As I wandered around Rome, I realized I was fortunate to be there at a wonderful time. In May the azaleas are on the Spanish steps. The weather is mild without the blazing heat that comes in August. It’s also a shoulder season, so while there are tourists everywhere, you can actually avoid crowds at most places. It was the crowds, confined in the trench around the Trevi fountain that made it not the delightful experience that others have found it.
I mentioned before that there were few visitors to the Paola Fountain. While the Trevi is in the heart of Rome, the Paola is really blessed with the amazing vantage point, even if it doesn’t have the sheer drama of the Trevi statuary.
My experience of small crowds came to an end with my trip to the Vatican Museum, the Sistine and St Peter’s.
I was able to see everything I’d come to see in about 2 hours. I took a taxi to the museum. It’s not clear what line to get in so I headed to the more open one. Turns out that’s for groups. I was directed to a long queue (more than a block long) down a sidewalk next to the wall. There’s a low railing separating the queue from passersby that is punctuated at intervals for entrances & exits. I wasn’t sure how long I was prepared to wait. As I stood deciding I moved over a step and no one yelled. So I found myself near the head of the line. In just 15 minutes I had cleared the metal detectors, paid my fee and was inside the museum. Ok, a little sneaky but no one seemed to mind.
I looked at the map and thought about the time I had left in the day. By now it was 11AM. I found myself taking the abbreviated route to the Sistine. This route goes through the Long Hall, then through former Papal apartments such as the Borgias. ( I imagined Jeremy Irons gliding through) Finally the visit ends at the Sistine.
From there I exited through a door marked for tours and a short walk laterI was in St Peter’s without waiting in any lines or going through more metal detectors. Afterwards I found out this is a Rick Steves tip which saves a 30 minute walk and another long line to get into the Basilica. Lucky me.
To truly appreciate the artworks on display takes an iron constitution. The crowds are large, even in this more lightly traveled season. I kept thinking of Art as a consumable as I went through the very long halls. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. You probably know that I love spending time in museums. Here people snap away madly, trying to take a picture of everything. Of course I took a lot of pictures also. Rome almost demands that her picture be taken. What struck me was that almost no one seemed to actually see the works on display. I thought of an entertaining vignette of Louis Auchincloss’ describing tourists in the Louvre clutching their audio guides, like a flock of starlings flitting from one breadcrumb to another ignoring anything in between.
When you finally reach the Sistine even on the abbreviated journey, you’re almost worn out by the amount of works already seen. The Chapel is packed, everyone snapping away. There’s really no way to tune out the din of the crowd and really think about what you’re seeing. There are private after hours tours upwards of $350 that Robert Hughes describes as “ransom to the Vatican.”
Sadly, at least to me, most people expect this kind of atmosphere. Art as Disney extravaganza. As museums around the world discovered the blockbuster exhibit to draw in paying crowds, actual contemplation of what is seen went by the wayside in many cases. If this sounds curmudgeonly it’s because I think it’s a great loss to our souls. I won’t natter on about this, but it was one of the ‘take aways’ from the day.
The Basilica is enormous, but I was fascinated by what I learned of the tricks to make this most stunning church in the world seem more human in scale. Statues close to the ground might be six feet or so, but the ones well above are several feet taller. This gives the appearance of being closer.
The Bernini bronze canopy underneath dome is surprisingly seven stories tall. Even close up it doesn’t seem to be that large. The lettering around the top are seven feet high, again, making it seem closer.
I am sorry I didn’t see the Vatican gardens, get to visit the library or really spend the days the collection deserves. I did get a sense of the place, the seemingly unlimited wealth, and to see a bit of those astounding collections and I am glad of that. I can truly say that what I saw was astonishing, perhaps more as a cascade of visual delights rather than individual works.
The Round Room, and ancient mosaics.
More pics after the jump.
Oh, the ceilings.
And the crowds.
And more ceilings…
And *that* ceiling.
Old and new.
And the ever present leitmotif.
And glimpses outside.
The shortcut from the Sistine to the basilica.
And then another ceiling.
The seven story Bernini canopy.
And then out to the sun.
I said goodbye to the Vatican, heading out to a papal stronghold.
A tour group being told about the monument in the piazza where I was sitting on the steps. They listened, then shuffled off.
Had they lingered they might have noticed the middle aged couple sitting nearby, laughing and flirting. She had a wedding ring but I don’t know if they were married to each other.
Or the chic woman in stilettos crossing the cobblestones, not pausing as her ankles wobbled a bit trying not to twist.
Or the young couple caressing each other before crossing the bridge.
On a street around the corner.
And then back to Fiumicino.
I hope I’ve not bored you but given a taste of the feast for the senses that is Roma.