October 9, 2012

I opted to tour the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica with a group tour today, as it granted me early entrance into the museum and the benefit of an educated guide. Our group met at 7:30am in order to be ready for the 8am early opening time, and I couldn’t help but feel like a horse at the starting gate. I think I ordinarily would have felt quite calm, but the guide kept priming us for exactly what we were going to do when the gates opened, about how we were going to skip the galleries and take a shortcut to the Sistine Chapel (we would come back to the galleries later) and about how we had to walk fast. In fact, she used the word “run” a couple of times. This is somewhat warranted, as the Vatican is visited by five million people annually, and the Sistine Chapel gets so crowded you can barely move. Still, though, I had this ridiculous anxiety standing there waiting for the gate to open, feeling like I was at some kind of after-Thanksgiving-Day-Sale.

So the doors opened and we were off, speed-walking through the Vatican Museum, eyes on the prize. The other groups were all jockeying for the lead — lots of elbows — but many of these groups stopped in the galleries, while we forged ahead to the Sistine Chapel. I kept laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Shouldn’t this be a seminal event? Why the big rush?

We went through a doorway and the guide stopped speed-walking and I wondered why we weren’t moving any more, and looked around. And then I thought, “Wait a minute… Are we here?” Sometimes, an image in my head is so vivid and complex that I forget it is entirely the result of my imagination. And so I looked around at the relatively small room with high vaulted ceilings, looking for an enormous fresco of Adam and God, totally surprised to see so much other art and even more surprised to find that the painting of Adam and God is a small piece of a much bigger piece. Anyway, even though it wasn’t what I expected, it was of course beautiful. And, you know what? We had the entire Sistine Chapel almost entirely to ourselves.

Until today, I didn’t really know what a “fresco” was. In case you are hazy on the definition, a fresco is adding pigment to wet plaster, thereby making the mural a part of the actual wall. It’s super hard, and very unforgiving, and usually the work of a true master. You want to know something crazy? Michelangelo was only 33 when he started the Sistine Chapel, and it was his first fresco. It took him four years to finish, and every single figure (there are dozens and dozens) has a complete and studied story. It’s stunning. You could spend hours just looking at it all.

We did eventually move on, though, and toured through the rest of the galleries of the Vatican Museums (which are extensive). Our guide was great. She said “pope” like “pope-a” and it made me smile every time. I saw amazing classical sculptures and hundreds of frescoes (which adorn pretty much every surface). Notable artists featured include Michelangelo, Raphael, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Rosselli (as well as Rodin, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Klee, Bacon, Dalí, Picasso, and Matisse).

We then made our way to the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica, where our guide gave us an orientation before leaving us to explore on our own. It was beautiful — huge, expansive, soaring, round, vaulted, granite, gold leaf, etc — but also CROWDED. Man oh man. There were 59073iou089720856g people there. So I honestly didn’t spend too much time exploring, as I started to get a little overwhelmed by the crowd. I did, however, spend a while in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Jesus in Mary’s arms after he had been taken down from the cross (the Pietà). I found it so moving to see a mother holding her dying child in the same way she held him as an infant. It was beautiful.

I left the Basilica through the crypt — walking past the tombs of many popes along the way — and found myself in St. Peter’s Square. Wow! So big! So simple! So pretty! Bernini designed the square in the middle of the 17th century to allow for as many people to see the pope as possible when he stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s to bless the masses. I stood for a while by the massive obelisk at the square’s center (the “square” which is actually an oval), and then went off in search of lunch.

Dude. Dino and Tony’s. Rome, just outside of Vatican City. It’s a little out of the way, but you must find it if you come here. Tony is the beleaguered maître d'/waiter who looks like a big Italian man version of a basset hound. And Dino is the smiling cook/waiter who sings out loud when he walks through the tiny family restaurant, laughing and joking with all of the regulars. There were a bunch of old guys and there was some really great homemade pasta, and my spirits and energy were greatly revived after a long and active morning.

This afternoon I visited the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which is now a museum and library dedicated to the Romantic movement. Keats died in the house in 1821 when he was only twenty-five years old, and Shelley lived just across the Spanish Steps at one time (though not when Keats was there). I hesitated at the doorway, thinking that perhaps it was odd that I was doing something “English” in Rome, but justified my actions because 1) Keats actually did live in the house, 2) I can do whatever the heck I want, and 3) The Romantic Movement almost has “Rome” in the name. And I’m really happy I went in, escaping the heat of an Italian afternoon by reading Romantic poetry in the dim and dusky library where Keats breathed his last breath.

I met up with Joe for dinner, my Couch Surfing host for the next couple of nights. Joe is fantastic — he is a Lebanese guy who has been living in Rome for about nine months. He speaks Arabic, English, French, and Italian flawlessly, and is very intelligent and well-traveled. We had a good dinner at a Lebanese place and then went back to his apartment, where we rocked out to Phil Collins until a very late bedtime.