Day 17

Posted by Whit Barringer , Thursday, June 14, 2007 2:30 PM


CT 4:06
IT 11:06

Last Day in the Eternal City

I got up at around 6:50. It was too early to even be conscious, but I went. Why? Because it was our last day in Rome, and we were going to the one thing that would be able to salvage my entire time there: Musei Vaticani. The Vatican Museums.

We all went and ate breakfast. It was good, but I was already in a foul mood for some reason. I had put my bags with the wrong people’s, so I had to dash out and move them before they went to the airport without me. I put them in the extra dining hall with everyone else’s, gave Paulette my Italian postcard from the Capuchin Crypt, and went out to the lobby to wait for us to leave. We were supposed to leave at 7:45 to be in line by 8, but we ended up leaving at fifteen after. Dr. Bane started getting really mad because people were so late. I went and got my book out of my backpack, and he even snarled at me a bit – until he realized I had gotten the TOP 10 ROME book that had bus routes, metro routes, maps, and bus lines in it. He then told me he would be able to forgive me.

Along the way, Paulette and I chatted and I talked about wanting to go to the Cat Sanctuary near our hotel. Darting in and out of Roman traffic was crazy with 30 some odd people (though the linguistics group had already left this morning). We got to Vatican City and stepped up in line. I was kind of excited because we had still gotten there early and there weren’t that many people… or so I thought. In fact, the line went up about ¼ mile, turned right for about as long as the first line, then had another turn to the left, which wrapped around the building into security. We waited in line for 2 ½ hours. To pass the time, we did the following: listened to each other’s iPods, played the Famous Game (Dolly Parton -> Patrick Swayze -> Selma Hayek -> Harrelson Ford, etc.) and the Connect the Actor Game (Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl; Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Leonardo, Claire Danes – Romeo + Juliet, etc.), bought 1 Euro water from the vendors and rejoiced, sat, sketched (art history people only), etc. Surprisingly, it only felt like two hours in the hot sun rather than two and a half.

Security was a breeze – I’ve got it down to a science. We then went upstairs, got student discounts that we didn’t expect, and headed out. I decided to stick with the art people to hear Dr. Seymour talk about the pieces. Instead, we ran through the museum to get to the Sistine Chapel. Really, “ran” is too strong. “Herded” was more like it. There were thousands of people, hundreds in some of the rooms. It was extremely congested due to tour groups guiding their people and then stopping in the middle of the crowd to look at diagrams of the Sistine Chapel, as well as random souvenir and book stands placed in extremely inconvenient places. Then, due to the wonders of modern engineering, we would have to cram ourselves shoulder to shoulder through double doors from a space that was two to three times as wide as the frame; in other words, a funnel for non-liquid matter. And it was so hot. We were all sweating so hard it was in beads. But we had to follow those signs.

After about five or six rooms of this treatment, maybe more, we finally got to the Raphael room. Ever seen the painting “School of Athens?” This was it. The painting actually covers an entire wall as a fresco. It also includes portraits of Michelangelo and Da Vinci (Michelangelo being the man in the front of the painting with big folded-top brown boots; they’re stone cutter boots as a play on his craft). There are actually four walls, and they were the key to the Pope’s library. The walls were music, religion, law, and last but not least philosophy. Then we were herded through more rooms.

We found the modern art, which was mostly either grotesque, completely abstract, or childishly simple. There were two Salvador Dali paintings, which I was excited to see. Otherwise, it was rather disappointing. There were quite a few rooms of modern art, too. We were separated, so those of us who had gotten ahead had to wait in one of the rooms for everyone else. I saw in front of a sculpture I like to call “Gotham Jesus” (actually titled “Cristo Maestro” by Umberto Mastroianni) because it’s art form, which I’m sure has a name, looked similar to the Batman cartoons I watched when I was in fourth and fifth grade in the mornings (square fingers, straight angles, etc.). Or maybe the reprint covers of Ayn Rand books. Anyway, it and a colorful tapestry were my two favorites in the room. I was busy taking pictures (while sitting on the floor, still waiting) when the guard clapped at us and told us all to stand up. Onward we went.
I have to note that some of the floors along the way were absolutely beautiful. The modern art rooms didn’t have much to offer in this way, but before and after we saw beautiful mosaic floors in swirling patterns that looked like woven ocean waves (“Vitruvian swirls”). Christianity, it seems, is completely obsessed with mosaics. Or at least it was. I don’t know many churches now that aren’t made of tin, at least in the U.S.*

A warning: going to the Vatican Museums is like constantly getting lied to. Nothing is where the arrows point to. You expect the next room with an arrow, right? No. Never. After coming so far, we still had as far to go. We passed through beautiful rooms full of colorful tapestries, frescoes, and mosaics, but we had to get to the Sistine Chapel before we could even pause. It made me wish that I had paid for a tour guide or a headphone set. But through the sea of people we went, carried like leaves in a hurricane. Most of us were shaking our heads at the crowd, being Americans used to elbow room and open space, but we gritted our teeth and worked through the madness.

A note: all of the rooms that I keep referring to were once part of the Papal “apartments,” I suppose. Every room was for a use designated by a pope or popes throughout history. In those terms it is simultaneously extravagant and amazing. But in the terms of art, for me, the one-who-doesn’t-know-art-history, it was a waste of time if not for the experience.

When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I had this feeling of disbelief. “You mean… we actually made it?” Seriously. It was like we had been in Purgatory the entire time (we just finished Dante’s Divine Comedy – give me a break). Then there was another feeling: “This is it?” Yes, it’s Michelangelo’s masterpiece (complimented by Brunelleschi and others). Yes, it’s the Mecca of art history. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, it’s everything anyone’s ever told you. Which is exactly why it’s disappointing.

We were herded in with hundreds of people. The guards were shouting, “No photo!” Then they played a recording that said in about 10 languages “no photography” (I’m not joking). The Sistine Chapel has been recently restored, so the colors were extremely vibrant and beautiful. But Dr. Seymour had no wisdom to offer us (as the pinnacle of religious art, I guess there’s nothing to say), and I felt robbed of the time I had spent trying to get there. The pictures I was able to sneak were blurry, and all I could do was sigh.

We then left and came out near the cafeteria and pizzeria. I got a Pepsi and a sandwich for around 5 Euro and sat and ate with the art history folks. We complained about the crowds, other people, and the art on the way to the Sistine Chapel. Dr. Seymour compared the crowds to a concentration camp, and I would have to agree. The art people decided to go ahead and leave, and I decided to stay and go find the Egyptian exhibit. I was told Natalie was waiting on me, but I couldn’t find her so I went ahead and explored on my own.

The Vatican Museums are huge and complicated to navigate, but I thought I could reach the Egyptian museums with no problem. However, I ran into that same scenario that I had before – the signs were all lies. I was disgusted that I couldn’t find it because both Natalie and I had spotted it earlier on the way to the chapel not far past security. I went that way and saw that there was a gate locked, blocking people from entering the Egyptian exhibit, though this didn’t register at the time. When I realized it later, I was sorely disappointed – another opportunity wasted. While I was searching for this nonexistent passage into the Egyptian section, I stumbled across most of the rest of the museum.

I first walked into the Pinacoteca. According to my Musei Vaticani book, this gallery derives from a similar one set up under Pius VI. It included some pretty famous paintings including “Crowning of the Virgin” and “Transfiguration” by Raphael and “Deposition from the Cross” by Carvaggio (one of my favorites now). There were, of course, quite a few paintings of Saint Sebastian (they love him here). There were some really odd paintings of animals attacking other animals – all featured “later” in the hall after a huge painting of the Garden of Eden with many colorful animals. I interpreted this as man’s fall from grace magnified through animals, but I could be completely off. In the lobby here with yet another gift shop was a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which was not behind glass.

I then went into what I found out later was the Pio-Clementino Museum, so called because of the efforts of one of the Pius and Clement popes to collect art, mostly Greek and Roman statues. There were hundreds of busts and quite a few large statues. I was amazed at the condition of most of them, many having survived more than 2000 years. I just happened to find the bust of Demosthenes (of Ender’s Game fame) and was quick to take a picture. There was a case of stairs at the top of this little hallway, but I decided to go and try to find the Egyptian collection.

This is when I discovered that it was blocked off. Disappointed, I decided to see what else I could find near the room I had just been in. There were signs for the Sistine Chapel there, but I knew I wouldn’t get close enough to see it again. As I walked back across the courtyard, I spotted two Egyptian cat statues with hieroglyphs all around the base. I looked up on the balcony behind them and saw people moving and spotted what I thought was the Egyptian exhibit. If people were still there, there was a chance I could get up there. I had a new mission.
Still in the Pio-Clementino gallery, I saw many a statue of Hercules and Jove (another name for Zeus/Jupiter). I also saw Laocoon. There was one in the Gli Uffizi as well, but this statue was an original from Rhodes and mentioned in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. It features the priest of Apollo, who had warned against accepting the Trojan Horse inside the city walls, as he and his sons are viciously bitten by entangling vipers (it’s worth taking a look at – hinthint).

I entered the “Round Room” and was surprised to see a huge bowl in the middle of the floor. I found out later that this was bowl was 13 meters in circumference – though I never found its purpose or name. I entered the Hall of the Greek Cross, called such because of its shape, and saw two giant maroon marble sarcophagi. I thought they were neat but I had no idea who they had in them. Turns out it was the mother and daughter of Emperor Constantine. The magnitude of some of the collections in the museum was extremely impressive.

Here I had two options. Go straight into God knows what, or I could turn left – which was the vague direction of the Egyptian exhibit I had glimpsed earlier. Taking the plunge, I went left. What was the first thing I saw? The base of a broken statue of Ramses II. I had finally made it.
Though small, the exhibit was full of things I would never have gotten to see unless I had gone to Egypt. Very few things, if anything, in the first two rooms were from any time later than 1 A.D., the oldest being around 14th or 13th century B.C. Mummies, statues, tablets, jewelry, statues galore, it was absolutely amazing to get to experience that first hand. In the next room the statues were from the Roman occupation of Egypt (many of which from an Egyptian “garden” or something or other that Emperor Caligula had built). These statues had two and three names on the identification plaques identifying them with as many traditions. There was a huge statue of a long-bearded man with his foot resting on a crocodile and his arm resting on a kind of harpy. The man has absolutely no Egyptian influence at all, and is instead in the style of a Roman god or goddess. The name? Nile, god of the River. There was another statue of Anubis in a toga, looking more doglike than usual. I laughed when I saw it because it looked like a regular person with a cartoon dog head (more so than the Egyptian version).

But next I saw the icing on the cake – cuneiform tablets! I know, it sounds extremely exciting to everyone and me especially. These were the tablets you only hear about. And I actually got to see that ancient, complicated writing system. After this, knowing I was as satisfied as I was going to get, I decided to get the heck out of Dodge. I went down a huge spiral staircase commissioned by some Pope in the 1930s with the crests of different popes on it, and went to sit out on the curb. I had skipped the missionary cultural museums and the chariot room, but I felt that they wouldn’t have altered by experience by any means.

My next plan of action was up in the air. It was around 2:30 and I had to be at the train station at 5:15. Feeling pretty bold and daring, I headed toward the nearest tabacchi to get a bus ticket to ride back to the piazza near the hotel. I bought one for one Euro, found a bus stop sign that had my stop (Torre Argentina) on it, and waited on it to come.

Bus 492 finally showed up about 10-15 minutes later. It was too crowded for me to get a seat, but I validated my ticket and leaned against the window bar. About 10-15 minutes passed before the bus stopped at Torre Argentina (the piazza around the ruins where, supposedly, Julius Caesar was murdered). I got off, started for my hotel, and then decided against it. I wanted to find the cat sanctuary. Of course, as was my eternal luck in that infernal city, I didn’t find it. I was really upset because I wanted to buy my mom a souvenir from the Roman Cat Sanctuary, but there was nothing I could do. I went inside the hotel and sat with Kara, Kate, and Megan while waiting for 3:45 to come around to go get my ticket and get on the bus.

The time came around and I went to get my ticket at a tabacchi I had seen earlier. Of course I pick the one place in the entire city of Rome that either didn’t have any tickets left or didn’t sell them. I was so mad I bought myself a fragola (strawberry) gelato (ice cream/sherbet) as a treat. I went the other way down the street past the hotel when I saw Kim and Caitlin, who said they had done the same thing I had done and had to go down another two blocks and make a left turn at “The Red Shoes” before they found a tabacchi selling tickets. I went, finally bought my ticket, and headed back to the bus stop. I saw Will and Sydney, who were waiting for the bus as well. There were two we could take – 40 and 64. The first was the express bus to the terminal, making fewer stops, while the latter took twice as many stops. When the express came by, it was completely full. Enough people got off for me to get on, but no one else. It was sweltering hot in the bus with no room for maneuvering. As an American, it was a good experience for me, however uncomfortable it might have been. I’m used to the elbow room and the open spaces, as stated above, but I needed to experience what it’s like not to have that at all. It alters perspective, most certainly.

I got the station and did what Dr. Bane told us to do – go through the front doors and sit together. I saw everyone and waved. I pulled out my Vatican Museum book that I had bought before leaving and started flipping through, but I nearly fell asleep sitting up. Throwing up my hands, I decided to go ahead and give in to temptation. I slept for nearly an hour in the middle of that crowded train station (I wasn’t worried because I was with 15 other people – but not even they could save me from accidentally laying on my Sistine Chapel poster and bending it). I was woken up by someone saying, “Whit, get up” and a security guard telling us we could only lay down or sleep in the actual terminal. I had already had my nap, so I didn’t care.

Danielle and Paulette came by and herded us onto the train, though they didn’t come with, and we all headed back, uneventfully, to Firenze. I listened to my iPod, read my souvenir book, and looked out the window at the Italian countryside. Very little small talk was made, though there was an agreement to get a cab for the way back. As soon as the train stopped two and a half hours later, we darted off the train to the cab. The driver was nice enough. Katie tried to tell him what street to go to, saying “Via de Peh-lass-tree” and he didn’t understand. I said “Via di Peh-lahs-tree” and something clicked. Then I said, “63.” He said the number in Italian, which I recognized and told him, “Si, grazie.” “Prego, prego.” It was $13 to get to our apartment, which wasn’t bad considering how quickly we got there. I put my stuff up and went to get on the internet while Rachel took a bath before me.

I checked my bank account while I was online and saw that the things I had charged for the day, 10 Euro and 30 Euro, had been listed as 13 USD and 41 USD respectively. Believe it or not, that exchange rate is the best it’s been while we’ve been here. I checked it on and it was 1:1.33. I got done as quickly as I could and ran to the ATM to withdraw my money, hoping to get the best I could out of it. When I came back, Katie was outside of the internet place talking on the phone. She introduced me to the guy who works there most of the time (his name is Ahmed and I think they said he’s from Morocco). I went back to the apartment, took a long luxurious bath, and relaxed for the first time in four days. After I got out, I made pasta for the rest of the week and began typing this entry, which I most certainly couldn’t finish in time.
So, that was my last day in Rome and the trip back.

Final thoughts on Rome:

Oh Rome. How you’ve teased me all my life. I loved you like a dream, and you tore at me like a nightmare.

It wasn’t really that bad, but I wanted to be an archaeologist, for crying out loud. Because of Greek and Roman architecture and artifacts. So in that respect, the trip was a good thing because it cured me of my delusions. But isn’t that the worst thing that can happen? Aren’t these cities supposed to spellbind you and keep you captive for your entire life? I always thought so, and I’m hesitant to think otherwise.

I enjoyed my time to an extent, but the first minutes of our first day there were ruined before we could even be warned. It was disappointing, and a big part of me hopes my Trevi fountain coin doesn’t come true and I don’t come back. But this is my knee jerk reaction to part of my vacation being ruined by my own president. When I get home, I’ll want it all back. Right now, however, I feel like turning my back on the city its typical “eternal” fashion.

The city is dirty and grimy and pulsing with angry citizens. Think New York City. Rome is the equivalent in Italy. It’s absolutely huge and its people are reflective of this. It hurts to see a city that has such fabled grace and power to be so lowly and weak. An exaggeration? Perhaps. A stretch after only three days and two nights in the city? Maybe so. But I’ve become a pretty good social barometer, and I felt something amiss there. Or maybe I’m not used to the big city, so I’m likely to interpret everything as amiss. Who truly knows.

Addendum: Don’t let me discourage anyone who reads this from going. I’ve said multiple times that mine was ruined before I even got into Rome, so my account is heavily biased and probably singular. I think when the city is given a chance it can prove itself kind and beautiful.
Just not on my weekend.

*“I don’t know many churches now that aren’t made of tin, at least in the U.S.” – This comment is totally and completely loaded, and I realized that when I wrote it. The failure of churches is not necessarily the fault of either preachers or congregations, but a combination of both and the fanaticism with “warehouse churches.”

When we were in class the other day, one of the people made the comment that the churches here are built to last while churches in American are built “to make a profit/prophet.” I’m not sure which she said (though I’m guessing the former), but they both fit. Churches are built now to save money, settle petty feuds over doctrine, and reach a new set of people quickly and efficiently. I’ve heard a few arguments about how this efficiency is a due service to God because stained glass, statues, paintings, banners, wreaths, etc, are all monuments to idolatry. This is the same vein that condemns Catholicism because of its polytheistic basis (saints = idols). But these condemnations are based on misunderstanding. Though there may be quite a few Catholics, past, present, and future, who feel it is polytheistic and are fine with that, this is not the doctrine of the religion, nor is it the point I’m trying to make here.

These “warehouse churches” are made (or “ordered”) by the same people either who donate monthly to Binny Hinn, talk about Pat Robertson with a straight face, and believe in “predispensational millennialism” (think the disappearances in the first Left Behind novel), or are trying to convert or collect as many people as possible by appealing to as many as possible – or both. You might associate these people with Baptists and Non-denominational churches. I mention this only because I want to dispel that immediately. It’s not just Baptists and Non-Denoms. It’s everybody (at least everybody who’s protestant). And I’m not sure why.

Where is the care that went into crafting a house of worship? To walk into a church here is like walking into the arms of the parishioners who built it. There was love, or at least some sense of duty, put into the stones. There a sense of humanity in it, and awe at the power of the people – whom God made.

Yet in the warehouse churches, you don’t feel that love. You feel efficiency. You feel cold. You feel lifeless. So why don’t more people see the paradox of trying to receive Christ’s love in a place with no love in it? All those aluminum walls become is a sacrifice to capitalism and materialism, not love and hope.

We are all entitled to our opinions. But ask this the next time you see a huge aluminum box with a floodlit cross on the top: can God’s grace and love be cloaked in cold steel, or can it only be channeled through the hands of His believers?

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