Saturday, May 7 2011
location: Via del Governo Vecchio, Rome, Italy
This morning I woke up and found some coffee in the kitchen cabinet. There was also a small aluminum coffee maker designed to produce coffee using heat and pressure instead of (as in the case of most American coffee makers) heat and gravity. I'd only had one shot of espresso since landing in Rome, so I was in need a reup. Somehow I figured out how to operate the thing, and it produced a beverage resembling espresso. Truth be told, though, I'm finding Italian espresso to be both too bitter and too inconsequential to suit my coffee habits. I'm the kind of person who likes to sip my libations leisurely, preferably while perusing some form of reading material. But Italian espresso culture is all about the quick pick-me-up, designed so you can be on your way unencumbered by a mug for a few hours (until your next shot of espresso).
Today Gretchen and I would be spending most of our time on the other side of the Tiber River, mostly in Vatican City. We crossed the Ponte St. Angelo to the wall of the castle on the other side, and made our way (amid a throng of tourists) to St. Peter's Square, the largest piazza we'd seen so far. It's a grand and tidy place as befits the front yard for the seat of the world's largest religion (depending on how adherents are counted). Far from the actual buildings, we encountered a slow-moving line which appeared to consist of those wanting to get into St. Peter's Basilica. Since this was one of the places we wanted to visit, we grudgingly joined that line. It turned out, though, that there was a place further up in the line where there was enough confusion for people not waiting in line to suddenly join it. Keep that in mind should you ever want to get into St. Peter's.
After going through a metal detector (a crazed person once smashed the Pietà with a hammer), we were loosed into the vast indoor cavern that is St. Peter's. The place is so vast (600 feet long with a central domed space reaching 420 feet high) that it actually manages to absorb the sound of the thousands of babbling visitors inside, reducing their exclamations and footfalls to a murky muted roar. The place is full of fine statues (including numerous marble babies the size of adult sumo wrestlers), columns, paintings, and decorative frescoes. As with all things in Rome, much of it was made from reconditioned chunks looted from older Roman buildings. Its enormous expense led to the novel idea of selling indulgences (collecting a tax in exchange for permission to sin), which was one of the morally-dubious papal innovations that precipitated the Reformation. It's a cautionary tale about how financial overextension can lead to unpredictable blowback. Evidently, though, in the 1500s and 1600s, the Catholic Church decided it needed a home befitting an intergalactic religion, and the results are certainly impressive (if a bit over the top).
We toured the basement of the basilica, where massive marble-clad arches support the overlying structure and where tombs of various popes can be found.
Once we emerged again at the surface, we re-entered the basilica specifically to look at one of its biggest attractions, Michelango's Pietà, imprisoned forever behind a layer of thick acrylic. (Gretchen claims to have been to Rome before the Pietà had been vandalized, and in those days you could walk right up and touch it, though that seems unlikely, as the attack occurred in 1972 when she was sixteen months old.) It's not easy making marble look alive, or as if it had been alive and recently died, but there it is, the Pietà. Sadly, it loses something being behind transparent plastic.
We left the Vatican (crossing an international frontier, as it happens, though there is no immigration or customs), and had lunch at a nearby café (though it was far enough from the Vatican to filter out our landwhale compatriots). I ordered coffee and a pomodoro pizza, and Gretchen had some sort of pasta dish that was presented with a dusting of cheese. In this case we'd said "senza formaggio," but this request had only been observed for my pizza. I should mention, by the way, that cheeseless pizza actually has everything I want in a pizza. The problem with Roman pizza, if there is any, is that generally there is an overly-restrictive limit to the number and diversity of toppings.
We returned to the Vatican after lunch, this time going to the other side of the walled city-state and entering its famed museum (where, unlike St. Peter's, there's an admission to be paid). I'd been dismayed about how completely contaminated Rome's pagan heritage had been by the overlay of subsequent Christian culture, but in the Vatican museum, of all places, I finally found a place where ancient pagan culture was given its due. The Vatican museum has a great collection of ancient marble and bronze statues from Egypt, Greece, and particularly Rome, including some (like the Laocoön) whose rediscovery changed the course of art history.
I'm actually not much of a fan of lush wall-and-ceiling-filling frescoes. In the Vatican Museum, there are a number of chapels decorated by the best. There's a Raphæl chapel and (of course), Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and (somewhat amusingly) there are connecting hallways decorated by modern artists. But it's all too busy for my eye. This is going to hurt some people I know, but I think Michelangelo should have stuck with sculpture.
The Sistine Chapel is the final stop on the Vatican Museum tour. The place is mobbed, and docents futilely try to hush the awed but excited picture-snapping crowd. Light there is murky at best, perhaps to preserve the pigments (which have hundreds more years of light refraction ahead of them).
The museum dumps you out into St. Peter's Basilica. We walked around its vast interior an additional time to see how it looked when the sun was lower in sky, casting down heavenly beams from the cupola. Evening services were happening at the time, though these were only available to the faithful, and the St. Peter's staff took any sign of hesitation as evidence of faithlessness.
Tonight Gretchen wanted to dine in Trastevere, a neighborhood of narrow winding cobblestone streets and piazzas similar to the one surrounding our apartment, but across the Tiber. To get there from the Vatican, we descended the flood wall down several flights of steps (they stank of urine and were heavily decorated with graffiti) to the west bank of the river, and then walked along a path reserved for cyclists and joggers. We ascended again to street level at Ponte Sisto.
Gretchen was looking for vegetarian restaurant in Trastevere, but the placed proved to be closed (and finding it required borrowing a couple minutes of someone's WiFi-equipped laptop at an outdoor café). So we decided to go to another place, a popular pizzeria called Dar Poeta. We had a twenty minute wait, so we went to a bar around the corner and drank Peroni, the local beer. It's a reasonably good light warm-weather lager. It's common in Rome to see people drinking 8 ounce glasses of beer, but we had the full 16 ouncers.
Dar Poeta is a multimedia experience. We shoehorned ourselves into an outdoor table between two other couples and got a half litre of the house red wine (generally in Italy you can't go wrong ordering the house red). We had a course of bruschetta (about which I am officially meh) followed by a couple of absolutely delicious pizzas (mine featured porcini mushrooms). When the inevitable rose merchants came through, their pitch reached only as far as the couple to my right.
Approaching St. Peter's Basilica from the east.
St. Peter's Square.
St. Peter's Square.
An ancient obelisk looted from Egypt in pagan Roman times, repurposed for Christianity with a pathetic crowning cross.
Sculptures of saints on the St. Peter's winged collonades.
The dome of St. Peter's Basilica seen from below.
A sculpture of some random cardinals.
A fresco and a crucifix.
The bigness within St. Peters.
Gretchen with the bigness.
Saints and seagulls above St. Peter's collonade.
Me with a photo of the recently-sainted Pope John Paul II. You couldn't get away from mugs of this guy. One wonders what was the hurry to saint him, and were scientific methods used to unambiguously establish his sainthood.
Outside the wall of Vatican City.
Caravaggio is really the only painter from the Renaissance that I actually like.
An amusing painting in the Vatican museum showing the surface features of the moon, the lines and moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. It was big of the Vatican to include this painting, given all the shit they gave Galileo, the guy who discovered these things.
A beautiful granite lion, presumably original Egyptian (and not a Roman copy).
A lovely pagan relief.
I love the reliefs that don't rehash cliché Bible stories.
The the Laocoön.
A Vatican parking lot.
Me and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
St. Peter's with the sun lower in the sky.
Love those heavenly shafts of sunlight.
The front of St. Peter's.
Peaking into an artist's studio across the street from Dar Poeta in Trastevere.
A guy making insect sculptures from pieces of reeds along our walk home from Trastevere. You see a lot of hustles in Rome designed to separate tourists from their money: guys dressed up as immobile gilded Pharaohs, guys dressed up as immobile Statues of Liberty, guys selling roses, dolls, electric bubble blowers, or LED devices, and old folks and the differently-abled simply begging for money. But this was the first we'd seen of a guy making insects from reeds. Intrigued, Gretchen bought the one she liked. [But effective hustle memes are invariably copied, and eventually we would come upon someone else making reed insects as well.]
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