In the interest of brevity, I will dispense with the following superlatives now: astounding, amazing, fabulous, incredible, and humbling. Today I have experienced them all.
The National Museum of Rome is my kind of museum: spacious, quiet, air conditioned, uncrowded, and filled withg great artifacts. Located just a few blocks from my hotel, it contains great sculptures, including the busts of many ancient Roman notables (the Emperors, Senators, Generals, and their wives) and Greek and Roman Gods. Some of these are "death masks" and therefore represent what they really looked like. The basement is a vast walk-in vault (complete with bank vault doors) that presents the chronological progress of coins in the Roman Empire and Italy, from Denaris to Euros. Fascinating. The basement also houses a collection of common ancient Roman household items, including jewelry, hair pins, and cosmetic jars. A terrific 90 minute visit.
Rome’s subway system is pretty lightweight by our standards: there are only two lines, A & B, which run North-South and East-West and serve very little of Rome. However, imagine the difficulties in trying to tunnel today through a 2,400-year old city! Every 10 feet they must have had to call in the archaeologists to examine some new find. Nonetheless, the subway at least had working A/C and typical cars, complete with graffiti, and is, apparently, well-used by the citizenry. I used the subway today to visit…
The Vatican Museum, houses a great collection of sculpture and painting. There is one long hall that features 100 yards (our modern football field) of sculptures, followed by 50 yards of amazing tapestries, followed by another 100 yards of The Map Room. The latter is a room whose walls are painted with frescoes of maps of different areas of Italy and whose ceiling is the most fabulous assortment of frescoes and decorative detail. The 3-D in the frescoes is so good that it’s frequently hard to figure out what is painted and what is real. This is followed by the Raphael Rooms – Raphael took up residence at the Pope’s request and painted huge frescoes in the Pope’s private rooms, including the famous and gigantic "School of Athens", featuring Aristotle, Socrates, Euclides, and even Michelanglo (who was working down the hall at the time). I am reminded of the observation I made when viewing Louis XIV’s bedroom at Versailles: how could anyone actually sleep underneath all that art, gold, and decoration?
Next, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s private chapel. Imagine, a chapel the size of a high school gym, reserved for the exclusive use of one man. Described as the greatest single work of art by an individual, the ceiling frescoes simply defy description. Here is the Old Testament history of the world before Jesus. Here is the famous panel showing the extended finger tips of God and Adam. Though Michelanglo at first refused the commission, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, the Pope prevailed on him and, from 1508 to 1512, the sculptor found himself on scaffolds painting 5,900 square feet of ceiling (compare that to the size of your house or apartment). When you enter, the space is dimly lit to preserve the frescoes and you are asked to be silent (Americans, of course, lead the way in babbling). At one end, above the altar and painted by Michelangelo 23 years after the ceiling, is The Last Judgement, a dark and horrific vision of the end of days. This is very different in outlook from the optimistic ceiling frescoes and illustrates the pessimism of the end of The Renaissance.
I used the sneaky "Group Tours Only" exit from the Sistine Chapel to save myself a 30-minute walk around to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the cathedral of all cathedrals. The front porch, the Atrium or covered entrance before you reach the doors, is itself larger than most churches. Inside the scale is huge: 200 yards from front to back, 430 feet to the top of the dome, the inside covers 6 acres and can accomodate 6,000 standing worshippers. The altar is covered by a 7-story tall bronze canopy and every surface is ornately decorated. This clealy carries the splendor that was once ancient Rome forward and is a magnificent seat of worship for the 1.1 Billion Roman Catholics. It’s hard to describe the feeling one gets viewing this – the accomplishments of man are truly heavenly here.
Where are the artistic accomplishments of recent centuries that rival those of men like Michelangelo, I wonder? What from our time will be revered 600 years from now as unbelievable accomplishments in art? I wonder…
Tomorrow: the Colesseum, Forum, Palantine Hill, and the remains of ancient Rome.