Italy 2006:  Chapter I

Vatican City State * Vatican Museum * Sistine Chapel
* St. Peter's Basilica * Trevi Fountain * The Coliseum

The trip began at the Minneapolis and St. Paul Airport, from where we departed at 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 2nd, 2006.   Left to right, that's Allan and I on the left, John and Jan Flora in black, and Rosalie and Lloyd Pauly.

We flew KLM to Amsterdam, where we landed at 11:30 p.m. (MN time on Sept. 2nd).  We departed Amsterdam on Air Alitalia four hours later (3:30 a.m. MN time on Sept. 3rd) and arrived at the airport in Rome at 5:30 a.m. (MN time on Sept. 3rd).

We spent several hours at the airport in Rome waiting for our luggage.  Most of it did not show up, but we couldn't stay there forever, so we eventually found our tour guide, Mhairi Maclaren, and our hotel at 8:30 a.m. (MN time, Sept. 3rd).  We had been on the road 21 hours.  Much of the luggage arrived over the next few days, but Allan's never did.  We've thought about bronzing that shirt.

Morning in MN, but dinner time in Rome.  Mhairi (white shirt), whose roots and home were Scottish, was adept in several languages, including Italian.  That first night she took the 45 of us in our tour group to a pizza party where we were plied with song and pizza and wine -- pitchers of it!

Rosalie and Lloyd were celebrating a special date -- their 45th wedding anniversary.  They were married on September 2nd, 1962, in Canby, Minnesota.  Rosalie's maiden name is Koch.

One of these days John will also get in the picture.  Keep your eyes out for the blue shirt.

As darkness finally closed in on us -- this, our first night in Italy -- we stepped off the bus to admire the impressive view of Bernini's Colonnade lit up for the night.  This building, commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in the late 17th century, was one of the newer architectural masterpieces we were to see in this ancient city of Rome.

Our internal clocks woke us up widely on Monday, September 4th, at 3:30 a.m. Italy time.  By 8 a.m. we were scooted off toward Vatican City where we encountered our first of many flights of stone stairs.   There was no provision in ancient times or modern times for people with disabilities.  This tour was not meant for people weak in either body of mind.

At the top of the outdoor steps -- three flights -- we ran into a huge stone wall, maybe 15 feet high, against which we formed a line and leaned, waiting to be let inside.

We were told that the wall is the actual boundary separating the Vatican City State -- the tiniest country in the world -- from the City of Rome.  We learned that the wall is over a thousand years old, dating back to 802 to 803 A.D.

Once inside the Vatican wall we were introduced to Ulysses, a tall skinny Italian in a plaid shirt who enunciated for us as though his life depended on us getting every single syllable.  Said he, "I've got just enough accent to make it difficult for you."

Ulysses would be our tour guide throughout our entire three-day stay in Rome.  He seemed to know everything there is to know about Rome, but acknowledged he would only be giving us "a compendium, of course."

"It takes two hours to walk the perimeter of the Vatican City State," said Ulysses.  "The whole Vatican City State is 44.2 hectares."  We would say 110 acres.

"At least 18,000 people every day come into the Vatican Museum.  Today we are expecting 28,000."

Ulysses gave us a preview class on The Last Judgment, a fresco painting of Michelangelo, filling the entire front wall of the Sistine Chapel.  He is enunciating quite well.

We were standing in the Pigna Courtyard, where Ulysses pointed out that the sculpture of the pine cone, for which the open air courtyard is named, dates back to the First Century A.D.  Such pine cones come out of the Mediterranean pines.

And then he pointed to something just a few yards away, in the same courtyard, that is 2,000 years older.  It was a large shiny bronze globe of the world which was sculpted as a sphere within a sphere.  "It represents the world within the world," said Ulysses, probably referring to the world of God and the world of man.  "It was a 1990 gift to Pope John Paul II.
We were happy to step out of the blazing sun into the coolness of the Vatican Museum, an all-encompassing term it seems that includes the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica itself, the Vatican Library, etc.  Ulysses did say, however, "After 4:30 p.m., St. Peter's is no longer a museum.  That's when vespers starts."

Once inside we faced the daunting Royal Staircase, which took us into the Royal Palace, which dates to 1500 A.D.

We were entranced by paintings on the ceiling of the Palace that appeared to be three-dimensional but were in fact flat against the ceiling.

"It's an optical illusion," said Ulysses.  "This style of painting was evident in the 1540's."

The walls were lined with huge ornate tapestries of religious themes that were initially designed and woven to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, but flash photos were not allowed.  Pure gold, silver, and other precious fibers are woven into the tapestries, including a larger than life Jesus, whose eyes meet yours no matter where you are, from one end of the hall to the other.

Ceilings of the Royal Palace varied according to the century in which they were painted.  I personally am drawn to this one.

This is a view of the Vatican Grounds from the Palace Museum.  Then we stepped into the silence of the Sistine Chapel.  No pictures were allowed in the Chapel so I tried to paint them like a fresco into memory. I could see Charlton Heston, who played Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, lying up on the scaffolding with his paintbrush, being scolded by Pope Rex Harrison.

And then we entered the monumental St. Peter's Basilica, "the biggest domed church in the world," said Ulysses, where only the Pope can say Mass at the high altar, which is under the baldachino as pictured above.  The tomb of St. Peter himself, the first Pope, lies beneath this high altar.

But there are 48 side altars in St. Peter's Basilica where others are allowed to say Mass.  Ulysses confided that as a young lad he was confirmed at the side altar of St. Sebastian by his uncle who was a cardinal.  Only in private did he answer my question and whisper to me the name of his uncle the cardinal, now deceased.

Every inch of wall/ceiling space in St. Peter's Basilica that is "painted" (like in the previous photo), is in fact covered with tiny mosaic tile, which is why the camera flash is here allowed.  The mosaics are made of a special kind of glass that has the color right in it, said Ulysses, and flash won't damage it like it would the metallic fibers of tapestries.

In one of the corners surrounding the baldachino is a statue of St. Helena of Constantinople, the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine.  St. Helena (248 to 329 A.D.) is traditionally credited with finding the relics of the True Cross.

If you can read Italian, you know exactly where I am.

And then we came upon the Pieta, which is now behind glass because it was attacked by a mentally unbalanced guest in 1971.

The Pieta is the only piece of his art that Michelangelo signed, said Ulysses, his full entire name across the bodice of Mary, from her left shoulder to the right side of her waist.  I purchased a miniature for my kitchen window sill.  The sculpting of it works structurally, I've read, because Mary was drawn out of proportion; she was made larger than her Son, in order to hold the weight of it all.

Out in the sunlight of St. Peter's Square, Ulysses pointed to the residence of Pope Benedict XVI, and other popes before him.

The Pope's residence is located just behind the colonnade.  "When the shutters are closed, the Pope is not in residence," said Ulysses.  I knew beforehand that Pope Benedict would be visiting Bavaria, his homeland, during our visit to the Vatican.

"St. Peter's Square holds 350,000 to 400,000 people," he continued.  "During the funeral days of Pope John Paul II, millions came to the Square.  It took people five hours to get to work when it otherwise took only five minutes."

That afternoon we drove out to the Coliseum, where Ulysses continued to press upon us the singular history of the area.  "Only one-third of the Coliseum remains today," he said.  "It dates back to the First Century B.C."

"You have to use your imagination here," he said more than once.  "See the levels of seating.  The lower you were in Roman Society, the higher you sat in the Coliseum

"The Coliseum has been my playground since I was very little," said Ulysses.  "We could once go in and out of here 24 hours a day, without tickets and without tours."

"Over 50,000 people each day attended shows at the Coliseum and went up and down these steps," he said.  One of those shows included sea battles after flooding the arena with water.

There was an invisible life below the floor of the Coliseum where wild animals and workers and Christians were stored until they were needed on the stage floor of the arena."  (Hi, John and Jan.)

Ulysses called it the first domed stadium in the world.  It had a fabric that functioned like an umbrella.  Nothing kept the sun hidden today, however, as Ulysses led our group from one spot of shade to another.  (Hi, Rosalie and Lloyd.)

The Coliseum functions today as a monument to those Christian martyrs who died at the hands of the Romans, for sport.  Jan and I found a spot for a pretty picture.

That evening we enjoyed fine dining

and fine music.

and a late night visit to the famous Three Coins in a (Trevi) Fountain, where my purse was entered by a person of the pickpocket persuasion.

Nothing was stolen from my big deep bag, however, so everyone walked home with smiles.

NOT the End
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