Rome – The Eternal City

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Part 3 of 4: Travels in Italy during October 2006


After traveling in Milan, Florence, Tuscany, Venice  and other great places in Italy, we entered Rome with lots of anticipation, excitement and plans to see and absorb as much as we can during our three-day visit. Any one of the following three reasons will make Rome a top choice for traveling. The rich Roman history that is at the real core of the western civilization, the Vatican that is the spiritual center for more than a billion people in the world, and as the current capital of a great country known for wonderful people, great cuisine, high fashion and super artists. We left Rome with a rich and humbling feeling from experiencing the majesty of this great city and its superlative treasures. It is practically impossible to write a meaningful comprehensive write up on Rome; because it is too rich to be explained in words, too large to be captured by pictures and essays. However, here is an attempt to share a few of our pictures and thoughts for your reading pleasure.


ROME


The history of Rome starts as a small village in central Italy, approximately 25 miles from the sea coast on its west. The river Tiber winds its way through the middle of this village. In around 700 B. C.  Romulus becomes the first King of Rome. At that time the city was a mixture of Etruscan, Latin and Sabine people. The settlements were built on several hills such as Palatine, Esquiline, Quirinal etc. From this small beginning, Rome would grow into a large metropolis, conquer and control the entire Italian Peninsula, southern Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Great Britain, Spain, Mesopotamia and other lands. To control such a vast empire, Romans developed a remarkable military power and the rule of Law (Roman law). More on Roman history under the caption "Roman Forum".


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Map of Rome (Courtesy: Yahoo Travel website)


The map above high lights important areas of Rome. With reference to the river (blue winding strip in the map..name of the river in English is Tiber), Vatican City is on the left center. The Colosseum is on the right side of the river, about one-third above the bottom of the picture.  Trevi Fountain, Roman Forum (Foro Romano), Statione Termini (main transportation terminal) are also marked on the map. These are all in walking distance. The hotel where we stayed was close to the Vatican city, on the same side of Tiber and we walked all over the city till late night hours, seeing sights, people watching, enjoying cappuccinos (Italian coffee) and gelatos (ice-cream) and meals in trattorias. Contrary to much publicized information, Rome is a safe city to walk (just take the normal precautions of traveling).  In addition to sightseeing on our own, our tour company also provided us with excellent guided tours ? in Vatican and in Rome).


VATICAN CITY


Vatican City is an independent city-state. The Pope (also known as the "Bishop of Rome") is the head of the Vatican. Pope, in addition to being the spiritual head of all the Roman Catholics worldwide, is also a monarch and has the sole and ultimate powers. The governing structure has a governor and other authorities, all ultimately responsible to the Pope. The current Pope is Pope Benedict XVI who was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals on April 19th, 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul. Pope Paul was the third-longest reigning Pope for 26 years.  Current Pope is the 266th Pope, starting with St. Peter. Vatican City consists of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Papal residences and gardens. It is a small walled city, considered as the world’s smallest sovereign state. Its walls run a total of only 2 miles. The geographical area is 0.44 square kilometers, approx. 100 acres.  But do not let the geographical size mislead you. What is inside this walled city may take months to see and years to understand properly.


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SAINT PETER’S BASILICA AND THE SQUARE


Saint Peter’s Basilica is possibly the largest church in Christianity. It is the church most used by Pope. It has a capacity of over 60,000 people.  It is one of the holiest sites of Christianity in the Catholic tradition. It is the burial site of Saint Peter.  The Dome of the Basilica was the work of Michaelangelo and dominates the Vatican as well as the Roman skyline. In the picture above, on the right hand side, you see the beautiful double marble colonnades by Bernini. Similar columns are also on the left hand side (not in the picture above) and there 284 in total. They extend out of the Basilica in an embracing circle, giving a feeling of warmth, safety and greeting to any one and every one who visit this shrine. The Pope, when in residence, blesses (waves) the visitors on Sundays from his library window on the second floor, above the colonnades. General audiences are usually held on Wednesdays, once a week in the Vatican City. In the summer they may be held in the square. It is better to check in the official website of the Vatican prior to your visit. It is vatican.va with preceding www.  (all in small caps).


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SAINT PETER’S BASILICA AND THE SQUARE


Saint Peter, a Galilean fisherman, original name Simeon,  was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Above all other disciples, Peter was assigned the leadership role by Jesus.  He became the first Bishop of Antioch (in modern day Turkey, bordering Syria) and later, the Bishop of Rome.  Majority of the scholars believes that St. Peter’s death happened in 64AD. Traditional belief is that the Roman authorities sentenced him to death by crucifixion. Again, the traditional belief is that the Basilica was later built, with the high altar directly above his burial place. 


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SAINT PETER’S BASILICA AND THE SQUARE


It was Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, who built the first Basilica on this site. A thousand years later, the old structure showed signs of collapse and the construction of a new basilica was begun. The construction would last 120 years. After various designs by the famous Italian artists of the Renaissance period, finally in 1546, the project was entrusted to the hands and mind of Michaelangelo. The square is one of the most visited in the world. During the Jubilee year of 2000, tens of millions people visited the place. They come from all over the world. If you are lucky to have the extra hours to stay in the plaza and observe people, you could have the greatest samplings of world cultures right before your eyes and ears.  


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INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUM


Vatican museum is one among the great art museums in the world such as the Louvre in Paris, the British museum in London, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  It has twenty-two separate collections, ranging from Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan art, maps and modern religious art. The crown jewels are the Sistine Chapel and Raphael rooms. 


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INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUM


We started the morning early for a better chance at the long waiting lines. These lines are very long every day. They go on the outside of the Vatican walls. We were told that sometimes you might be waiting for 3 to 4 hours in the general line. There are some complex maneuvers by the tour companies and operators. I believe that they have special tricks and may be privileges. By following their instructions, our tour group got inside in an hour or so. Each one of us in the group was given our own earphones. This is very important here; because the density of crowd is high and you won’t be able to hear the guide otherwise. Our tour guide is a professor in a Roman university and conducts tours on a part time basis. We were all pretty impressed with his knowledge of the museum, the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. His own professor was among the very few who was selected to clean  Michaelangelo’s paintings on the ceilings of the Sistine chapel.  As he was explaining the paintings and artworks, we also got to hear quite a bit about the personal stories during the cleaning process.


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INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUM


In the beginnings of the acquisitions of artwork by the Popes, they were selective in collecting art works pertaining to Christianity only. For many hundred years after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Popes and the Roman nobility fought many battles for power and control. During the Middle ages these power struggles dominated the church, which was plagued with infighting and short-lived papacies. In the 1400s some of the Popes began to realize the value of the pagan art and saw the value of collecting as many statues and mosaic works as possible.  The Medicis of Florence were a great influence on this thinking. After thousands of years of destruction of the pagan art, a law was passed to protect all types of ancient art. The decree stated that all such works of art must pass before the papal commission so that the pope could decide whether to keep the statue in his private collection. This is the reason how the private collections of the popes became the greatest depository of ancient art. Now, the museum is open to general public so long as you have the interest to learn and the patience to endure the long lines.


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INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUM


The ceilings of the museum are full of great paintings depicting stories of the religion. The picture above is one example. I have many similar but different pictures at different locations in the museum. Once again, the crowd is very heavy. If you take long time, looking up and taking pictures, for sure you get jostled by the constantly moving crowd.  I find digital cameras are not too friendly for fast clicking. So, we settle for what we can get. The tour groups have to move at a certain speed. I think we had only about 90 minutes in this part of the museum, before going to the Sistine chapel. Ideally, it would be nice to take some guided tours in the museum and then come back on your own to pace yourself and cover the more interesting aspects, go downstairs and see the tombs, climb up the stairs of the Dome to see the Vatican city and the skyline of the City of Rome. This will take several days. People who have the time and facilities, it would be well worth it.


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TOUR GROUP WAITING TO GO INSIDE THE SISTINE CHAPEL


SISTINE CHAPEL


Pictures are not allowed inside the chapel. Sistine chapel is famous for the most famous works of art in the world. Originally it was built in 1484 for Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and it is named after him. It was Pope Julius II (1503-13) who commissioned the great artist Michaelangelo to decorate it. Primarily he and other great Florentine master artists transformed this almost bare chapel into the most precious picture gallery of the Italian renaissance painting.  The ceiling is entirely the work of Michaelangelo. The scenes begin with the creation of the world and end with the story of Noah and the flood. The back wall tells the story of the Last judgement. Other great painters such as Perugino, Botticelli, Rosselli and others painted the parallel narratives of the old and new testaments on the opposite walls. Thus we have the Life of Moses (Old Testament) and the Life of Christ (New Testament) illustrated marvelously on the two walls with the magnificent Michaelangelo paintings all along the length of the  ceiling. The ceilings were painted in four years between 1508 ? 1512. However, The Last Judgement on the end wall was completed in 1541. The long delay in between was due to the period in which the Christian world was pulled apart by the Lutheran Reformation and Rome suffered the terrible Sack of 1527.  It is also a legendary feat of human spirit, creativity and physical endurance, when you consider that Michaelangelo was in his 80s and had to lie on his back for hours at a time and for many years, looking up at the barrel-vaulted ceiling and painting the master pieces.


Sistine Chapel is also famous and known as the place where the papal conclave is locked till a new Pope is elected. I think it is a maximum of 120 cardinals from around the world who are younger than 80 years old who take part in the election. It is a very secretive process; the election status is communicated by black or white smoke. Black means still undecided and the white smoke means a new Pope is elected for life. As mentioned earlier the most recent election happened in 2005.  


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INTERIOR OF SAINT PETER’S BASILICA


We are on the main floor inside the Basilica facing the Altar under the famous bronze canopy. Behind the canopy is the Chair of St. Peter in its masterful setting by Bernini. All around are masterpieces of art on the ceilings, columns, and walls and on the floor. The interior size is immense, over 600 feet long. There are 11 chapels, 45 altars and many tombs inside the Basilica and each one is an impressive display by itself, full of historic works of art depicted in marble, mosaics and bronze.


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BERNINI’S BRONZE CANOPY


This structure dominates the center of the huge interior of the Basilica. It is approximately 100 feet high baroque style baldachin supported by four spiral columns of bronze. It stands over the high altar which sits on the site of the grave of St. Peter. This is supposed to be one of the finest creations of Bernini.


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INSIDE VIEW OF THE DOME OF ST.PETER BY MICHELANGELO


The Dome soars over 390 feet above the high altar. Its balconies are decorated with reliefs depicting biblical stories.  Looking above, you can enjoy the excellent marble and mosaic work illuminated by soft, natural lighting from the large panels of windows. The entire artwork is harmonious and balanced and proportional to the immense size of the Basilica.


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TOMB OF POPE ALEXANDER VII


This monumental papal tomb was made by Bernini. It was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) and executed after his death in 1667 by a large group of sculptors headed by Bernini. The Pope here is a simple kneeling figure without any sign of his office. There are four allegoric figures ? Charity, Prudence, Justice and Truth. Below the heavy drapery, there is a real door symbolizing the Gate of Death, from which a sandglass holding skeleton (the Death) raises the drapery. The white and pink marble works and the mosaic patterns are truly exquisite.


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PIETA BY MICHAELANGELO


This is one of the most admired works inside the Basilica. Visitors get carried away with the super fine quality of this sculpture by Michaelangelo. This great work was done by him when he was only in his twenties. There are many pieta in Italy and many interpretations, but this one is special. The sculpture is a most sentimental poem translated in marble. You see the gentle hands and lap of the human mother carrying the supple body of her divine child after crucifixion. There is no distance here between the human and the divine. It is the pure and tender feelings of a mother for her child expressed so divinely by the genius of Michaelangelo. The sculpture used to be an open display; however due to an incident by a visitor in 1972, this is protected inside a security shield. Picture taking by amateurs such as me does not do proper justice to the actual sculpture.


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TOMB OF POPE PIUS X


Pope Pius X (1903 ?1914) died in 1914. He was first buried in the Grottoes of the Patriarchial Vatican Basilica. His mortal remains were transferred in 1952 to the altar of the Chapel of the Presentation of the Basilica. The face and hands are covered with silver. There are many such tombs and monuments inside the Basilica.


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HOLY BRONZE DOOR IN THE BASILICA


Holy Door is the northern most entrance at St. Peter’s Basilica. It was the work of Vico Consorti (1950). The bronze scenes depicted in the 16 panels are remarkable. The door is opened only for great celebrations such as Jubilee years.


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SWISS GUARDS…ST. PETER’S BASILICA


The history of the Swiss guards at the Vatican is remarkable and illustrious. In 1527AD, Duke of Bourbon’s (head of the armed forces in France) army of 12,000 soldiers sacked a nearly defenseless Rome (also referenced above under Sistine Chapel). In a desperate, valiant, pitched battle next to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Swiss guard commander and 147 of his men fought to the death in a delaying tactic that enabled the remaining 42 guards to escort Pope Clement VII to safety. The brutal sack of Rome was conducted by Charles because he needed money to pay his idle army. Charles was killed during the attack. The mission of the Swiss guards is very simple and direct: that is to protect the Pope. There is a travelling exhibit going on now, celebrating 500 years of Papal Service by the Swiss Guards. The colors of their uniform has basically remained the same since the beginning ? Medici blue and yellow with red accents, white collar and gloves. The exhibit is currently (Nov 1,2006 ? June 3, 2007) at the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut, close to our home. I visited it a few days ago and one of the items on display is the helmet of Charles.


I was planning to conclude this travelogue in the current article. But, as I started compiling write ups and pictures, realized that it will be better in two parts ? one (Part 3) covering exclusively Vatican and the other one (Part 4) the city of Rome. In Part 4, we will cover ? Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum.


To be continued…


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 J.M. Bhandary


 

Author: J. M. Bhandary- USA


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