Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Rome Sweet Rome: The return of the Van

written 24th March

I am so glad we decided to have an easy day yesterday and not try and rush into Rome from St Felice.  Instead we spent the day vaguely looking for somewhere to do washing (failed) and the evening at the Lido watching the hookers whilst we cooked dinner - well we were there first! and it was fascinating, more for the behaviour of the traffic than the ladies of the night though... - before finding a parking spot well away from whore-central and near the train station.

BTW, in case you were wondering, Carrefour.it, somewhat similar to Carrefour.fr except the muesli comes in much smaller packets for the same price - they don't really do breakfast cereal here we are finding - and the easer bunny in france must be the size of an actual elephant.  who needs a 10kg chocolate egg and who can afford it at €99???

anyhoo, off to the Vatican, bright and early.

The Vatican is the smallest independent sovereign state and is ruled by Europe's only absolute Monarch, in the form of the Pope.  Although it has just 500 residents, it has its own judicial system, post office, banks, currency, radio station and newspaper (printed in every tourist language conceivable so you to can read what the pope reads!).  It is believed to be sited on the grave of St Peter, whom the catholic church deems to be the first Pope, by which they mean God's chosen representative on earth, a leader who is subject only to God.

The rise to power of the Catholic church began in 312 AD when the emperor of the time, Constantine, converted to Christianity.  The roman empire began to fall under attacks from the germanic invaders from the north and the Pope enlisted help from Charlemagne of France, later crowned Emperor of Rome, to try and defeat them.  Although somewhat victorious, this however only led to power struggles between the Pope and the Emperor which continued for centuries and left Italy open for feudal lords in many regions to successfully assert their independence.  Eventually, as had been discussed elsewhere, Italy was finally unified by Vittorio Emanuele II and in 1929, Mussolini begrudgingly granted the Pope sovereignty over his tiny kingdom. 

Outside, there are no visible signs that you have passed from Rome in to The Vatican but stepping into the Vatican Museum was like walking into a busy airport terminal.  Echo-y spaces, high ceilings, criss-crossing escalators, marble staircases, bag x-rays, body scanners, monitors telling you which galleries were closed and people milling about everywhere.  Having by chance, coincided our visit with the day and time of the weekly papal audience, once we found our way through the throng and up the stairs, there wasn't a queue for tickets and in we went.

Having been warned by every guidebook that the museum is vast - with good reason! - we headed first to the Sistine Chapel so as not to end up there with museum fatigue and just wow.


again, have seen some pictures in the guidebook but nothing prepares you for the vastness and colours and dimensionality of the thing.  The pictures round the sides are good and all but enormous figures on the ceiling just seem to be about to leap out and down at you.  Just amazing!

Phototaking is forbidden but here are some inadequate contraband to give you the vaguest, vaguest idea.  You do, absolutely, if you haven't already, have to go yourself.

We managed to get a seat around the edge so spent about an hour in there, just taking it all in and listening to the audio guide, which was interesting, but not as good as the guided tour we managed to tag ourselves onto outside in the courtyard of the pinecone later on - there is also supposed to be no talking in there so to give the guides something to talk people throuhg, there are lots of picture boards out in the courtyard where they head first to do their spiel - which is a nice idea.  To be completely honest, some of that time was spent trying to remember the name of the fourth Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle (Leonardo btw) - well you can't always keep your mind on higher things...

Anyway.  It was Pope Julius II, who also started the rebuilding of the Basilica of St Peter into it's current form, who kicked off the redecoration of the Sistine Chapel.

The frescos on the sides, by people such as Botticelli and Perugino, and which show the parallel lives of Jesus and Moses were already on the side walls, with the Popes between the windows, and he decided that the ceiling, which was at that time just stars was not grand enough and wanted the 12 Apostles up there.

He had a reputation for being an exacting task master and a difficult man and was already not in the best of health so wanted the job done quickly.  The Sistine Chapel is apparently the same dimensions as the Temple of Soloman and the ceiling is vast.  His experts estimated that the job would take the artist and 12 assistants 15 years to complete it.

Not surprisingly, the big names of the day, Raphael, Botticelli et al, who were approached were not keen, believing it would be difficult, take ages when they could be working more profitably elsewhere and that it wouldn't enhance their CV much.  However, there was a young upstart sculptor in town, fresh off the cart from Florence who was going around making waves and who, in Raphael's opinion, needed taking down a peg or two.  Thus it was, that Michelangelo, a 24-year-old newcomer with no fresco, or even painting, experience was appointed for the job.  Apparently he spent time with the assistants learning fresco techniques and then fired the lot, setting out to do his first Apostle, St Peter, alone.  It didn't get off to an auspicious start as on his retunr the next day, it had all fallen off the ceiling and shattered on the ground.  He ran away to Florence hoping to hide.  But if the Pope wants you to do something, do it you shall or die in the doing so he was dragged kicking and screaming back to Rome, by the silly suited Swiss Guard - serious, what is going on with that uniform!.  His last ditch attempt to get out of it was to try and set some ridiculous ground rules that he believed the Pope would not countenance.  So he said he would do it on three conditions:

He could paint what he liked

None one could come in whilst he was working or see it before it was finished

Once it was finished, he would not change a thing, in fact, he would go away and never paint again.

Thinking that would be an end to it, he was dismayed when the Pope agreed to all three, and locked himself alone in the vast space - something like 30m by 40m by 22m high or some such dimensions - where he did his own designs, mixed his own paints and built his own scafolding.

He finished the masterpiece we see today in a mere four years so Pope Julius II did indeed get to see it before his death a couple of years later, although apprently all he said was that he felt the figures looked too poor and they should have more gold on them.  Michaelangelo countered that we all are born with nothing and die with nothing so how can he paint people with such riches, and anyway, he wasn't going to change anything.  So the Pope couldn't really argue.

and just wow. 

It has been restored in recent years so the colours are back to what they apparently were, before years of grime and candle and incense smoke sullied them and really, wow.

After his abortive attempt at apostles, and as an educated and religious man, Michaelangelo decided he instead wanted to tackel the subject of the Fall of Man - a little bit of light entertainment then!

The nine panels in the centre of the ceiling are therefore divided into three groups showing;

God Dividing light from Darkness, The creation of the Sun and Moon, The Dividing of the Waters and the Land

The Creation of Adam (that famous finger touch!), The Creation of Eve, Original Sin

The Sacrifice of Noah, The Flood, The Drunkeness of Noah - and therefore Man's inextricable fall into the binds of sin

As I say, cheery stuff!

Down the sides are images of the Ancestors of Christ - to show his place and importance throughout history - some of the Prophets and the Sybyls, whilst in the corners are Old Testament scenes of salvation, such as Moses and the Bronze Serpent and David and Goliath.

Just wow

The other big masterpiece is of course Michaelangelo's Last Judgement, painted at the other end of his career when he was in his 70's or 80's and which takes up the whole of the end wall.  Working alone once more, although this time not continuously, the subject matter is again the consequences of Man's sin, this time showing Jesus, with Mary at his side, and surrounded by saints, instructing the angels to raise the righteous to heaven and cast the sinners to the city of the damned by way of the boat over the river Styx - once I finish the Iliad I will be looking for Dante's inferno methinks!

The work was revolutionary as it showed angels without wings, saints without halos, grotesquely deformed condemned sinners and lots of nakedness - so much so that one of the cardinals, who saw it before it was finished when he should have looked, made a complaint.  He apparently appears in the fresco, at the bootom right-hand corner, wrapped by a serpent and condemned to hell for ever - nice one!  There is apparently also a self portrait of the artist in there, as the face on the skin held by St Bartholomew in commemoration of the fact that he was martyred by being flayed alive.  Not where I would have put myself but there we go.

The work took 8 years to complete this time but Michaelangelo refused payment as he believed that the papacy of the time was too rich and too obsessed by money and he wanted his fresco to show them the error of their ways.  Surely a better point would have been made by taking lots of their money for it and giving it away but who am I to argue.

Out then, at last, and on past hall after painted hall of 'stuff'.

After some lunch we had brought - partly we have learnt from our several, previous attemtps  the folly of seeing eminent things without lunch, but mainly because we had some left over from yesterday than any actual planning... - we headed back into the warren of the museum - if you want any sort of guide you have to buy it and "map" they give you with the audio guide merely tells you the numbers of the main attractions with a vague indication of in what order you might find them - you end up walking in circles a lot.

The Vatican Museum is not just about religious art commissioned by Popes, it is also a repositary of all sorts of significant finds, archeology of different civilisations with the general principal that all art is inspired by God, whether it is christian, pagan or otherwise.  Absolutely nothing to do with acquiring great wealth through objects, not at all....

Anyway, we saw Egyptian Tombs, complete with mummies, urns to put their internal organs in and little clay figurines to do the chores assigned to them in the afterlife - bit like fantasia I imagine...,

Roman Art, Ancient maps, Tapestries, art, more art and endless corridors with painted ceilings.

We eventually made our way to the Raphael rooms - the other 'must see' apparently - which is a suite of rooms commissioned by Julius II when he ascended to the Papacy because he didn't want to use the rooms of his hated predecessor.

There are four main rooms, which were already fresco'd by leading names of the day but he ordered them all removed and for Raphael to re-paint them. 
Being also commissioned to work on the new Basilica, Raphael only had time to do one of the rooms himself and only supervised the others.

His room, the Sengatura, explores the theme of truth, both through Theology and Philosophical discussion and to be honest, whilst i know he was good, he was probably right that the Sistine Chapel would not augment his CV as they just aren't in anyway as good as Michaelangelo's...

The Constantine room

and the Room of the Fire at the Bourgo represent those particular topics - nice to keep things simple! - and were not done by him.  So there you go.  Still quite impressive though.

And just to round the day off, some modern art to counter the old stuff - some of it just a bit random...

The prescribed route took us inescapably back through the Sistine Chapel, where we found that we had definately done the right thing in getting there early.  Although less crowded by this point in the day, it is seemingly only lit by the natural light which comes in through the big windows so in the morning sunshine, the colours had been brilliant, whereas in the dull, clouded over light of late afternoon, it was all somewhat drab and much less impressive.  So there you go, if you do go, and I really, really think you should, a) don't assume it is a good indoor thing on a dull or rainy day and b) go in the morning whilst the light is brightest, short cut to the chapel and then go round again.

A bit museum'd out by this point, we headed to the Basilica where we found we were just in time to go up to top, but only by the taking the lift (and therefore only having to climb 320 steps) rather than by the cheaper (and therefore prefered!) stairs option (a mere 525 steps...).  Still, there are a lot of other towers and domes we haven't climbed to date and there won't be another Duomo in Vatican City rooftop climb on this trip so up we went. 

The lift pops you out at the level of the bottom of the dome

for a view down into the vast trancept and it is amazing.  Just huge.  Apparently the letters round the edge here are over 6ft tall.  They don't look it, even from here, just goes to show.

The way up starts as a gentle slope, then turns into a dizzying series of ever narrowing spiral stairs and finally a slanted passageway sandwiched between the inner and outer skin of the dome itself.  It is a bit epic.  Still, the quest for fitness has definately paid off.  I got up all 320 without stopping (although I still need to work on the feeling-like-I-am-going-to-die) and Will is more mountain goat like than ever - hurrah for us!

The view over the city, in the setting sun was fabulous.  All the big sites, Vittore Emanuele II monument, Forum and Colloseum all clearly visible, as well as down into the Vatican and the gardens.

Down again then and into the Basilica which is even more huge looking up than it is looking down.

The altar end is just fantastic

and all around are niches and statues,

including Michaelangelo's Pieta, tucked away behind glass in a dark corner, the sculputre he created aged just 25.

The tomb of St Peter is in the middle

and there are also some effigies of popes, looking just too much like dead father christmas's to be taken seriously

and all manner of other marble creations, including marble effect speakers - nice touch!

  Just immense.

and out once more, past the Swiss Guard with their clearly ridiculous coloured uniformed,

complete with leg streamers - yes, they are not just trousers, the blue and orange bits are free-moving streamers over the red trousers beneath!  very, very special -

and unexpectedly, a complete orchestra and people with hankies doing interpretive dance - whatever takes your fancy I suppose

So Rome: Done

Onwards and upwards once more then, en route to the frozen north...

1 comment:

  1. Teenage mutant hero turtles? Teenage Mutant HERO turtles? Its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!! The cartoon was only changed because you couldn't (at the time) promote Ninja's in the UK. Something to do with the 70's laws regarding martial arts weapons, IIRC.

    Anyway, TMNT; a classic. The cartoon. Not so much.

    I am not mad.