Thursday 22nd September, Rome

The Colosseum has steep steps (the downward slope once used to rush people out) and our guide moves a little fast for pictures or close examination, though we see a lot and our guide is knowledgeable. The brickwork is impressive too, the arches, thin bricks, mortar etc, it’s like a skeleton revealed after the centuries of looters were done and gone. Getting in with a tour had meant we skipped the lines, which were considerable indeed, and we walked through corridors that were under restoration with scaffolding that looked not unlike clumsy, blocky spider webs, all unfinished themselves. Our guide mentioned that around half a dozen arches took about 4 years (I think) to clean of smog and exhaust fumes.

shuffling over old stone
the echo
of tour guides

Cappella Sistina

It’s sometimes reported that Michelangelo resented the four years he spent painting the 1000+ metres of the Sistine Chapel’s roof, sneaking away to work on other consignments while Pope Julius II stepped out to fight the French. But for any visitor, it was clearly a worthwhile endeavor. Trying to do it justice with words is too hard. Perhaps it’s enough to say that when I looked up I felt awed. Not just by the work itself, but by his dedication and vision.

I’m probably better off talking about what it feels like to be a tourist in there and mention a couple of things we saw. The link in the text above is good for giving a view of some of the things that are tough to see from the floor of the chapel, along with history behind its construction.

From the Gallery of Maps

We went to the Vatican City on the day before we were due to leave Rome, which was a weekday in autumn and so it wasn’t too busy – comparatively speaking. Four million people are said to visit the museums per year and weekends are busy indeed. (From a conservation standpoint, this must be tough to deal with.) My wife and I started in the museums above, very, very slowly burrowing our way down to the Sistine Chapel, ‘very slowly’ due to the press of bodies rather than the distance we travelled.

The actual Chapel lies beyond many halls and below several floors of the museum, or so it seemed. After the twentieth room/passage/alcove/set of stairs it was hard to tell. We walked through gallery spaces where we saw a Matisse and a couple of Dalis – which was a nice contrast with some of the more gruesome religious art, of slayings and decapitations (as was in vogue at the time.) At each bottle-necked corridor it was one step forward, two steps back, with tour groups moving through like a mass of wandering ghosts, linked by their brightly coloured transistors and a knack for bumping into you. The crowd was like a train of cattle in many ways, it also moved without grace, rigid and processional without the same sense of purpose. Occasionally an arm would steal above the din and at its top, like a star on a Christmas tree, was the unblinking eye of a camera. Then it would retract, almost with shame.

Also from the Gallery of Maps

Not by design, but due to the direction of the arrows leading toward the Cappella Sistina, we came to the Gallery of Maps, which I loved. Wall-sized frescoes showed the regions of Italy during the 1580s in some detail, they were actually one of my favourite parts of the museums. Many sculptures, paintings and tapestries lined the corridors, but some of my favourite pieces were much more modern: like the occasional fan, used to cool things down. These were a sweet gesture but did little in the end – because the mass of bodies that nearly constantly surrounded you were too good at producing sweat and heat. An open window here and there was like an oasis, and quickly occupied.

There were dozens of guards, often hidden from sight, though possessed of great vantage points. Their uniforms were smart and they had the impassive faces that came from being given years worth of reasons not to smile – tourists and their sticky fingers. No matter how many velvet ropes or signs that requested folks ‘not to touch’, the allure of marble and other surfaces proved too strong for many of the visitors.

Finally we came to the Sistine Chapel after nearly an hour of shuffling, and we had to pause on the landing. It was spectacular. No doubt. But by the end of the maze, we found ourselves a little burned out. We’d seen a lot. At the same time, the crowd denied you the time to examine anything at leisure. We had to force ourselves to stay in the packed Chapel longer, but in the end, we were glad to get out and get some air.

Yep, this is from the Gallery of Maps too

What would be best, if you could pick a time when it wasn’t crowded (some folks recommend early morning, we should have researched but added the Vatican City to our list of sights on a whim the night before.) The Chapel deserves to be seen in relative peace, and in a big hit, all at once, with little prelude. Especially not an hour-long crawl through the corridors. That way you can better appreciate the rich, detailed, and perhaps surprisingly colourful work done by Michelangelo. As to how colourful he intended is hotly contended of course.

One more thing, because the Chapel is a functioning one, it remains a holy place and so the guards periodically let out a mighty ‘Shhhhhh’ in unison. It would resonate and was quite powerful. Though it worked for a time, it was like putting a lid on a boiling pot. The pressure would eventually build and the lid/talking would eventually rise again. But I loved that they did not give up.

Better or worse?

Consecration

Consecration by Pope Boniface IV (the name ‘Boniface’ meaning approximately ‘one who does good’) saved the Pantheon from the worst of the pillage and plunder in medieval times, “after the pagan filth was removed of course.

Easily one of the more spectacular and complete historical buildings in Rome, the Pantheon’s dome is a work of art in itself, being unreinforced as it is, and just so damn large. Up above, the oculus (with a diameter of around 8 metres) let the sky pour inside; and on a sunny day like the ones we had, would leave a scorch-mark of white on the walls.

Looking up 43 metres to the oculus

The crowds were quieter here and we were able to move around comfortably, for a while following a guy wearing a Witness Relocation Program shirt and his giant camera. The attendants were not wearing the frowns or glazed eyes of boredom or defeat that seem to come from putting up with tourists all day every day, they seemed in good cheer – which at times, seemed a little in short supply. No wonder, perhaps, with the recent austerity measures cutting pay for public sectors.

More taxes for everyone

The Pantheon Fountain stood outside, directly before its namesake, but as it was undergoing repairs, the music of water was absent. The ever-shifting crowds and horse-drawn carriages bypassed it, except when someone paused to drop a coin into a busker’s guitar case. While we chose a place to eat (and there were at least half a dozen places to eat in the piazza) I listened for a minute. He had a great voice, and possessed the showman’s earnestness of many buskers, but he really was doing a fantastic version of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. Stripped back as an acoustic ballad, it worked. Dropping the cheesy (if signature) sax helped too, it was one of the best covers I’ve heard and I found myself disappointed that he wasn’t there when we went back.

Looking out from inside the Pantheon

Looking to the Pantheon from the fountain

Begging in Rome

Obviously a 24 or so hour flight from Australia to Rome is going to be a bit of a haul. As a direct flight, there’s still a four hour stopover two thirds of the way there, which is a mixed blessing. Getting in to Dubai at 5am was nice to stretch the legs, but with four hours before the transfer, there wasn’t too much to do, unless you’re obsessed with duty free shopping.

When traveling big distances, you get good at waiting at least!

Once my wife and I actually got in to our hotel in Rome, instead of collapsing from fatigue as I thought we would, we found ourselves energised by the city. Calling Rome a ‘short’ city might not make sense, but in the historic city centre there are few buildings taller than 6 or so storeys (if I remember right) – compare that to Melbourne or other ‘young’ cities and you get the idea. And as every other building is architecturally inspiring, there’s a wonderful feeling of strolling down the cobblestones of a piece of living history. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s an old city and one that has resisted crass, neon facelifts for many years, and is all the more amazing for it.

Via Veneto

The first place we went looking for after consulting a simple map, was the Fontana Di Trevi. From Via Veneto it’s only about a ten-minute walk and so we charged down the streets, finding it easily enough, the steady flow of visitors helping out. Once we were close enough the rush of water sort of pulled us around a corner and into a narrow square lined with gelati shops and packed with visitors.

It’s hard to place it into words, but the 26 metre-tall fountain covers the lower portion of the Palazzo Poli and demands your attention where it rises out of the water, Tritons looking on with some sense of proprietorship. Even as we gaped round the corner, moved down and settled at its feet to watch people throw thousands of euros over their shoulders into the water, the fountain seemed to clear the square of voices. I could stare at it and hear nothing, see nothing of those around me (until someone bumps into me) and just let the sound of the water fill the air. Actually, it was hard to imagine it red – as is was for a time in 2007 – it’s so beautifully blue.

The obvious awe I felt looking at the fountain was marred by the obligatory hawkers (found in every major tourist attraction of course) with their tap-water roses, squelching, plastic-rubber-glue novelty items and pushy nature, one for which a stern face is only a partial rebuff. Sometimes a short, “grazie, no” does the trick as you walk by; other times just a shake of the head. Some would follow, walking along as best they could with the crowds, shoving a rose at you,  ‘a gift, a gift.’

Even though we’d expected them at the fountain, there were no beggars there, they were usually found elsewhere. Compared to the hawkers, they were hardly aggressive. They’d go for pity instead, sometimes with quite transparent efforts, lying on the cobblestones with a small child curled in arm beside a cup (often at churches), or by prostrating themselves half in the gutter/half in the street, hand outstretched with a face to the concrete. There they remained still and made no sound. Some had signs, some did not. One we saw had just fame written large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I saw only a small amount of people donate, and though we did at times, you couldn’t help but wonder if a coin or two would make much difference.

church steps
lead to a beggar’s cup
sunburnt tourists

Italy 2011

So my wife and I have recently returned from 3 weeks in Italy and after the jet lag wears off I’d like to inflict my thoughts, ramblings, writing and a few photos upon you.   It may be that I can manage semi-regular posts on the trip too (we shall see how I go getting back into the new term) broken into the four places we spent our time, being Rome, Amalfi, Florence and Venice.

During the long climb to the cupola of the ‘Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore’ in Florence, which everyone simply called the Duomo.