Just like Rome was not built in a day, there was no way to see Rome in a day. There is just too much to see. We spent four and a half days exploring Rome, and barely scratched the surface.
While in Rome, we did the requisite visits of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, and Castel Sant’Angelo. In addition, we saw many public sculptures, piazzas and fountains and visited many beautiful churches. The Roman Catholics (specifically those in Rome) have amazingly beautiful churches with impressive frescoed ceilings and domes.
Saint Peter’s Basilica was impressive, but did not feel overly spiritual. We suspect that the grand size and the large number of tourists takes away from the spiritual feeling of it all. Fortunately at least two naves were set aside for prayer, so tourists were prevented from entering and snapping pictures. The decoration was so spectacular that Scott forgot to look for Michaelangelo’s Pieta, the prize of the Saint Peter’s collection.
In the Vatican Museums, we both enjoyed the architecture and decoration of the rooms themselves more than most of the exhibits. The Raphael rooms were particularly fascinating, but the frescoed ceilings everywhere were spectacular.
The Sistine Chapel was rather busy but amazing to see. The crowds and associated noise definitely took away from the spiritual nature of the chapel – it felt like a museum exhibit rather than a place of prayer. The frescos were truly amazing, and it was interesting to eavesdrop on some of the school groups. It would have been fascinating to come to Rome as a history or art student, although we wonder how much we would have taken from it. Many of the students looked rather bored.
Things Scott learned from the Vatican Museum:
- A legend that there was once a giant pinecone atop the Pantheon, and when Christ was crucified, all the pagan statues in the Pantheon began whirling with such vigor that the top blew off the Pantheon, leaving the oculus as seen today, and sending the pinecone flying off into the distance, to be lost until the 15th century when it was brought to the Vatican and installed as part of a staircase by Michelangelo. (From a schoolteacher in the courtyard of the pinecone).
- Many of the Vatican treasures were carried off to Paris by Napoleon, and to compensate the Pope at the time sent out a request for ancient treasures held in various villas. The response was so overwhelming that new wings had to be constructed to house everything.
- Pope Julius II spent more time at war on back of a horse than in anything vaguely religious, as he tried to restore the Church’s secular power.
- An important cardinal criticized Michelangelo for all his naked saints in “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, saying it was “more suited to a tavern than a papal chapel”. In response, Michelangelo painted the face of the cardinal on a devil in the underworld, with a serpent wrapping him and biting his groin. (According to Wikipedia, it was Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, and the devil was Minos, judge of the underworld.)
- After Michaelangelo’s death, another painter was hired to cover the saints in the Last Judgement with loinclothes. He is now remembered almost entirely for this, and has the nickname “The underwear artist” (Wikipedia again – Daniele Ricciarelli, nickname “Il Braghettone”)
We were staying very close to the Pantheon, which is a fascinating building. The dome is the best remaining example of Roman use of concrete, and is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Pretty impressive for a 2000 year old building! It has been a church since 609, and is still used for worship services today. Since Rome was so wet while we were there, we can confirm that the story about the oculus in the roof not admitting rain is false. It definitely rains inside, and there is a dedicated drain in the middle of the floor to let the water escape.
The Coliseum was a must see, but was expensive (12 Euro each) and the audio guide (another 4 Euro) was verbose but did not say much. The architecture is very impressive, but there is little left of the original decoration or seating.
At the Coliseum there was a special museum exhibit about the importance of conservation and the world ownership of ancient art. Italy has passed laws that make all items found in the ground to be owned by the public (that is the government) regardless of who owns the property. The exhibit was neat because it gave the history of various pieces of art that were stolen and then reclaimed. This wasn’t a regular exhibit, just a temporary one for early 2009, so we were glad get the chance to see it. Scott wonders if the negotiations between Italy and museums and collectors around the world for return of Italian antiquities will cause Italy to return any of the antiquities it has acquired over the millennia from Egypt and the Middle East? We saw a lot of columns and tablets covered in hieroglyphics. We also saw busts from Palmyra in the Vatican museum.
Given the wet weather, we decided to skip the Roman Forum, since much of it would have been outside too – another time.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is impressive from the outside but not that exciting on the inside. Again, it was an overpriced attraction (11 Euro each). There were many museums inside, but they were rather random – one of the museums focused on brand names that were from Italy, another contained various pieces of armor and swords from the Papal Guards over the years. There was also a small exhibit of paintings of important church figures, but none were particularly fascinating. We were expecting some sort of a history of the castles use through the centuries, and perhaps of the Papal Guard.
Overall, the most interesting places we found were the free ones – churches, piazzas, fountains, and just random bits of history and architecture we discovered as we wandered. The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel was the one attraction well worth the 14 Euros per person.