European Vacation 2010, Day 10: The Vatican and Churches of Rome

by J.D. Roth

This morning, our group took the subway to the Ottaviano station before walking the rest of the way to the Vatican museum. I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing more religious art, but the Vatican was actually pretty neat — the Catholic church has stolen a lot of great art in its time.

Ceiling of Vatican Museum
The glowing ceiling of the Vatican’s map room (photo by Kris)

Not all of the art here was confiscated from conquered peoples, though. There are also some great works commissioned from Great Masters. There are rooms upon rooms (two miles of rooms, I think our tour guide Sarah told us) filled with sculptures, paintings, frescoes, maps, tapestries, and more. Kris was especially enamored with the tile floors.

Kris was obsessed with the Vatican's tile floors. This is my favorite of the many shots she took.
Kris was obsessed with the Vatican’s tile floors. This is my favorite of the many shots she took.

Touring the Vatican — and fighting the crowds — made me realize just how rich and powerful the Catholic church has been throughout history. Catholicism has played almost zero role in my life, so sometimes I forget how big it actually is. (I’m convinced they could eliminate world poverty if they’d just liquidate a portion of their art collection.)

At the end of our tour, we reached the Sistine Chapel, which was both more and less impressive than I expected. It’s amazing to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece in person, but it was also a bit garish (as apparently most Renaissance art was) and over-the-top.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo

While in the Sistine Chapel, neither photos nor talking were allowed. Everyone was doing both anyhow. The docents tried in vain to keep order. Most folks snuck a picture or two, and the whispers were like the hum of bees. That was fine. One member of our group (Wes) got kicked out, though, because he was blatantly taking photos even after being asked to stop.

After the Sistine Chapel, Kris and I joined Phil and Joy for a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. We saw two mummified popes (not kidding!) and Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta. The latter was difficult to photograph because of the crowds and because it lives behind bullet-proof glass. This photo was taken by holding my camera overhead and trying to stay steady:

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta, which lives behind bullet-proof glass

Overheard: As we were leaving St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world (which is decorated with some of the finest art in the world) and the center of Catholicism (it’s where the Pope gives his addresses), we heard an American woman who was clearly unimpressed say, “So, this is just a church, right?” We had to stifle our laughter. Even Kris and I, non-religious though we may be, respect St. Peter’s.

Next, we paid €7 each — and dodged a group of Japanese tourists who were trying to barge to the head of the line — to climb to the top of the dome above St. Peter’s Basilica and get snapshots of Rome. We climbed about 320 steps, and by the end, my left knee (which isn’t even my bum knee) was killing me.

Inside the dome of St. Peter's, looking down
Inside the dome of St. Peter’s, looking down (photo by Kris)

Joy and Phil
Joy and Phil, climbing the steps to the top of St. Peter’s

Phil and Joy, atop St. Peter's Basilica (with Rome in the distance)
Phil and Joy, atop St. Peter’s Basilica (with Rome in the distance)

Silliness outside the dome to St. Peter's basilica
Joy and Kris attempt to keep St. Peter’s from falling over. Phil and I take photos.

The four of us then looked for a place to eat north of the Vatican. The first place we tried was gouging tourists. They wanted €14 for a half liter of the house wine (most places charged €8 to €12 for a liter of the stuff!), and their food prices were outrageous too. We got up and left, walking a few blocks until we found a pizza rustica place. The owner was a bit surly, but Kris and I managed to get two slices of pizza and a bottle of wine for just €17.

After taking the subway back to the Repubblica stop, we joined the Gussmans to visit two churches near our hotel:

"Church porn" at St. Mary de Vittoria - Rome
Church porn: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria

Bianchini’s sundial and meridian line, which is very cool

Before dinner, we joined Phil and Joy in their room to finish their bottle of grappa, which I’d always thought was Greek but is actually Italian.

The tour group then met for a farewell dinner, eating at a place called Ristorante del Giglio. The food was okay, but the conversation was better. It was a fitting conclusion to a fine trip.

After dinner, some of us hung around at the Snack Bar (that’s the name of the place!) across the street from our hotel. Kim, Joy, Phil, Kris, and I munched on snacks (I had a final gelato) while talking with Sarah about life as a tour guide.

Updated: 05 November 2010

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