atop St. Peter’s + my favorite sculptor

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Wednesday the 18th of July found us beginning to split up for visits and re-visits to some less necessary, but still very popular, locations in Rome.

Mom, Dad, and I got up and left the apartment around 8 in order to beat the crowds to St. Peter’s to climb to the top of the dome and have another look around. Climbing St. Peter’s has a price, of course: 7€ per person. I think it was worth the price. Several hundred winding stairs brought us first to the inside of the larger, lower dome to inspect the huge mosaics and for areal view of some of the chapels of the ground floor of the basilica, populated by early mass attendees. More steps deposited us on the outside of the smaller, higher dome from which we could see the entire sprawl of Rome. St. Peter’s is the tallest building in Rome; we were atop of the center of the ancient world.

Once we descended the steps, we wandered the inside of St. Peter’s, which was still mercifully free of tour groups. I visited the crypt where most of the popes – and, supposedly, Peter the apostle – are buried. Though most of the crypt was roped off, it was incredible to see the tombs of popes inscribed with dates in the 1200s and 1300s. So long ago! Also, while I was down there, a choir was singing somewhere in or above the crypt, and their a capella voices drifted through the stone corridors to me. It was beautiful.

I headed home for a leisurely lunch and some blog post work while Mom et al walked down to some building that did not interest me. Assuming Mom and Dad would come home and eat before the three of us headed to the Borghese Gallery for our 1:00 entrance time, I did not check my phone until it seemed rather late for them to have time to eat. Whoops. They wanted me to meet them at the metro station. I stuffed the rest of my wonderful sandwich down my throat, – alas, I wished I could have enjoyed it properly – grabbed my bag, and ran to the metro station, arriving just as they appeared from underground. No time to work out a route on our bus map, we power walked through a dry, dusty, and water fountain-less section of the Borghese Gardens and, thanks to Dad’s iPad GPS, straight to the Borghese Villa Gallery and to the back of the line out in the sun.

Mrs. Bowman told us to go to the Borghese. She said it was her favorite Museum in Italy. That’s why we were there. That, and Mom’s guidebook said if we only visited one museum in Rome, it should be the Borghese Gallery. But, we went on Mrs. Bowman’s insistence. And she did not steer us wrong. The museum allows only a certain number of people inside for two hours at a time, so its rooms are not at all crowded. In fact, it is possible to be alone in a room, just you and the art. Oh, and it’s properly air conditioned. That was a first and last for any of the museums we visited on our entire trip.

Despite its manifold attractions, I admit I was unimpressed with the Borghese at first. I felt art-saturated, and the the art in the first few rooms on the second story, though impressive in its own right, I’m sure, was just more of the same. I chortled to myself that the Borghese was probably Mrs. Bowman’s favorite museum because it was air conditioned, uncrowded, and relatively small – the perfect combination for someone who loves art museums as little as Mrs. Bowman – and myself, truth be told. However, after I breezed through the first few rooms of stereotypical paintings and small sculptures, I discovered an incredibly intricate mosaic, then a decorative fireplace, and finally a statue by Bernini, and another, and another, and another! I was impressed,  – I’m sorry I doubted you Mrs. Bowman! – very impressed with Bernini’s statues. Though he lived and sculpted more than a century after Michelangelo, Bernini’s work, in my mind, is as incredible as Michelangelo’s, if not more. I circled and wondered and stared at his David, Pluto and Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and unfinished Truth Unveiled by Time for longer than I have ever spent inspecting any art, excepting, perhaps, Michelangelo’s David itself. I even listened to the audio guide for the sculptures! And that never happens. In his sculptures Bernini successfully, convincingly transformed marble into delicate leaves, flowing cloth, rough bark, strong fingers, taut rope, soft flesh, plated armor, and sinewy muscle. His figures are dynamic, frozen mid-stride or mid-swing. I don’t think I used to have a favorite artist/sculptor. I do now, though: Bernini. You really should flip through Google images of his sculptures. Really. Do it.

In the evening the whole family – all 13 of us! – traveled by bus, cab, and foot to the Piazza Navona to wander what I assumed was an ever-present art fair and to eat out as a group for once. On the way we somewhat accidentally came upon the Pantheon, so of course we popped inside for a quick, jaw-dropping look around and some pictures. Once we arrived at Piazza Navona we split up for 20 minutes to explore and allow someone to find a restaurant able to accommodate our numbers and offering an adequate selection of both pizza and pasta. Dinner, once the location was decided upon, was scrumptious. I accomplished my goal of eating real, Italian gnocchi – which I make on occasion – by consuming an obscene amount of the soft, potato pasta drowning in four-cheese sauce; it must have contained enough calories to fuel an olympic athlete. The day ended with – what else? – gelato.


St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and its museum

[click to enlarge the pictures]

Almost all of us, even Grandpa, left the apartment by 9 on the morning of Tuesday the 17th. We wormed our way into the packed metro cars and rode the few stops to the stop just outside the Vatican City, and followed the crowds to the arched entrance through the thick, brick walls of the Vatican into the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square.

When Grandma and Grandpa were in Rome three years ago, Grandma discovered that a free – totally free; not even tips accepted! – tour of St. Peter’s occurs three mornings a week. An advertisement for the tour is apparently posted on the wall of St. Peter’s information and gift shop, but people must just miss the information, because very few people take the tour, considering the excellent price, that is. The tour meets just outside the the shop to the left of St. Peter’s at 9:45 am.

After we followed her to skirt the large line to enter the basilica, the wonderful English lady, a resident of Rome for 40 years, guided us up and down the length of the church, providing historical facts, art identification, and anecdotes from her own long history with St. Peter’s and the Catholic church. It was an excellent tour.

The main lesson from our tour was that St. Peter’s is one grand optical illusion. As one of the main architects and designers, Michelangelo, mindful of the huge scale of the building, worked to make St. Peter’s feel like a much less overwhelming, much more personal building that it actually is. Statues are larger in size the higher up they are placed, so all the statues seem the same size and appear close. Each of  the letters of the John 21 passage that runs around the cathedral is about six feet tall. The arched ceiling, though obviously lofty, does not seem nearly as high as it is. The illusion is quite impressive, once you know the actual measurements of the various structures within the building. But really, you have to see it to understand. Go see it! It’s worth the trip.

As for the Vatican Museum, I have the popes, who pillaged, plundered, and threatened their way  through the centuries to acquiring a world-class art collection, to thank for my visit. The museum overflows with art on the floors, walls, and ceilings of sprawling rooms and 1/4-mile long hallways. My favorite part of the museum was being able to see Rafael’s The School of Athens in context with the other paintings in the room. There are four, relatively small frescos on the ceiling of the room that depict poetry, philosophy, justice, and theology. On the walls corresponding with their respective sides of the ceiling are painted scenes depicting those four types of knowledge. Besides The School of Athens, clearly portraying philosophy, a picture of Greek and Roman gods reflects poetry, while a vision heaven filled with Christian philosophers, Catholic saints, and the Trinity represents theology. I found the small fresco of justice rather uninteresting. However, on the whole it was fascinating to discover that The School of Athens is not a stand-alone fresco, as I previously imagined, but rather part of a larger cohesive unit of frescos meant to be seen as a whole piece. Who knew!

Of course, seeing the Sistine Chapel again was very nice. But, I did not stay long in the chapel. Besides the discomfort of tilting my neck back at a 45-degree angle to stare at the ceiling, my mouth hanging unceremoniously open in the effort, the room was absolutely packed. There was barely room to stand, let alone be seated on the benches along the wall, which is the only place you are allowed to sit. In addition, the museum guards were incessantly and somewhat ironically yelling, “Silencio!” and “No photo!” at us, the rowdy mass of visitors. The low roar would quiet almost imperceptibly for a split second before returning to its accustomed volume, that of 200 people whispering comments to their neighbors or reading guidebooks aloud to their children. It was quite an experience.

Bottom line of this post: if you go St. Peter’s Basilica, take the free tour. 

the glory days: the Colosseum and Roman Forum

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[Well, guys, I’m behind. I have eight or so posts in the works. Descriptions are going to be short and to the point.]

Despite being gradually dismembered by earthquakes and Romans looking for disused stone for their own construction projects, the Colosseum remains quite an impressive structure. The thing is huge. It certainly was a good investment, though. What with five hundred or so years of gruesome entertainment, a stint as a church and another as housing for squatters, and finally as a wildly popular tourist destination now and for hundreds of years to come, surely, the building has amassed as much use as could ever be expected from any construction.

It’s admittedly difficult to imagine what Rome must have been like judging from the Roman Forum. A column sticks up here to mark a massive temple; a crumbling wall stands there reminding people that dozens of shops once inhabited the area; a piece marble, a bit of travertine, some piles of bricks – the rest is left up to the imagination and the descriptions of guidebooks. Nevertheless, it is clear that for centuries ancient historical events piled themselves on top of even more ancient history in mad succession, until Rome finally fell and plunged its soaring architecture into centuries of disuse, disrepair, and, finally, destruction and burial by the elements.

So much history is bound up in the Colosseum and Roman Forum and the area surrounding the two. It’s incredible. I love ancient history. American history is so boring and brief. Even paving stones and water fountains in Rome are older than the United States.



just a bit of Germany

So, I’m in Europe.

To be accurate I should say we are in Europe.

Here’s the story: Grandma and Grandpa L are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary! ‘Come to Rome and celebrate with us,’ they said. ‘Okay, yes please, and thank you!’ we said. And now we’re on our way to Rome via the circuitous route.

More specificity: we’re in Italy.

But, first we were in Germany, where I now intend to live some day, just for your information.

Anyway, we flew from the airport at home (highly unusual and convenient) to Philly, where we had a 7 + 1/2 hour layover. The first three and a half were planned and in the airport. The next four hours, however, we spent on our mercifully sparsely populated plane, which sat upon the tarmac like some sort of maimed seagull in a Walmart parking lot.

“It’ll just be ten or fifteen minutes,” they said. “The maintenance guys just need to reset the transponder.”


Well, they replaced said transponder, ran extensive tests, and at along last gave us leave to depart, exactly four hours behind schedule. It could have been much worse, of course. The plane could have been full; as it was we each had two seats on which to spread our stuff or curl in the fetal position in an attempt to sleep. Also, they turned on our personal, seat-back entertainment screens about two hours in to the delay, so we could pass the time watching tv shows or movies or playing games.

Our time in Germany, once we finally arrived, was brief but exceedingly enjoyable and impressive.  From our hotel in central Munich, we visited Dachau the concentration camp during the remainder of the day we flew in and took the entire second day to see two castles a few hours from Munich.

Because I have neither the time, inclination, nor patience to type up a detailed description of our activities those two days, pictures will have to stand in the stead of most my words. I do, however, have some brief observations and statements to offer:

  • Germans (at least those I observed in Munich and the places we visited) dress far better than Americans, especially guys. Maybe my idea of typical American apparel is skewed since I live in a beach town, though.
  • I could pick American tourists out of the crowds with alarming ease and accuracy, basing my guesses on their clothing alone and confirming them by listening as they passed.
  • There is no unspoken social rule about benches. Correct me if I am in error, but I am certain there is an understanding in the US that the bench I sit upon is my bench, and no one else shall sit upon it or even ask permission to do so, because that’s weird. In Germany people repeatedly sat down on the unoccupied end of the bench upon which I sat, without so much as inquiring if it was occupied. It makes perfect sense to do so, but the entitled American that resides in the corner of my brain despite my efforts to evict it, tempted me to haughtily demand what they thought they were doing sitting on my bench.
  • A social stigma against smoking does not exist. At home smokers tend to stay a reasonable distance from crowds – though never far enough away for me – politely aware as they are that non-smokers do not like smoke blowing in their faces. Not in Germany. Those smokers just elbow right in with everyone else and spread their carcinogenic fumes everywhere they trod. It should be noted, of course, that everyone smokes in Europe. Really. Everyone. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and have previously observed.
  • Germans have well-behaved dogs that make frequent forays into public without snuffling and jumping and pulling everywhere.
  • German trains leave on time. To the minute. It is wonderful.
  • Besides the smoking, Germany is very clean and well-kept.
  • The countryside is as quaint and beautiful and floral and green and sprawling and gorgeous as those pictures you have seen always led you to believe.
  • Where are the vegetables? Backyard gardens abound but salads seemed scarce in cafes at which we ate. I think this is probably just a problem with our dining habits, though.
  • I want to live in Germany.
  • I had forgotten how frustrating it is to travel to a country where I understand not a word of the language. It’s been a while. I felt stupid.
  • I want to learn German.
That will have to do. Pictures shall comprise the rest of my word allowance.

[To see a picture in the gallery in full-screen, just click on it.]

I shall blog again – about Italy! –  when I can, though who knows when that may be. Not all the hotels have free or functional wifi. Unfortunately, I am at their mercy.