Early February brought us to one of the gems of the world, Rome, Italy – a city with a deep and rich history. It was an absolute thrill to walk down the roads of Caesars, Popes and so many others who have made a mark on history.
We spent three days in Roma. The weather wasn’t great, mainly rainy and ~50 F for a high, but being there at this time of year meant that the crowds were a fraction of what they are during the summer. As a friend once told me, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” We dressed accordingly and were just fine as we wandered the ancient streets.
On Friday, we visited the Colosseum. It was built in 70-80 A.D. specifically for gladiator fights. In its day, it seated 65,000 people! (The Lambeau Field of the ancient world.) So much of it is still standing because they used some type of concrete to mortar the bricks together that is seemingly indestructible. Scientists still haven’t figured out how to replicate it. In addition to gladiator fights, the Colosseum was host to “animal games” and a wide variety of events that entertained all classes of ancient Roman society.
After leaving the Colosseum, we walked along the Roman Forum. It was the center of religious and political life in Rome. It is a large, rectangular plaza, surrounded by 50 buildings, including churches, arches and temples, some dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. Although much has been damaged by time and catastrophes, it has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of walking the same paths as Romulus, the first king of Rome, or Julius Caesar.
Rome has an amazing mixture of remnants of pagan and Christian faiths. For example, the Pantheon, which was an incredible view just outside our hotel window, was built 2000 years ago. It was used for pagan ceremonies and has been consistently functioning as a church since then. The interior is completely round. In the huge domed ceiling, there’s a hole, called an “oculus,” that is over 20 feet in diameter. When they built it, they knew that if the door was closed, there’d be enough pressure inside to keep the rain out! Now that it’s a church and a tourist attraction, the door is open all the time so rain does fall in. They rope off the area and there are drains in the tiled floor to get rid of the water. To this day, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
On Saturday, we took a semi-private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Vatican City is its own country – the smallest and yet perhaps the richest country on the planet. St. Peter’s is the largest church in the world. So you have the largest church in the world in the smallest country of the world. There are only 900 residents of Vatican City and you must be a descendent from the original families who were there when the Vatican was founded in 1929 to be able to live there. It has its own postal service and there are no taxes.
The Basilica itself is breath-taking. None of our photos do it justice. The paintings and sculptures are not only breath-taking, the sheer number of them boggles the mind. Every space seems an artistic treasure. Most would agree that the finest and most moving of the statues in the Basilica is Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It, and the statue of David in Florence, are considered his greatest sculptures.
Note: we learned that early Roman sculptures were colorfully painted. As our tour guide said, “Just imagine walking through town and seeing vibrantly colored statues everywhere.” This would have been great to see! It really makes you rethink the “plain, white marble” of the statues we see now.
The absolute highlight of the tour for me was the Sistine Chapel. It was built simply for the Pope to pray in; it is part of the original papal apartment. It is named after its first “client,” Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere. In addition to its use by the pope, it is also the site of the “papal conclave.” In other words, this is where the cardinals meet to vote on the next pope.
The chapel is not huge but the artwork is incredible. (Photos are not allowed. Click here for photos from Wikipedia.) The two long side walls were painted by Roman artists. One side is painted with depictions of the life of Moses, and the other is painted with depictions of the life of Christ. What people really go to see, however, is the ceiling and the front wall because they were painted by Michelangelo. What floored me is that Michelangelo was a sculptor and had hardly painted any frescoes before he did this ceiling! He built his own scaffolding and stood upright to paint. (Many stories incorrectly state that he painted it while lying down.) It took him about 5 years. When he was in his 60’s he painted the front wall of the chapel. It depicts the Day of Judgement, with people going to heaven and hell.
A funny story about the front wall. There was a lot of controversy about the nudes that Michelangelo included in his paintings. In particular, the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said that the paintings were disgraceful and belonged instead in the public baths and taverns. When Michelangelo was finishing the Day of Judgement, he put Cesena’s face on Minus, the judge of the underworld. He put donkey ears on him and a snake wrapped around his legs, biting at his crotch. When Cesena toured the chapel with the Pope, right before it was revealed to the public, he recognized his face on the guy in hell and went crazy. He begged the Pope to make Michelangelo change it. The Pope said that his jurisdiction didn’t extend to hell. LOL!
In addition to visiting some of the major sites, we thoroughly enjoyed simply walking around the city. We ate wonderful meals topped with even better wine, and popped into church after church for artwork, architecture and sculptures that amazed us.
On Sunday, we returned to St. Peter’s Square. Every Sunday at noon, the Pope does a brief sermon (in Italian) from a window in the residence. He then gives a Papal Blessing to everyone gathered there. Afterward, we walked to an area called Trastevere and had a late lunch before heading to the airport. Our own “Roman holiday” came to an end with a short, 75-minute, flight back to Zurich.