We were woken by what sounded like chickens or geese chuckling or clucking what felt like right outside our window. It was very ‘ancient’. Where would you keep chickens in Rome?
Here we are in the Eternal City. It is eternal, I guess, as far as western history goes. It is the longest running city in our sense of history.
We had plans to go to the market in the Campo dei Fiori, but somehow forgot that we were going to do that. When we left the apartment, it was after ten, and then we walked through the Campo, looking admiringly at the market – a good one. It runs every day but Sunday so that’s a lucky thing. Such good vegetables and fruit. We promised that we would remember to do something about this on the morrow.
We were off to the Vatican museum and St Peter’s Square and Basilica. The reason we were doing Rome from the Vatican down (rather than, say, the Colosseum up) had to do with something called the ‘Rome’ pass which Myles has read about. As soon as you activate the ‘Rome’ pass, you had three days to use it. And the Vatican wasn’t included. Well, it wouldn’t be, I guess. It is, strictly speaking, Rome. From our place, the Vatican is just up the river, across, and down one street. We really are madly central here. It was not a sunny day, but quite mild. Zelda and I didn’t even bother with the puffys and didn’t suffer at all.
The Tevere (what we call the Tiber) reminded me a little of the Yarra. It doesn’t appear here as the huge and mighty force that the other major cities have in their rivers – the Seine in Paris or the Thames in London. This is not wide and not fast flowing. And it seems a little neglected. No traffic on it, it sits at a decent depth below the city it serves, and is overgrown with weeds. An unused river is a sad thing.
We crossed over the Tevere at the Bridge of Victor Emmanuel. When I was here twenty years ago, I seem to remember the building here as some kind of asylum, with a huge man, behind bars, looking patiently at the traffic while he smoked cigarettes. It was a hot summer when I was last here. There was no sign of the asylum, perhaps I dreamed it. It is, however, an extremely strong memory.
Then we were in the Vatican. There is no designated border that tells you you are in a new place or state, but the ratio of lay people to priests or nuns suddenly increases ten fold. And not just priests in discreet dog collars and nothing else distinguishing, but priests in full robes, in monks habits, and nuns in full regalia. And all the shops on the side of the road are dedicated to the religious life, including lots of postcards of the likely of the currently and the recently(ish) deceased pope. We were in the right place.
I didn’t remember this from last time we were here, but as soon as we were in reasonable sight of St Peter’s Square, we began to be accosted by people who told us a whole lot of stuff about how we really needed to join a tour to see the Vatican, how it would take us up to an hour and a half (or more, one man warned) to even buy tickets and then how confusing it would be for us to get around and how a guide was so very important. Yeah. OK. But the prices were insane and we thought we would give it at whirl ourselves. We are not illiterate or anything, and can read the occasional map. One bloke was really appalled at our decision, threw up his hands in horror. It looks like we had condemned ourselves to queues and ignorance. Paris was looking distinctly uncomfortable. But we stuck to our guns and followed the signs to the Vatican museum. We saw no one lining up anywhere. ‘Perhaps we are going the wrong way,’ someone intoned (it might have been me). But no, the signs were insistent. And so were the men who were handing out flyers for local restaurants. We found the door of the museum. Still no line, still almost no one. Perhaps you needed to have booked online (this, I think, was me again). But there was the ticket office. We bought tickets. No waiting. I asked about maps and was told we could get them upstairs.
And then I got angry. What a joke. Damn it, I hate spruikers at the best of time, but outright lying was a whole other thing. But Paris, Mister Voice of Reason, did point out that they were just doing a job. Hmmm.
We decided to get the kids’ audio tours (Zelda and Niccolo) and one adult one between me and Paris and Myles for additional information. Then we went to the gallery for religious art. I got all excited because there was a sign in German that looked like it was advertising Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (which is usually, I think, in Dresden). I asked at the bookshop before we went in, but the woman there had no idea what I was referring to. I never did find it. There was another Raphael there, but not that one. Sad because I happen to like it a lot. This gallery was amazing – there were some frescos that had been rescued from a church that had been destroyed at some point which were so light, and full of bright blues and golds that it made you kind of glad. Much religious art, for me, is gloomy and depressing; dark colours and terrible subject matter (martyrdom in particular, depresses me). This was quite different though. We all liked them. And, strangely perhaps, right in the middle of all this was a portrait of George the Fourth of England (in, as Paris said, a particularly flattering representation. The kids like to sing a song about the four Georges as ‘the sad one, the bad one, the mad one and the fat one’). Then it was to the other side of the museum, and the long tour through the huge building on our way to the Sistine Chapel.
There is a huge Egyptian collection in the Vatican (surprising? Just about conquest?). Zelda had studied ancient Egypt during the year and knew all about it, so she could fill us in. There were statues and mummy cases and coffins and shabtis and scrolls. All incredible and much more full on than the Tutankhamen exhibition that had come to Melbourne last year. And then, a mummy itself, all dark and wizened and wound mostly in cloth, with one eye out where they had removed the brain. A human three thousand years old and very much before us. Niccolo could hardly look at it; I found it very confronting. Myles couldn’t take enough photos of it.
We spent a lot of time in this section of the museum because the kids’ audio tour was extensive at this point and Niccolo needed to find every exhibit that had a corresponding explanation. So I saw a lot of the bits and pieces very close up. After the Egyptian part, we went into Roman statues – very impressive, marble and bronze to feed an army. And then we went through the map room. I don’t remember this bit from twenty years ago, but this is a long room with huge maps painted on the wall of all the important parts of Italy and surrounds. It was incredible. The world (known at that time) all lit up. It would make a super place for planning holidays. I’m not sure that the popes used it for that purpose, but they were missing something if they didn’t.
The kids’ tour ended here, but promised them that the next thing they would have narrated was the most famous ceiling in the world. So for the rest of the tour, Zelda or Niccolo asked (in every room): ‘Is this the most famous ceiling?’ You can imagine how popular they were with me. Through the Raphael rooms; so beautiful but so much violence and hatred in them too. Through the Borgia apartments (nice; how do I get me some rooms like that?) and then, rather shockingly, through room after room of rather more contemporary art – Matisse, Chagall, Dali and so on. By this time, the kids were intent on the most famous ceiling in the world and wouldn’t wait. I got snagged on the Chagall room, and made them wait for that, but then I was dragged by an invisible string through a series of rooms and then some corridors and steps that wound around until we were at the door of the Sistine Chapel.
‘This,’ I said, ‘is the most famous ceiling in the world.’ Necessarily, for Niccolo and Zelda, it was an anti climax. What did they have to compare it with anyway? But for Myles and I (I’m not sure about Paris), this was a revelation. I think it had been cleaned since last I was here, but it really looks almost three dimensional. The saints particularly, who are painted onto the sides of the ceiling (if you see what I mean) almost leapt out at you, with a kind of boldness. The story of creation across the ceiling was also amazing. And the last judgement would have given anyone pause for thought. Fear and respect, as they say. There were a lot of people in the chapel, but nothing crazy, so we stayed for some time and drank in the roof. It is somehow a tiny bit weird walking around looking up. Perhaps that changed perspective was partly was Michelangelo was all about. You think differently with your head in the air. You feel more vulnerable. You feel a little remote from the images, but also somehow smaller, more insignificant than what is above.
It was time to feed and water the troops.
The Vatican has places to eat. We indulged. We ate pizza (quite good and all). Then we bought cards of the art we had liked (mostly the frescos). All in all, this was a museum we had all really, really liked. Myles wanted to go around again (which technically you could do). But it had been four hours already and we were a bit tired. We were also a bit pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get around the Vatican without exploding or getting lost as had been the worse predictions of the tour organisers outside.
On the way out, there is a fantastic staircase that winds down to the street level like the back of a snail. It was ruined for me a little by the flashing lights everywhere that warned: ‘BEWARE: STEPS!’
Outside, we couldn’t help but inform the spruikers, who were still keen to sell us tours, that there were no queues. One was shame faced, but replied in a very pronounced English accent; ‘No, but usually there are.’ Great.
So we went to see the Basilica. This in fact did involve a queue to get through the security. I failed the security many times; the challenge was to pass through the metal detector (with metal in my case, because I have bracelets I can’t remove) and not set it off. The guards have been to some particular school where they learn the expression: ‘not my problem, you are wasting my time’ as I went backwards and forwards and annoyed the heck out of a Japanese tour group behind me. I finally made the miracle happen and we were off.
The sheer size of St Peter’s impressed the kids (not ‘just another church’; this one). We went first to the Pieta. I love this work; the kids were ‘eeah’. Myles liked it. So we went looking for the remains of saints in the walls: Jerome and Innocenti. They were both in slippers. We looked at the marble representation of saints (I like saint Veronica in particular). We marvelled at the dome. We read all the bits of information. We looked at the mosaics and the paintings. We were tired.
We made our way out of the church and home. Paris was told off for sitting down (which he did in exhaustion while Myles and I were occupied taking pictures of the Swiss Guard – the pope’s private army that consists of young German men who were very silly stripped costumes and all wear Harry Potter glasses.
We made pasta for dinner. We played cards. There was complicated toing and froing about baths and showers. Niccolo, in a moment of pure exhaustion and confusion, locked himself accidently in the bathroom. It was more than time to go to bed.