Monday, May 30, 2011

May 30: The Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica

Today is a rest day for Dan, cycling-wise, so we planned our most massive excursion for today: The Vatican. Once again we saddled up the Peugeot and rode across down. This time we had a much harder time parking although we found a great spot in the end, right next to the wall of Vatican City. Our first stop was the Vatican Museum. We had been warned about very long lines, and had tried to get reservations online, but without a printer, I was worried we wouldn't get in. As it turned out, there was no line, and the guy who sold us tickets gave Benny a reduced rate and let Sadie in for free, so we saved a lot by chancing the line.

The entrance to the Vatican Museum is very modern and high tech, but you soon drift back through the centuries, away from the glass and steel and toward the marble and frescoes and whatnot. I highly recommend buying the official guide: it gives you a room-by-room run-down of what to pay attention to, and has lots of maps that break down the museum by section so you can see the flow of the thing. It is HUGE and you will NEED a map. I am a pantsing type person, but this guide was very useful.

The Vatican Museum does not contain only stuff pertaining to church history. It's a repository of artifacts from every important civilization in the west, including some from the Americas. There were amazing Egyptian things -- mummies, sarcophagi -- and insanely cool Mesopotamian stuff. All of this was before you even get to the Greek/Roman galleries, which are absolutely stuffed with interesting things. Now let's be honest with each other. There are like 30,000 things in this museum. If you're going to properly see everything in it, you're going to have to take all day. And you still will miss stuff. Now factor in the two children, for whom one bust of a Dacian looks just as pensive as any other bust of a Dacian, and you will have to just march through some of this museum without looking at anything at all.

There, I said it. In parts of the museum, I literally forbid the children to appreciate anything or even look at anything, but only walk forward. We skipped several galleries completely. And it still took us like four hours to get through the place. Formidable museum, this. It's only formidable though because it's so full of things that are *really actually interesting* like astrolabes and bizarro old maps and frescoes that show people deciding, "Hey, what about we teach immaculate conception?" and busts of Hephaestus and the Borgia apartments and quirky little reliquaries. The rooms really tell a story. But it's a long story.

The end of the attention span, for us, was the Sistine Chapel, which was beautiful to behold even though it was *stuffed full of people.* There is no furniture in the room, and there are no columns. It's like a box painted all over the inside, and you stand in it and just look around, around, around, and around, trying to figure out where everything is. Moses on one wall, Jesus on the other wall, The Last Judgement over the altar, and then the creation of the world on the ceiling. Seeing the ceiling in the context of all the art we'd already seen, we were able to look at Michelangelo's version of God and connect it directly to the Greek and Roman version of Zeus and Jupiter - the same image. So, God as a sort of stern old man with a white beard and dark brow doesn't really originate with Michelangelo, but stretches back into older mythologies. Did not put that together before. Guess dumb me.

After we'd eaten some Vatican lunch at the Vatican pizzeria, we struggled out of the museum and over to St. Peter's Basilica where we instantly saw that this church was a whole new level of huge. We saw Michelangelo's La Pieta. We saw under the altar where St. Peter was supposed to be buried. We saw a beautiful, rippling statue of St. Veronica with her veil. And then we saw the best thing -- Bernini's monument to Alexander VII, which is built in such a way that it incorporates a side door to the Basilica. It looks like a skeleton is trying to lift up a blanket around the door, and he's holding an hour glass and seems to be floating there. It's an amazing piece of work, and Bernini would have been 80 at the time, making this "doorway to the afterlife" theme very relevant to him. I loved this -- it was beyond awesome.

Of course since there was a dome to be climbed, we had to climb it. Arriving at the first level, which is actually inside the church at the point where the dome starts to curve up, we made our careful way around a fenced-in catwalk and looked down on the whole place. There was a mass starting and we watched part of it from up there -- very strange perspective. The mosaics all the way around were beautiful. Then of course it was time to go even higher, and this is where my resolve was really tested. The dome being dome-shaped, the stairwell slants a bit to the right as you're going up. So at times you have to kind of lean right, as if the left wall is collapsing on you. NOT GREAT. Did not enjoy that. Since the family had cantered up blissfully and was way ahead of me, I had no one to screech to and had to just soldier on, even up the last bit which was just a tiny tight spiral staircase around a rope. Eternal emotional scarring from that experience. Eternal. Was the view worth it? For the kids it was, of course. For me, as Randy Jackson says, it was just alright.

Back down. Through the tiny spiral, through the slanting bits, back out into the square and to the nearest gelato purveyor. Actually we went to a very specific gelato purveyor we'd seen on the way in, which was located just next to a crepe purveyor. So I went and got in line for gelato while Dan scored us a nutella crepe and diet Coke. This gelato store was excruciatingly popular. There was no line, just a surging mass of people needing gelato and shouting in Italian. People were walking off with cones mounded with three and four flavors of the stuff, perilously stacked and molded into wild shapes, like little old ladies' hairdos out in the wind. We got ours, threw some coinage at the guy behind the counter, and slurped it all up on the way back to the car.

Could it be possible that after all this awesomeness we could also accomplish our final agenda item of the day, which was to procure Dan a decent bicycle pump so he could ride on an inflated rear tire? The pump he'd bought in Levico Terme was not sufficient, and he ended up leaving it in the doorway of the closed bicycle shop, rather than bother toting it on to Rome. His need was dire for a bike shop, and the GPS found one and eventually even got us there while they were still open. Bike shop hat on head, bike pump in hand, Dan emerged victorious. We came home and ate pasta, I drank some local wine mixed with this superfabulous red grapefruit soda (DON'T JUDGE!), and we went to bed exhausted.

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