or the Infernal City?

The place bustled, even at 8:00 p.m. when I arrived. The streets appeared to be the venue of an endless modern chariot race with at least twenty scooters leading the charge from every stoplight. Their insistent buzzing made me feel as if I had entered a hive of perpetually angry bees. The taxi finally disgorged me at my four-star, six-night home, the Starhotel Michelangelo; just a block from the Vatican walls. It was as well appointed as any Motel 6, except that the shower stall was designed for someone far more anorexic than I. But later, as I stepped into the street, the dome of St Peter’s filled the sky, and all familiar impressions vanished. I ate at a small local diner, spaghetti, of course, and collapsed—but only after I got back to the hotel.

Wednesday: Ten hours of sleep and a cool, bright blue sky levitated the heavenly side of the picture. Even the scooters took on the aura of whining poodles rather than snarling wolves. About a fourth of the riders are females, most wearing dresses or skirts for the workplace. Speaking of females, many of the pedestrian ones are short and stocky–and not all of them are nuns. Ordinarily, I don’t look down on women, but here I can’t help it—and I’m only 5’ 6.” They appear to be either willowy or rectangular, nothing in between.

About 8:45 I made my way through St. Peter’s Square (actually, it’s more a circle) on my way to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. A large crowd had gathered, and I learned that the Pope was expected to pour forth his blessing around 10:30. I debated momentarily, but the Chapel won out. The entrance is about a half mile away; and since signs were few, I asked directions of guards and police several times. I arrived at the Museum to find it and the Chapel closed. I found it a little strange that not one of those officials knew (or didn’t bother to say) that perhaps the number one tourist attraction in Rome wasn’t open. Several hundred other visitors were just as confused, as they were milling around like ants whose crumbs have been swept away. I’m getting inklings that there are vast differences between American “know how” and “know when” and Italian “so what.” I suspect I’m going to have to do some attitude adjustments.

I made my way back to St. Peters where a few thousand chairs were set up and found an empty one near the back. Three fourths of the square was still open with a few thousand tourists and pilgrims scattered around. This huge square reminded me somewhat of a drain as it slopes toward the center. Sitting there, I had a vision of a mighty earthquake and us tumbling in our thousands toward the middle and screaming down into the bottomless pit—no doubt a residual echo from my fundamentalist Protestant upbringing reminding me of the once-taught belief that only a thin shell separates the Papacy from the fires of hell.

While waiting, I examined the four-inch square stones that pave the area. In the grooves between them, little tufts of grass were growing, only a few fractions tall, of course, as passing feet constantly pruned them. The poor things were pushing their way through cigarette butts and other tourist detritus, and I was thinking there must be some lesson here—life and death, sacred and profane, artificial and real—but both you and I will be spared all that, as just then the Pope showed up in a Humvee. At least it looked like one—a large, open jeep-like vehicle, which, much to my disappointment, the Pope wasn’t driving. It made a circuit between the barriers, so that most of the crowd got a rather good close up. There seemed to be very little security, a few people with him in the vehicle and a couple trotting alongside. He passed about forty feet away from me, and most of the crowd rushed the barrier—in my dignity I merely climbed my chair. All this time the whole spectacle was being shown on four large portable screens. Cheers, hat waving, people looking stoned out in ecstasy, the Pope’s hand lifting in blessing: I’m not a believer, of course, but still, could I be in his position and take myself seriously? I suppose, to live with myself, I would have to. I didn’t stay for the whole ceremony: long readings and welcomes, mostly in Italian but some in English. Many groups were recognized, especially schools; but about halfway through a delayed but acute case of jet lag hit, and I made my way back to the hotel.

After a long siesta I returned to the Square in the late afternoon and entered the church. In sheer size it is quite stunning; however, it is not an intimate experience. Everything seems to be designed to cut the mere mortal down to size. Outsized statues of popes and saints line the walls, most rather stilted and formalized, a hand usually outstretched in blessing. There is, however, one remarkable exception. In a corner sits one of the world’s treasures, Michelangelo’s early Pieta. Dwarfed by the architecture and the other statues, it nevertheless towers over everything else. With the delicate, beautiful face of an angel and the shoulders of a linebacker, an impossibly young Mary cradles the lifeless but expressive body of Jesus. Somehow, sorrow and loss exude from stone. I found it difficult to tear myself away and went back several times—and will, I’m sure, do so again. How stone can be worked to call forth such beauty and feeling is a mystery for which I can only be grateful. Michelangelo, by the way, excused Mary’s youthful appearance by her sexual purity; he equated virginity with long life and health. He lived to be eighty-nine at a time when such a long life was a rarity, and there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual union—so, who knows?

I took an elevator to the dome and listened for a while to a mass conducted down on the floor with an adult and a children’s choir. I had the dome walkway almost to myself, and I felt like an angel, albeit a dubious one, listening in from on high. St. Peters is magnificent, but on the roof, up close, a certain shabbiness becomes apparent. Away from the pomp and gild of the interior, there is an aura of age and decay. The building seems impossibly old, and perhaps a little tired and out of touch—or maybe that was just me.

A last look at the Pieta, an undistinguished supper at the hotel, then a short walk to a café for a decaf nightcap, a stroll around the Vatican walls, and I was off to bed. Tomorrow, it’s the Chapel, finally.

Day Two — Ralph and Mike

I slept poorly: too tired, too much coffee, and too long a siesta. Still I was up fairly early, across St. Peter’s and in line for the Sistine Chapel by 8:15, a half hour before the opening. Luckily I was there that early as only a million people were ahead of me rather than a billion. Remarkably, once the line started moving, it took only about twenty minutes to squirt us, like a river of motley-colored mustard, into the Vatican Museum. The Museum is, well, a museum; that is to say it is mostly filled with junk—though I would be happy to own some of the pieces. The star of this trove is the Laocoon, an ancient Greek sculpture dug up in Michelangelo’s time, and which impressed even him. It is quite a piece—agony in stone.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel itself can be a tease as it is necessary to negotiate innumerable rooms, and enough up and down staircases to confuse and ultimately frustrate at least this visitor. Just before the Chapel itself, the way passes through several rooms that were frescoed by Raphael at the same time that Michelangelo was doing the ceiling. Ralph was quite the charmer and a notorious ladies’ man who was liked by everybody but Mike (or Mick). Of course, Mike didn’t seem to care for hardly anybody that much. Ralph died at just thirty-seven—remember Mike’s theory on sexual abstinence and long life? Maybe it only seemed as if he lived to be eighty-nine.

On to the chapel: it would be impossible to be disappointed by it, of course. Well, maybe not: a subsequent pope felt the treatment of the subject matter was more suitable to a bathhouse than to a chapel. Fortunately, he died after only eighteen months in office and before he could do anything rash. I simply could not take it all in. It needs hours of contemplation, preferably spread over a period of days. And I couldn’t shut out the people. I’m always a trifle uneasy in a crowd, and standing (or sitting on benches along the walls) shoulder to shoulder with a constantly shifting mass of bodies brought me perilously close to anxiety. Here is my dream for next time: clear everybody out, give me a motorized recliner, and let me maneuver around to my heart’s content—with an occasional nap not out of the question—or is that too much to ask?

I won’t bore you with any kind of description, but here are a couple of finger facts you may not get any place else. One of the more obscure figures on the ceiling is giving “the fig,” the Roman equivalent of “the finger.” I looked but couldn’t find it; perhaps binoculars would help. Michelangelo was probably just making a statement, telling the Pope what he thought of the assignment. In our day, God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger has become the icon by which the whole ceiling is recognized. Ironically, Adam’s finger is no longer Michelangelo’s work; a large crack appeared, and a later artist had to replaster and repaint the digit.

After my now usual siesta, I walked down to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress that was the last refuge of popes in trouble. Like most castles it was gloomy and drafty, but from the top there was a magnificent view of most of Rome. After another brief visit to St. Peter’s (there was a crowd around the Pieta, so I left in a sulk), I had dinner and returned to the hotel and turned on the television. The juxtaposition of these two things, ancient Rome and the current news, is beginning to turn me slightly schizophrenic. All day I immerse myself in the past, but when I return to my room and turn on the TV, the here and now suddenly and rudely asserts itself. Having no one to bounce any of this off of, I’m beginning to lose track of when and where I am—and maybe the “who” is slipping a little, too. Even my dreams are becoming a strange mixture of the old and the new.

Day Three — Panting for the Pantheon

I bought a shuttle ticket today that would allow me to get off and on at a dozen or so of the more popular tourist stops, but a large anti-government demonstration botched that plan, as the buses couldn’t get through. Instead I substituted a guided walking tour through classical Rome, but peeled off after a couple of lectures at Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. I’m just not cut out for trotting along after someone with an umbrella or a ribbon on a stick who is dispensing misinformation by at least the cupful. For instance, this guide talked about how Ralph and Mick were such good friends when Mick clearly stated in his letters that he though Ralph was out to get his commissions. Of course, Michelangelo thought most people were out to get him. How remarkable is it that such an ugly, ill-tempered, whining, paranoid little runt (I’m exaggerating—some) created more artistic beauty than any other man—it gives one hope. Perhaps if he had occasionally indulged in a little Raphaeling, he would have been a nicer person—but maybe less of an artist.

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