Days 3 and 4—The Scavi Tour, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and more missionary adventures
Monday morning we raced off for what promised to be a major highlight of our trip: the “scavi tour”—a tour of the excavations of the ancient necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. Only 10 groups of 10-12 people are allowed in each day, and we got tickets! ilhamdulillah! It was very exciting. We made sure to arrive quite literally just on time at ten minutes before our scheduled tour time. Our fellow tour-ers were mostly American and Canadian. Our guide was very knowledgeable and also, for a change (for us anyway) spoke pretty clear English that didn’t require a lot of effort on our part. And, of course, she was impeccably dressed. The tour was everything it promised—it was amazing. Imagine yourself walking in to a very modern museum-looking place, then suddenly turning down a staircase, only to be met by a security-code-controlled sliding glass door. On the other side of the door it’s dim, the walls are stone, the floor is packed dirt, and the air is a little damp. As you walk along, you look through glass panels into 1900 year old tombs. Every major corridor ends with another of these glass doors, which you later find out are timed—they stay open exactly 40 seconds, which is “plenty of time” for 10 people to walk through. Every turn reveals new mausoleums, new doorways, new tableaus of ancient wealth. And it’s all being “preserved” by limiting the number of visitors, installing no-heat lights, and using this sophisticated glass door system to keep the different sections’ air separate.
The necropolis is really well preserved and the excavations were done very carefully—by only a few (5-10 or something) archaeologists, in secret, during WWII. You can actually see the individual mausoleums and some of their contents, such as jars and pots and paintings and whatnot. You walk down the original road of the necropolis and see mausoleums on both sides. And then, the piece de resistance: through a hole in a wall you can see a grave-hole with a wall built next to it. The very place where St. Peter’s body is said to have been laid after his martyrdom at the hands of Nero in 64. Apparently it was a secret grave, but after a few years or something some friends/followers built two walls to protect the grave and to mark it. Then there was a little shrine. Then Constantine, who ordered a basilica built here, made a bigger shrine. Then an altar was built incorporating the shrine. Then a new altar, and a new altar, etc etc etc. Anyway, after you look through, you walk around to a chapel that faces the back of the first altar. After more talking there, you walk up to a glass-floor room and you can see the “graffiti wall” where people had, for centuries, stated that this was the place and made pilgrimages and made their mark here. And you can see the bones that were found in the niche behind said “graffiti wall”, and were determined after much forensic examination to be the bones of a semitic man of the 1st century, well built, aged approximately 60-70 years (very old for that time). The bones were declared to be the bones of St. Peter by some pope a while ago. Anyway, you can see these bones, in their NASA designed plexiglass boxes, from this room. Very cool. of course there is no head (it’s in the Cathedral of Rome, San Giovanni in Laterano) and no feet (speculation suggests that Peter’s feet were cut off to make it easier to take him down from his upside-down cross). After this highlight, you head out through the tombs of the Popes—also cool! I was really hoping to see the tomb of Pope Urban II, the Crusade Starter, but no good. I don’t think he’s down there. Too bad. Now, I know I didn’t do this justice, but it was a REALLY amazing tour. I am so glad that we wrote ahead and managed to get tickets!
After our tour was finished, we headed in a happy daze over to the entrance for the Vatican Museums. You cannot enter the Vatican museums from inside Vatican City—oh no, that would make too much sense. Instead, from St. Peter’s basilica (where we were), you must walk all the way across the square, out, around the wall (two corners and a couple of long stretches), and THEN after about 10-15 minutes you find yourself and the entrance, which is totally crazy with metal detectors and purse screening and whatnot. Anyway, we got in with a couple of hours to go before they close at 1.45pm (what kind of closing time is that?).
The first day we walked quickly through classical statuary (lots of busts), the map room—with maps frescoed on practically every inch of wall, tapestries, and the room commemorating the declaration of the dogma of the virgin birth or something. All this on our way to the Sistine Chapel—which we spent nearly an hour in that first day. It was amazing. I read the book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling so I was excited to actually see the ceiling, but when I did see it, I couldn’t even take it all in. Amazing! I had bought the Guide to the Vatican Museums and City—a great investment—and it told me which direction to look and what I was looking at as far as portraits, interesting tidbits, and some of the less obvious tableaux. Also, from the floor it’s difficult to see everything well because there is so much to look at! And you have to really put a kink in your neck to spend too much time looking at it. But it is really really cool. So much color, so many naked figures, so much complexity of design—to think that each section was painted on wet plaster, that Michelangelo did so much of it freehand rather than copying from paper cartoons he drew ahead of time—wow! Then to see the Last Judgment he painted on the wall over the altar, many years later—it’s something, I’ll tell you. For one thing, there’s so much blue. The ceiling contains very little blue paint, probably mostly because blue pigment was ridiculously expensive and Michelangelo spent his own money/salary on the paints for the ceiling. But the last Judgment has a lot of blue, comparatively. And then you see the paintings along the side walls—painted by various other famous painters—and there is a TON of blue in them. One wall has scenes from the life of Moses, and the other has scenes from the life of Jesus. It’s quite amazing to look at them and to figure out what each scene is and to see what famous people found their portraits painted in the scenes.
The Sistine Chapel was incredibly crowded, and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside. I was quite determined to take one anyway, but there were security guys stationed every 20 feet or so throughout the chapel, and they were constantly shouting “silence” and “no photo!!” and sometimes confronting people who openly had their cameras out. Occasionally they would play this recorded message asking people to be quiet and not take pictures. I knew we were coming back the next day, so I decided not to risk being kicked out (or not being allowed back in) and to take my photo the next day. We left the Sistine Chapel that day and headed straight out for some lunch in the Vatican Cafeteria—pizza—before the whole place closed.
The second day in the Vatican Museums we arrived just after opening and we followed the itinerary in the Vatican guide book that would allow us to see everything in the museum--but we planned to skip the Egyptian Museum. ha! We've seen it, thanks. We went fairly quickly through statuary again, partially because to me it is just not exciting. But boy is there a ton of it! We spent a tiny bit more time with the maps, and I wanted to spend more time with the tapestries but didn’t. We did have a goal—the Raphael Stanze. This is a set of rooms that used to be Pope Julius II’s private quarters, and they extensively frescoed by Raphael at the same time Michelangelo was busy with the ceiling. So we wandered through several rooms of painting and whatnot until we came to this set of rooms. And all I have to say about them is this:
Raphael was a really amazing painter, and these frescoes are awesome. The school of Athens—which you just “happen” upon when you unsuspectingly walk through a door, is huge and very cool. I got a picture of me “studying” (the guide book) in the school of Athens. hehe! And the Dispute over the Sacrament, the other paintings I don’t remember the names of but full of color and people…wow. All wow. I had so much fun in the Raphael rooms, I didn’t want to leave. Also, I had so much fun in the Raphael rooms that I don’t remember much else that we saw that day. We went back to the Sistine Chapel for a while…and it was actually less crowded, which unfortunately meant that taking a photo would have been way to obvious so I chickened out and didn’t do it. Next time….
Anyway, after our second visit to the Chapel, we wandered through the modern religious art, and possibly some other things? We stopped at one of the little gift-shop kiosks and Jason bought a book on Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican. I bought stamps at the Vatican Post Office and we mailed postcards to some of you—which should have even the Vatican Postmark on them! How cool is that? And some of you I don’t have addresses for…sorry. You got mental postcards, I promise. :-)
So…that was two days in the Vatican Museums. Both afternoons, post-Vatican, we called the mission co-workers. Monday, one of them came over to St. Peter’s and gave us a tour of the Square and the Basilica. Very excellent! He’s very knowledgeable and definitely gave us a great tour—complete with good stories, history, and fun little Protestant asides. After that (and first thing after the museums on Tuesday), we went to their flat, then went to the local cappuccino bar, and hung out for a while. We had lots of really interesting conversations with them—about things in Rome, about things in Florence, about the work they’ve done in other places (the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Sudan, etc), and about the work they’ve been doing in Rome. They have been working primarily with an organization that works in interfaith/intercultural dialogue. One of the things they do is bring together different groups of people for travel seminar, for discussion, etc. For example, children from Israel and children from Palestine. Or peacemakers from both “sides” of the Israel/Palestine thing—they come to Rome because they can’t openly meet in Palestine or Israel. They did a lot of work with people from Bosnia when all that was going down. Plus lots of other people—those are just the examples I remember right now. It sounded pretty amazing. We also talked a lot about the Reformed Church in Italy—the Waldensian church. It’s older than the Reformation, actually, and has been pretty severely persecuted over the centuries…and there still is a little persecution/rough feeling. There’s also a really amazing amount of stuff being done by the Reformed church, and it sounds really really interesting. One of the things Victor has been asking us (Jason and me) to think about is whether we might be interested in taking a mission position in Italy. Because the two co-workers there now are leaving March 1st, and Victor feels it’s important to have people in Italy—partly because he feels the American church has a lot to learn from the Waldensians. I don’t know much, but I think he’s right about that. So for me and for Jason, hanging out with the missionaries wasn’t only about fun—though they were hugely fun to be with—but was also a little about scooping out whether we might be called there next. I don’t think any decisions were made—at least not on my part. But I really enjoyed being with these people, and in Italy, so one never knows! Wherever I go next, I want to be able to take my cat. That’s all I’m saying. :-)
Anyway, after lots of talking with the mission co-workers, and some borrowing from them (Jason borrowed a coat and gloves, and we borrowed some books on Florence and a magazine about what’s going on in Rome), and some petting of their cat Sophie!, we headed out to explore Rome in the evening. Both nights we were headed the same place, but only on the second night did we get there.
We went out looking for Piazza Navona, a relatively famous square with three fountains, one of which is quite famous (the four rivers). We were also looking for food—the first night, for mushroom risotto, the second night for anything food related (we had skipped lunch on Tuesday). Monday night we were much too hasty in our turning—we gave up on the road too soon—and we wound up lost. Rather than wander more, we looked at every restaurant menu we passed until we found “risotto ai funghi”—which we eventually did, on a little side street. And it was SO GOOD!!! Oh my gosh. I have never had such amazing food as in Rome, seriously. It was so nice to eat mushrooms, for one thing! But also, risotto, pizza, etc…these are some of my favorite things. So anyway, we found some mushroom risotto, and then we found that Jason’s camera was missing. We wandered around more while trying to find our way back, and eventually we found ourselves back at the apartment building where the co-workers live. They were not answering their door, though (not surprising since it was getting late and one of them had quite a headache). We walked back to our hotel via a fantastic night-time view down the Via Conciliazione (reconciliation street, built by Mussolini…I referred to it constantly as “dictator street”) to St. Peter’s. The photo from this actually did turn out really well.
The second night we hung out (and Jason’s camera was found and returned), we left and DID actually find Piazza Navona, after quite a bit of wandering around and actually passing it a couple of times. We hung around it for a while, then turned down a little side street off the piazza and found a really lovely little restaurant where we were the only people inside. In fact, the owner was out in the doorway and when we stopped to look inside to check for atmosphere (the requirement of the day), he beckoned us in and we went. Atmosphere was definitely in abundance! We had a bottle of wine, amazing bruschetta, a pasta dish each, AND we shared a pizza. We did not follow up with dessert, though, because I was hoping we would find a great little gelato place. post-dinner we started walking toward the Pantheon…we found ourselves in some neighborhoods we had definitely seen earlier in the evening! We also found a copy of Trajan’s column (not a real copy, but a copy-cat, really), and Trevi Fountain. We hung out at the fountain, threw coins in over our shoulders to ensure that we will return to Rome, and found some gelato. yum yum yum!!! I really love gelato. Post-gelato, we walked a few blocks to the Pantheon! It was night and therefore not open, but oh how cool. The Pantheon! Wow. Anyway….yeah. It was neat. So neat that I don’t remember if we did anything after that or not! I think we just went back to the hotel, exhausted from a ton of walking and art viewing and eating. If that's not what happened, I'm sure Jason will correct me. :-) All in all, a good two days!!