Friday, August 14, 2009

Honeymoon Part V - The Vatican!

My life has gotten away from me. But I got out my big lasso and I got it back under control. So on with the show.

The Saturday during our honeymoon week was a busy one. We woke up ridiculously early. If you knew Asmus, you would really appreciate the gravity of the situation. He sleeps in half-day increments. So our 9 o'clock appointment at the Vatican Museums was difficult. Luckily our hotel was relatively close to the Vatican. Because of the early hour, we opted for the 5-minute cab ride, instead of the bus.

As you probably have forgotten, we decided to go to Rome about two weeks before the trip and while we were planning the wedding, so there was not much time for research. We were in a rush to get things going, so we did not ask many questions at the airport tourism office. In the craze of planning the trip, I decided to visit the Vatican. I am not Catholic or a fan of old churches but I love history. The Vatican is chock full of it.

I want to the Vatican’s website and signed us up for an English-language tour. Asmus and I talked about good dates and times. During our conversations, our preferences were eaten up. We were happy to get a tour Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Going to the Vatican to look is free but a tour is 13 euros. I loves me some tours, so I paid. That’s all I know. There were no explanations for how long the tour was, what you look at, where to meet the tour guide. It was a mystery. But I assumed that the Roman Catholic Church would not lead us astray.

OK, I was a bit wrong. The church is not that organized. The cab pulls up to the Vatican Museums at 8:40 a.m. and it looks like there is a protest going on. There was no protest, just a lot of people trying to get in. After standing for about 90 seconds trying to figure things out, I found a guy in a uniform. I asked him where to go and he pointed to a line. It was a long line but it was shorter than the line for people without reservations. As we inched ahead, I struck up a conversation with the people in front of us. They were Americans! Since moving to Germany, I am become this bloodhound in search of Americans. Mom, Dad and college-age daughter hailed from northern New Jersey. I moved from Brooklyn, so we were like neighbors. The daughter was studying abroad in Florence and her parents were visiting her. We talked about Italy and I explained what I was doing in Germany. Asmus was mostly silent. That is normal.

Time is ticking away. It is stressful but the line is moving steadily. We get past security and then we don’t know what to do. We lost the Jersey family. We stand around and I peek a sign that says, “Tick”. I assume that it says “Tickets” and rush toward it. Soon Asmus follows. I was right. We had an online reservations but needed to get tickets. The man rushes and we join the tour 40 seconds before it is set to move.

The Vatican is pretty hip. In addition to the website, the Vatican has the latest in tour technology. We got the kind of earphones that television anchors use. The tour guide had a microphone clipped to her jacket and we could hear what she said. It was kind of cool. It was like a ghost was whispering in my ears. We take off. Yes! We go up a flight of stairs and then sit in a hallway. We are waiting for some more English-speakers to get to the tour. I don’t mind because I just finished wading through the same confusion.

We go up an escalator and through a few hallways and then we go outside. We stand in a courtyard that is surrounded by large sculptures. There is even a cool globe sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro in the center of the Cortile del Belvedere, or Courtyard of Belvedere. The area is punctuated with these small billboards representing the Sistine Chapel. There are several boards because a few tour groups use them at the same time.

Because the Sistine Chapel is so popular and small, we get a 15-minute lesson about the art in the chapel and information about the history of the chapel outside. There are about 25 people in our group, so I cannot see the board. I am so clever that I move to an identical poster a few feet away and listen to the explanation from there.

Here is a view of the Belvedere Courtyard. The set of three small billboards depict the art in the Sistine Chapel. The trio is repeated throughout the courtyard. A different tour group stands in front of the scenes.

There is so much art everywhere. There are two or three very long hallways that contain tapestries detailing historic events, the map of the known world and every day life. There are rooms for large sculptures, some of which have complex mosaic tiles on the floor.

Even the ceilings are decorated and gilt.

Where there are no sculptures, there are paintings. Near the end of our tour, we passed through rooms devoted to modern and contemporary art. Most of the works have some kind of religious connotation, but not all of them. I noticed a familiar style in a piece across a room. I sped over to the work and I was rewarded. The Vatican Museums includes work by Jacob Lawrence. Now I am impressed.

Touring the Vatican City was amazing but very stressful. There were thousands of people moving through the halls at the same time. I was pushed and had people jump in front of me. A person in a wheelchair struggled to get out of the door. People on vacation are dangerous.

But the history and the art made up for the hassle. The Sistine Chapel is the most popular room but I preferred the work in the Raphael Rooms. Of course, much of the areas are covered in religious images but in the Room of the Segnatura, walls are devoted to a theme of life’s great truths. My favorite fresco feature the great thinkers of the first millennium and great medieval artists. The tour guide pointed out that in School of Athens, Raphael used the faces of some of his friends to represent some of the great thinkers. Art scholars have no agreed on what all the images, symbolism and actions mean in the paintings but the guide explained the less controversial aspects. The light was not good for me to photograph well.

However, I did get a few nice photographs of the paintings dedicated to Constantine. Constantine's conversion to Christianity made it possible for the religion to flourish. Before he converted, Christianity was an underground religion. Christians were killed for their faith. According to one theory, Emperor Constantine saw a cross in the sky while battling in a civil war with Maxentius and took it as a sign of God. The emperor put his troops in the form of the cross and beat the opposing army, which was twice as big as his. Those pieces were pulsating.

Here is a part of a fresco depicting Constantine's
victory, in which God spoke to him.

The Raphael Rooms are dark and quiet. There are several benches that you can sit on and think about what you see. It was an awe-inspiring room.

The tour ended with the modern art galleries. Suddenly we were on our own. After a visit to the bathroom, we entered this huge room with high ceilings and a crush of people. It was the Sistine Chapel. Like every other time in my life when I am excited about something, the actual event is not as good as the hope. The paintings are beautiful. Unfortunately, they are on high ceilings, so you are pretty far away from them. You are surrounded the buzzing of hundreds of people. It seemed like every 30 seconds a guard was Shhhhing people or telling them not to take any pictures. It was a mildly chaotic scene that I was happy to leave after a few minutes.

But wait there is more -- the Vatican City Gift Shop! I love gift shops. I love perusing shelves of crap to find the highlights and the lowlights. I was still on the hunt for a statue of the Pope (a German man who was once known as Joseph Ratzinger; when he was declared the new pope Germans ran around saying, "Wir sind Papst." We are the Pope. Mr. Michelsen is more of a man of letters, than a man of God. The statue was a joke.) for Asmus’ father. I asked a nun who worked as a cashier there and she disappeared up some steps with Asmus. All the cashiers in the gift shop were wearing habits. I think this is the place where the best nuns in the world come to end their service. All these old nuns selling postcards. It was odd.

I got an 8-inch statute of “Pope Benedetto XVI” [the pope’s official name is Italian. To us, he is Pope Benedict to the church, he is Papa Benedetto”. John Paul II was actually Papa Giovanni Paolo. I don’t want to sound crude but that is a sexy name. “Giovanni Paolo” belongs to a hot guy.] and some postcards of the Sistine Chapel, because you cannot take a photograph of the chapel. The best -- we sent some postcards from the souvenir shop to family. Because the Vatican City is its own country, it has its own postal system, so it has its own stamp. [Vatican City also has its own police force.]. [It seems the Italian tendency to be a bit disorganized extended to entering the Vatican Museum and the postal system. It took two weeks for the postcard to reach Asmus’ family in Germany. I was a bit nervous but my faith that the Roman Catholic Church would honor its duty was rewarded.]

After the gift shop, you must exit via St. Peter’s Square. That is the familiar circle with the column in the middle. For the more adventurous, you can tour St. Peter’s Basilica. It was about noon. Add my fatigue and hunger and my chronic boredom of old church’s, we left.

The trip to Rome helped my openness to spontaneity. We wandered around of food. There was this hole in the wall restaurant on a small street near the square. We stopped in and had delicious lunch and tasty wine.