Sunday, April 17, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 8: Vatican II

We actually went to St. Peter’s Basilica twice while we were there, which was one of the nice things about staying in a place for a while and not trying to rush about squeezing everything that Italy had to offer into this one trip. We could take the time to revisit things. We’re “slow tourists,” as Kim put it, and it takes us a while to go through a place. It’s good to take your time and see things, after all.

The first time we visited the Basilica we had to cut things short in order to make it to our appointment with Andi the Tour Guide and we thought there was more to be seen, so we went back a couple of days later. This turned out to be instructive since the Basilica was in some ways very different the second time. The Pope was planning some kind of event for the following day the second time we were there, and portions of the Basilica that we had been free to wander through the first time were blocked off the second time.

The first time we went we were walking from the Vatican Museum. This meant figuring out which direction to turn since if we guessed wrong we’d end up circumnavigating the entire country, which is a strange thing to consider especially when you know you could actually do that in an afternoon in this case. It took a few consultations with GoogleMaps and some random guesswork but we got the right answer in the end. You end up going past the entrance to the Vatican parking area (which is guarded by a number of men in ridiculous blue uniforms with broad white collars and puffy jodhpur pants who you know could kill you without a second thought if they had to, uniforms or no) and underneath an ancient arch to find yourself in St. Peter’s Square, which is actually kind of roundish but one assumes that was taken into account at some point.

The second time we took the bus over from Testaccio and got off at the Castel Sant’angelo – a massive pile of a building that started out as Hadrian’s tomb before being rebuilt and expanded into a fortress by various and sundry popes beginning around the time that the Western Roman Empire was in its final stages of collapse, so it’s been a while. It’s really quite something to see, though we elected not to go inside. The bus drops you off across the Tiber and you approach it by crossing a large and impressive bridge full of tourists, vendors, and statuary.

We cruised around the outside of the fortress and ended up walking past a busker singing a recent American pop song before making a brief stop in a religious bookstore (in much the same way that Terry Pratchett noted that all recorded media left in cars eventually become Queen’s Greatest Hits, all bookstores within a certain distance of the Vatican are religious bookstores regardless of how they start) in order to escape the importunate hordes of selfie-stick sellers and ticket hawkers. Eventually we found our way to St. Peter’s Square once again.

It’s a vast open piazza surrounded on two sides by a curving line of colonnades topped with statues, and you’re free to move about as you wish within the space. There’s a fountain in the middle and a giant obelisk topped with a cross, and you can see it was designed to be a gathering spot. We were there on relatively cool days so being out in the open under the sun was rather pleasant, though I can see how this would get fairly intense during the summer. The crowds were fairly dispersed as well, something else that probably gets more intense in the summer.

Most of St. Peter’s Square is in Vatican City, but not all. This photo was taken from the steps of the Basilica looking out and you can see the gap where the two curves of columns would meet if they were extended. That’s the border. Beyond that is Rome, which is of course in Italy.

The border is marked by a low open metal fence that comes up maybe waist-high and that kind of funnels you into a small number of openings toward the sides. There aren’t any real gates, just a sort of zigzag that you have to do to get through, and suddenly you’re in another country.

Our goal both times was the Basilica, which is the main church that the Pope uses these days (though it is not, according to the source I just looked up, the official cathedral of the Diocese of Rome; that’s the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran – so there, that is a thing you know now). You have to go through security to get into it and you need to be wearing the proper masks. I saw a group of tourists get sent away – after the security checkpoint – because they were wearing those paper disposable masks instead of the FFP2 masks that are required. Do not mess with Vatican security. You will not win and you may well find yourself in Purgatory when they’re done with you.

The security checkpoint to get in is much like security checkpoints everywhere in the world though with a better view. You stand in a long serpentine line where you can spend your time examining St. Peter’s Square. Eventually you get to an endpoint where you can choose which of maybe a dozen sublines to join to get to the scanner. You pick the slowest one, of course, and eventually make your way to the scanner where you put everything in a bin and let it go through. They only have one or two bins per scanner, which means that the only person on the other side when your stuff goes through is you. I imagine this cuts down on theft. You send the bin back over, put yourself back together, and then get on your way because you still have a walk of maybe a hundred yards and one last checkpoint to clear before you actually find yourself with a clear path to the Basilica.

Like all Roman buildings the outside is not that impressive. It’s grand in an austere sort of way, and it’s big – sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, but it’s big – but it really doesn’t give you any hint of the sheer spectacle within.

The first thing you have to understand about the Basilica of St. Peter is precisely that fact – it’s huge. It is immense. It is bigger than that even. It was clearly designed to make those who enter feel small before the majesty of God and even if you are not particularly religious you will understand that feeling in the very core of your being, more deeply with every step forward that you take into that space.

You enter directly into the nave and this is what you are confronted with.

It was slightly different the second time, with the middle blocked off and the baldacchino (the big canopy) up front surrounded by chairs, but the impression was much the same.

From there you can just wander around pretty much anywhere you want, within limits. And every step of the way you think about how big the place is, and how absolutely covered it is with artwork, gilding, and engraved words. This is the largest church in the world as measured by interior space, and it is not shy about letting you know this.

It can, in fact, be difficult to grasp even when you’re standing directly in front of it. I took a photo of this door – which, for context, is not all that much different from a lot of the doors in the Basilica – and immediately thought, “No, I will not remember why I took this photo unless there is a person in there for scale.” Fortunately Kim proved willing to serve and this is what came out of it.

It’s hugely, massively, big. And when you remember that this place was built in the late 1500s and early 1600s, that fact is even more impressive. That’s a lot of stone to be shifting around without power tools and construction machinery.

The baldocchino was designed by Bernini, one of the main architects of the Vatican along with Michelangelo and a couple of others. As part of my “I’m just going to appreciate things while I’m standing in front of them and then figure out what they were when I got home” strategy of tourism that I employed while in Rome, I had no idea of any of this while I was there. I just knew it was astonishing. It’s bronze (not wood, which is what I had assumed at the time) and it’s almost a hundred feet (thirty meters) tall, and once you realize that you could fit several more of them in there without damaging the ceiling in the slightest you start to get a handle on just how huge the Basilica is.

The first time we were there we could get right up under it, and it’s just as astonishing up close.

This is what’s behind it. We never saw anyone anywhere near it as it was blocked off even the first time, but it was still rather impressive.

Between the two visits we got to wander around the place pretty thoroughly, and I have no doubt that there remain bits of it that we never even saw let alone tried to explore. It just goes on. Along the sides there are a number of little chapels, all of them festooned with exquisite artworks, including one chapel behind a curtain that you had to get permission from a guard to enter and where no photos were allowed. You could go in if you were quiet and respectful. We sat there for a few minutes. It was peaceful, amid the din.

At one point I ended up going into the Treasury Museum, which is off to one side. You have to go through the gift shop in order to get there, which is a pretty smooth design choice when you think about it. Kim decided that she didn’t really need to see this and did really need a break so she stayed in the gift shop, which helpfully provides benches for just such situations, while I paid my couple of euros and went in.

I figure it would be about coins and other similar things, but no – it was about treasures, broadly defined, mostly of precious metals and all of them astonishing though they don’t let you take any photographs of anything. There are guards posted all over to keep an eye on you, though none of them told me to be silent so that’s something. They funnel you through on a prescribed path so once you start you have to go through the whole thing, but every room was fascinating. I was the only one there the whole time I was in it, and I think my fellow tourists were missing out.

Afterwards we spent some time at the gift shop looking around at the various Pope-themed items for sale, which is a different kind of fascinating. Also rosary beads. If you’re someone who finds rosary beads useful, boy do I have a shop for you.

The thing about the Basilica, however, aside from the sheer scale of the place, is the art. Much like the Sistine Chapel, there isn’t a single square inch of the place that doesn’t have some artwork on it. Some of it is paintings. I like this one because it looked to me like the guy standing in the center was saying something along the lines of, "What are you doing over there? We have better things over here!" and this amused me. You have to find your own meaning in art, I suppose.

But most of it is stonework – either statues or friezes. These were just a few of the ones that impressed me. There are more – there are so many more – and after a while you have to take a break and do something else.

Again, though, you really need to understand the scale of the things. All of those statues are bigger than I am, sometimes by whole number multiples, and yet in the vast echoing space of the Basilica they seemed small. When the kids were little we used to go to Sam’s Club and get some of the things we needed in the bulk quantities we needed them, and sometimes we’d splash out for a treat – a bag of M&Ms, for example. In the context of the warehouse where we bought it that always seemed like a reasonably sized bag of M&Ms. And then we’d get it home and realize that we had, once again, purchased a burlap sack of M&Ms that could keep us in a sugar coma for months. Looking at those statues felt kind of like that, only without the sugar rush. I did try to take a few photographs that would indicate that.

There were a couple of artworks that stood out even among the general splendor.

Sometimes it was because they were so phenomenally wonderful that you had to stop and stare at them – even if you are, like me, someone who tends to get easily saturated when it comes to works of art, some deep-seated portion of your being will reach up into your brain and slap it until you stop whatever else you are doing and focus, just to get you to try to comprehend what you are seeing. This is what it is like to stand in front of Michelangelo’s Pietá. It's just one of those moments you have to experience.

Sometimes things are just funny, though. Throughout the Basilica there are these carvings of pigeons. I’m sure they’re symbolic and they’re probably meant to be doves but pigeons are, after all, a species of dove and mostly these looked like pigeons to me.

And sometimes you just have to stop and wonder just what people were smoking when they came up with things. I mean, I get the point of it – life is fleeting, death awaits us all, and so on – but the skeleton was seriously creepy. I hope whoever designed it got some therapy afterward. Or at least a stiff drink.

Eventually you reach max capacity and have to leave. Both times we were there we took a few moments in front of the Basilica to just sort of stare aimlessly and process it all, a task made immeasurably easier by the distraction provided by the guards.

I have no idea why the folks who are in charge of such things insist that they wear uniforms that were considered gaudy during the Reformation, but as a tourist looking to reset my brain after a couple of hours in the Basilica of St. Peter’s they were just the thing I needed.


Ewan said...

Agreed on the Pieta.

My favourite "our church is bigger than yours" element, which I assume you saw, was the literal markers on the floor saying "this is where the cathedral in DC stops." "This is where the next biggest church in the world stops." Cracked me up.

David said...

HA! Actually I missed those. Thanks! :)