This is a story back when I was doing study abroad in Paris, 2015. We took a weeklong trip to Italy, with our third stop being Rome and Vatican City. We stayed a few nights, touring, walking around for probably a marathon’s distance over that time, and checking out some watering holes. Two of the folks on the trip, Matthew and Nick, are Italian-Americans so we had the joys of experiencing it through their lens, as well. This bit’s somewhat lengthy so I divvied it up into five parts; three in Rome itself and two in Vatican City. I know that the Vatican isn’t part of Rome, technically, but it feels cheating to put it outside the Rome section. So it’s included in both to be fair and pragmatic. Hope that helps; enjoy!
When I first left for Europe, there were three must-dos: gawk around Vatican City, chant at an Arsenal game and meander through Marrakech, Morocco. I failed to make my way down to North Africa, unfortunately, but managed the other two. Major league hitters can only dream of batting .667 so I figured I had a decent success rate.
We eschewed public transit again and decided to walk to the Vatican, a good three miles away. We were told that to get around in Rome we had to take cabs, figure out the buses, or prepare to walk, because the subway is abysmal, and those people weren’t wrong. A combination of a hilly city, historical sites, and Italian politics mean this city is serviced by two subway lines that fail to go to the main stadium and fail to ever be on time. So a long walk it was.
On the way we stopped at a cafe, and I was told Italian espresso is to die for so never pass up on that. I must say: incredible decision. It was frothy and left black had perfect bitterness. But sorry dad, I threw in sugar and cream, and it was even better.
Walking up to the Vatican, even on a Tuesday morning, there are tourists absolutely everywhere and agents looking to give ostensibly overpriced tours. We were told we absolutely must do a tour, but make sure to bargain and try to get a decent price. Without a tour guide, you wait in line for at least two hours, just to enter the basilica, and you still pay 15 euros. To see the museum, the Sistine Chapel, and the basilica, you’re still waiting even longer and paying north of that. Tours online are priced pretty high, and Matty’s dad said any tour at 30 euros is a darn good price. Your son haggled for 30, and let’s just say us four young men paid considerably less than most of the others on our tour.
When you enter, the basilica itself and the surrounding palaces are all fairly plain and boring looking on the outside because they were designed to be a fort first and foremost. The Vatican had to defend itself with minimal city walls, and so the outside isn’t particularly impressive, as they were designed to defend attackers storming the Pope, not to impress 21st century onlookers.
I also noticed on my first go around a few astronomical signs on the ground in the square. In the dead center of St. Peter’s Square is an obelisk, which is a reminder that although the Earth revolves around the Sun, even the Sun revolves around Christ’s embrace. I noticed that there were stones marked with things like “East-Levant” meaning to the east is Iraq and Syria. I didn’t recognize the Latin for many of them but it was cool.
What I liked more was that there were in a row, at unequal lengths, plates for each of the signs of the zodiac with particular dates. I surmised a theory, and I’m damn proud to say I was right. At high noon on each of the solstices (winter and summer) the shadow of obelisk lands right on those plates. And during each of the periods of the other signs of the zodiac, the shadow at noon lands on them. The obelisk is essentially an oversized sundial.
Anyways, enough gloating, as I’m pretty sure that’s a sin (pride’s not a sin is it!?) We walked along the newer city walls, which curve outward, instead of straight like a normal square, indicating again an embrace. We walked further outside the old city walls built around 800 (which is pretty late in terms of defending your city I must say). Our guide pointed out that the Swiss Guard are such because back in the day, armies were basically all mercenary armies, and the Swiss were the best. Since then it has stuck, and in order to be a guard you must be Swiss and pious. He failed to mention that they are the only private police force in the world larger than UChicago Police Department, but I’m sure he know all about that and it just escaped his mind.
We entered the museum, and apparently there’s enough museum space in there to take up a day, so he lead us through the most important ones. Essentially the church used to be a great benefactor for art and the Vatican houses many, many sculptures and paintings. Many of the sculptures are marble copies of the original Greek bronze ones, which ended up being a great thing, since many of the originals have been lost.
We moved on to hallways upon hallways of artwork. I cannot possibly remember them all, but a few of my favorites and the notables stand out. One was the hall of tapestry, which is as it sounds. There are massive rugs from floor to ceiling, maybe 10 yards tall depicting stories, some biblical, others mythological. Another cool one was the corridor of maps, which was a series of maybe 30 paintings showing maps of Italy and Europe, as they were conceived of at the time. It is all the more impressive since cartography at the time wasn’t done use satellite imagery obviously and many of these maps were absolutely spot on.
This is even where I found that castle town we flew over in the Alps, but I still can’t find the damn thing exactly since they all look alike. (Can you say “damn,” if you’re not in a church but you’re describing when you were?) Another pretty one was a collection of statues of animals, just simply animals doing their own thing, which is important as it shows a turn when man starting depicting not legends and heroes, but the mundane tasks of everyday life. Even having only taken Art History 101, this entire European trip has been crazy in terms of seeing incredibly famous works of art I studied in a classroom.
Speaking of which, we moved on finally to the Sistine Chapel, which has been written about by a million different artists and historians, so there’s no chance I can even do it justice. Basically our guide allotted us ten minutes in there, but after a full twenty minutes already flew it seemed only two had gone by. Time moves quick in there. The only bummer about it is so freaking high up it hurts bending your neck that long. The price you pay to see the most beautiful painting in the world I guess.
Down the middle of the ceiling depicts Genesis, the creation story, Adam and Eve, and finally Noah and the flood. In the corners are four stories of when God helped the chosen people, like David and Goliath. Angels are littered throughout which were just Michelangelo showing off how good he was at showing the human body contort in different positions. There were other biblical figures throughout, and on the far wall was his other great work, The Last Judgement, showing Jesus’ being angry with the people, and some going to heaven and others to hell. On the side walls were a bunch of paintings by equally important figures showing stories from the New and Old Testaments, including the parting of the red sea and the delivery of keys to heaven from Jesus to Peter. Having time seem to both stand still and fly by, we moved on to see St. Peter’s Basilica.
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