Saturday, May 7, 2011

Italy Day 3 - Vatican City and a Taste of Rome

Tuesday, May 3

We arrived at a phenomenal hotel in Rome in just under two hours on a high-speed train.  We were suddenly in a big international city.  This time we would enjoy 24-hour reception at the hotel, not 5-minute reception like in Florence.  We said goodnight, slept in a bit the next morning, and prepared for a our reserved visit to the Vatican. Knowing our food options would be limited inside, we grabbed a heavy and quick lunch outside the walls of Vatican city.  We were surprised that the neighborhood consisted of apartments.  Therefore, our lunch was meant for locals, not tourists.  It was my cheapest and best meal in Italy: a panini and a slice of pizza. 

We could not help but encounter a mob scene at the Vatican.  But, no waiting in line due to our reservation.  We entered the Vatican museum.  Through the ages, the Vatican has collected riches and artifacts from all over the world and preserved them.  Inside the museum, we saw mummies from Egypt, Greek pottery, Roman sculpture, and Renaissance painting.  However, we would soon enter the Vatican apartments, studded with vanities fit for a monarch and financed from indulgences.  It was this lifestyle that sent Martin Luther over the edge.  Some rooms could have been confused for Versailles.  The most lavish was the map room, containing a gilded ceiling with frescoes.  We also saw two of the best sculptures--of Apollo and Laocoön--that inspired all who followed. 

Then we entered the main event: The Raphael Rooms.  Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael at only 25 to paint the walls of this living quarters.  The first room was completed after Raphael's death: The Constantine Room, commemorating the victory of Christianity over pagan Rome.  Then we saw the three-wall sprawl of Raphael's "Liberation of St. Peter," interesting to us because of our next visit to St. Peter's Basilica.  Then the room that knocks everyone out: the one containing "The School of Athens" on one wall and "The Disputa" on the opposite.  In the "School of Athens" Raphael brings together the classical all-stars.  The twist is that some Renaissance figures play the part of classical masters (like de Vinci as Plato).  Raphael also painted himself in the scene, as well as Michelangelo much later.  Just next door, Michelangelo had been working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  "The Disputa" is the ultimate religious scene, demonstrating that the classics can coexist with religion (as the Renaissance projected). 

 Raphael - The School of Athens (1511)

We now entered the Sistine Chapel, the Pope's private chapel and place where new popes are elected.  Here Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint 12 apostles.  Michelangelo insisted that he paint the history of the world until Christ.  It took him four years of laying on his back on six-story-high scaffolding to complete the masterpiece.  I had imagined the Sistine Chapel to be much bigger and with more contents.  But, with tour groups everyday, it is best to keep it empty.  We admired each section with the help of Rick Steves.  Accompanying the ceiling is also the altar fresco of the Last Judgement, just as spectacular.  I was surprised how vivid every picture was even from far way.  I was blown away.

 Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel (1512)
(photo taken from

We took the shortcut to St. Peter's Basilica next door in time for 5:00 pm mass.  We were surprised how much Italian we could understand.  To see Mass in the largest and most elaborate religious place in the world was amazing.  I sat staring at the ornamentation the whole time.  I am glad we could sit and digest it a bit.  After mass, we explored the church and the crypt beneath.  There had been a beatification ceremony just two days before our visit to elevate the status of Pope John Paul II toward sainthood (not there yet).  Therefore his tomb had been raised to the basilica floor.  My favorite part was seeing the canopy altar that I have always seen on television on Christmas Eve mass.  Part of it had been created from melted bronze from the front of the Pantheon (which we would late see). 

When we left the basilica, it was raining a bit, but with sun on the horizon.  Before we knew it a full rainbow had emerged (representing our overall luck, I suppose).  Who knows?  Maybe it had something to do with John Paul II, whose giant poster was at the end of the rainbow.  It was nice to have the square to ourselves; it is usually a mob scene.

We continued on to a pizza dinner, I enjoyed the famous capricciosa variety, while the girls had their tomato basil.  We hopped on the metro to go on a brief nighttime walking tour.  At our stop, Nicole did not get off the metro fast enough and the door closed on her.  Clara and I were panicked.  We walked out of the metro station to stay put, hoping Nicole would find her way back.  As we walked suddenly Nicole appeared, having gotten off at the next stop and jumped on the opposite line.  A big relief, a piece of rainbow luck.

We emerged at the Spanish Steps, a public square in front of the Spanish embassy that thrives every night.  We continued to Trevi Fountain, a grandiose Baroque fountain plopped in the middle of narrow side streets.  We had expected a grand plaza to house this mammoth monument.  Instead it was in a small corner. Time for bed at this point.  We would explore more of Rome on our second day.

To see pictures of this day, click "Italy Day 3 - Rome and Vatican (5-3)" at

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