Marcello, our sniffly, sneezy, he'd better go home and rest tour guide.
This morning we woke up at 5:30am to get ready for our "Private Tour" of the Vatican. We called a radio taxi service the night before to pick us up at the Gensola apartment at 7:15am... we were to meet the tour guide at 8:50am at the bottom of the steps across the street from the Vatican Museum entrance. (We used Presto Tours. Look for my TripAdvisor review). We are about a 15 minute ride from the Vatican Museum. The trouble with calling for a radio taxi is the language problem (I found they use a lot of slang) along with the lousy cell phone connection you often get.
The next morning the taxi driver was on time and so were we. That was a good thing, because radio taxis start the meter when they get the call from their dispatcher, not when you get in the car. The driver was great, spoke English, and got us there without cheating on the fare. We heard that some try the trick of pushing the "tariff 2" or "tariff 3" buttons (for outside the town walls) instead of "tariff 1" which can triple or quadruple the fare. Pay attention, and say something if it's not set to "tariff 1".
We got to the meeting point at the bottom of the stairs on Via Tunisi, just below the entrance to the Vatican Museum, and saw all the large tour groups cuing up. We went for the extra bucks and got a private tour so we wouldn't get lost in a herd of sheep, and to go through faster because of my lousy knees. When I saw the size of some of the tour groups (especially from the cruise ships), I was glad we weren't part of the cattle following a tour guide, wearing an earpiece (it's so loud in the Vatican at times it's impossible for groups to hear their own guide without a headset) and following the colored flag on a pole.
After a half hour wait Marcello arrived... (we paid for an earlier entry time... now that was blown!) He spoke English with a slight Italian accent and as it turned out was born in Houston, Texas but moved to Italy when he was 13. Ciao-dy!
As we started up the stairs and toward the entrance we felt a relieved when Marcello led us past the flocks and into the entrance. He waved his tour guide I.D. ward casually and got us quickly past the checkpoints in the surprisingly modern interior of the entrance mezzanine. Even though it was very modern, we sensed no air conditioning! (It was hot). He started the tour by telling us the history of Rome itself and how the Vatican came to exist--informative but a bit dry--even though I had told him ahead of time to keep things simple but interesting for an 11 year old. Our bags went through the X-ray belt and we were on our way up and around and into the museum--at first by modern escalator, then by steps.
We went through hall after hall and saw more and more art, sculptures, tapestries, frescoes and became aware of the unimaginable wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, my childhood idols were there... Boteccelli, Raphael and Michelangelo. The tapestries were wonderful, but I've seen some in better shape and under better care in other museums, including the Cloisters in New York. I'll be honest, I thought some the frescoes that were restored looked flat and lifeless. Perhaps they cleaned off too much of the subtleties from the hands of the Masters.
There was even a section under the Sistine Chapel that contained a treasury of modern masters... Chagal, Mattise and others. What concerned me is the complete lack of climate control for all these treasures of mankind. There is no air conditioning and most of the windows were open allowing the pollution, humidity and heat of the day to permeate the exhibit halls. I was sweating like crazy after a while... imagine the tens of thousands of visitors they cram through there every day.... all that body heat, humidity, body oils, etc. They make 70 million dollars a year on Vatican ticket sales and they don't spend a dime on climate control? Shame on them. As a lifelong artist I was shocked at the lack of at least a minimum of basic care for the art and the architecture itself.
Pardon this rant... The unimaginable wealth and hoarding of the treasures the Catholic Church could be put to better use in helping the needy in the world. Selling off their Chagal collection alone could potentially solve the ebola crisis in Africa, for example. Much of the art in the lower chamber (I believe it's under the Sistine Chapel itself) has nothing to do with Catholicism or religion of any kind.
St Peters Basilica, photo by Lucas Finzi
Anyway, the big moment came when we were about to enter the Sistine Chapel. Oddly, tour guides are not allowed to speak inside the Chapel. Because of this, guides need to explain what visitors are about to see before they even get close to the Chapel. Marcello briefed us in a dark chamber by pulling out a book and turning the pages as he explained what we are about to see. (The shorthand version). You'd think with all their millions in revenue the Vatican Museum would install a proper orientation exhibit to educate visitors before they enter... videos, slides, displays, etc. Heck, even our local canal barge museum has an orientation video before you take a ride on the canal, and the Crayola Factory in a nearby town has excellent, world class multi-media presentations! I mean, after this is the Vatican!
After Marcello finished showing us photos in his dog-eared art book, he led us through more rooms and then upstairs (no elevator... people with walking issues need to be ready for this) and into the crowded Sistine Chapel, saying he would meet us near a back door in 10 minutes or so. Ten minutes? When I was a young man, I heard of people spending all day, often laying on the floor with binoculars to soak in the wonder of the Ceiling. Ten minutes?
We were now on our own--with about 1000 or more other people from large tour groups... shoving Chinese, rude Italians and pushy Germans (forgive me, but I'm just pointing out my observations). After a little while we luckily found seats against a side wall (Knees to Babbo, "Thank You!") and sat gazing up at the magnificence of Michelangelo's genius. Lucas was surprised when he realized that the architectural details like moldings and columns were all Trompe-l'œil (tricks of the eye)... all painted to look three dimensional. He also liked the Creation of Man... the famous God touching the hand of Man scene. I loved the Temptation of Adam panel. The bright colors of the restoration of about 20 years ago brought out all the amazing bright colors of the frescoes. Before that, the frescoes were covered with half a millennium of candle soot.
Afterwards, we went outside and around to the front entrance to St.Peter's Basilica. The place is immense. You could almost fit Yankee Stadium inside. The art was mostly beautiful, the rest I found to be ostentatious. The grandeur is overtly in your face--majestic by design. The craftsmanship in everything is unbelievable, and a bit disturbing to thin of the enormous resources the Church spent to have them made by artists and craftsmen throughout history (instead of taking care of the truly needy?) The huge dome can easily fit the Statue of Liberty inside. Some sculptures and angels are huge. The marble columns are massive. The bronze doors are enormous. Amazingly, because of the crowds, the echoing chatter, the picture-taking and the signs warning of pickpockets in the Basilica, I didn't feel God here.
Marcello was still in his bore-them-with-obscure-details mode, Lucas was thirsty and hot, Lisa was hot and having a near melt-down, and my knees were out for the count and my sweat had dehydrated me beyond belief. I can imagine how many people collapse in this place from exhaustion and heat, but unlike Disney theme parks, I didn't see even a single defibrillator station anywhere.
We told Marcello we were going to cut this part of the tour short--Short? We were going over 5 hours! We said good bye to Marcello outside and above the Square and after a stop at the Vatican Post office to get Lucas some stamps, we headed off to find cooling refreshments. We waded through shepherds and their tourist flocks and several gypsies dressed as nuns looking for handouts, African hawkers selling cheap junk and finally saw The Line... of people trying to get through the security check and into the Basilica. It was six people thick and going from one side of St Peters to the other, where it then went into corralled switchback lines, zig-zagging back and forth. It looked like about 50,000 people trying to enter a single entrance to a major league baseball stadium. Incredible! I've heard the wait on line can be 3 hours long...
Now we knew for sure that our not so private tour was worth it just to avoid those hours on that unbearably long line. Was the Vatican Tour itself worth it? I'm not so sure. Of course, as an artist, a lifetime dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel was realized... but not in a way where I could appreciate the art in a meditative manner, as I did when I was a kid and would sit for long periods studying a painting I liked.
I didn't appreciate being swallowed up by the ever-rushing tour groups, effectively nullifying our "private tour". I really hated how poor the Museum is in terms of climate control and protecting these treasures... for example, walking through the bedrooms of the Popes, the beautiful ceramic tile floors have been worn clear through the top layers of color from the thousands of shoes walking on them. I saw graffiti around some windows. The 16 foot tall windows being wide open to the humidity and pollution was horrible.
And I really thought that visiting the seat of the Catholic faith itself--St. Peters--would be a more moving experience. It was loud, crowded, and we were in fear of pickpockets (even Marcello warned us). Perhaps they should treat this like a museum, too... and limit how many people enter at one time. It's a functioning place of worship, so anyone can walk right in (after the long wait in line). In general, I get the feeling that the Vatican will increase the number of tourists, making matters worse. Perhaps there is a marketing manager in a hot office somewhere setting new goals for 100 million dollars a year.
We bought some gassata (sparkling water) from a street vendor to cool down, then grabbed a taxi at the taxi stand across the piazza, and went back to our apartment to refresh ourselves. Snacks and a nap brought an end to this day of agony and ecstasy.
Before we traveled to Italy, I researched about all sorts of things... especially how people scam and cheat. There are lots of warnings online about taxi cheats. I just wanted to report that after having used car services, radio taxis, taxis from a taxi station and even hailing a taxi that we spotted with his roof light on (free), we have not been cheated.
The radio taxis always show up on time with the help of their sophisticated gps unit. The car service I used costs barely more than a city taxi and is very professional. (transfercruiserome.com) If you see a taxi with its roof light lit, try hailing... as long as you are standing where they can pull over without blocking traffic (in other words, not on a narrow side street). There was one time I tried hailing a taxi on a crowded side street... one with barely any sidewalks (a common thing in Italy). The driver looked at me like I was crazy. Sure... he had no place to pull over. Lesson learned.
And just in case, always look at the meter for the "tarrifa 1" to be lit up. Within the city walls "tarrifa 1" is the correct lower rate. If you see "tarrifa 2" or "tarrifa 3" lit up for a trip inside the city limits of Rome, beware... you've got a crook trying to double or triple the rate. Tarrifa 2 and 3 are used for trips outside the walls, into the suburbs or to the airport.
In general, I've found the drivers to be talkative, friendly, helpful and responsive when you at least try to speak some Italian. I'm sure they are more used to tourists who don't attempt even the most basic Italian words and expressions. Looking back, I wish I had taken photos of the drivers... I still remember their faces and smiles. By the way, unlike in Manhattan, every taxi driver was actually an Italian.
Rome is getting old. In April, Romans celebrate its 2,769th birthday. (Complaining about catching up to the Beatles song, "When I'm 64" is a little ridiculous when compared to Rome's age). Every year in April, Rome celebrates its old age with parades and other events all around the city. One of the symbols of the Eternal city is the bronze she-wolf and symbol of Rome "Lupa Capitolina" which is now at the Capitoline museum.
Rome's history begins with a legend of love, lust, jealously and murder almost three thousand years ago. The pagan god Mars, smitten by the beauty of a Vestal Virgin, made his way into her temple to sleep with her. When the disgraced Vestal gave birth to twin boys, remarkable for their size and beauty, the evil tribal king ordered the infants thrown in the Tiber River.The cradle containing the babies drifted downstream and washed ashore at the base of the Palatine hill, named for Pale, a goddess of shepherds. There, according to legend, a lupa (she-wolf) suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. Historians think the nursing wolf was more than likely a human woman--in Latin, the word Lupa was slang for prostitute, and brothels were known as lupanaria. During ongoing excavations on the Palatine hill, archaeologists recently discovered what could be the original lupercale, the cave that sheltered the twin boys and that later served as a shrine for their worship. As the boys grew, they were instrumental in building a small town on the banks of the Tiber.
The Italian capital's official founding date is 21 April. On that date, according to the legend, the brothers got into a terrible argument over their town, and Romulus killed his brother Remus in order to declare himself both ruler and founder. Obviously pleased with himself (and, apparently, his recent murder of his brother), he named the new city after himself. Egotistical guy, huh?
Archaeological research and discoveries suggests the date of the beginnings of Rome is roughly correct. They estimate that the area had actually been populated since about 1000 BC, but 753 BC symbolically and officially marks the beginning of the Rome we still see ruins of today. Since then, the city's had a fairly volatile trajectory: first a small Latin village, then capital of a giant Mediterranean empire, then a bit of a ghost town dominated by the Pope, before finally becoming capital once again of a reunited Italy in the 19th century. As the graph shows, the city's population grew dramatically over time. Look at the dip during the Fall of the Roman Empire at 476 AD and its growth after the late 1800s brought unification to Italy:
The Roman roots are still at the core of modern day Rome---even the man hole covers, emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the ancient Latin abbreviation for the Senatus Populusque Romani (the senate and people of Rome). Modern day Romans insist that the letters really stand for Sono pazzi questi Romani. (They're crazy, these Romans).
Buon compleanno, Roma!
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The Pontifical Swiss Guards have been protecting the Popes and the Vatican since 1506... think about that. Over 500 years of tradition and military valor. They may seem a bit frilly to modern eyes, but underneath the traditional Renaissance garb, they are all well trained, special forces selected especially from the Swiss Army for the Vatican detail.
The Swiss Guard is also the smallest army in the world with typically only about 125 soldiers and officers serving at at a time. There are strict requirements: You must be a Swiss man, younger than 30, a minimum 5' 8" tall, be a Catholic with a high school diploma or higher. Your Swiss military service must be with good merits. You can't be married when you come into the Guard, but can marry later on. You must serve for at least two years at the Vatican. Guardsmen (no women yet) are paid a tax free salary of €1,300 per month.
Many think that Michelangelo designed their uniforms, but actually their original uniforms were slight modifications of the outfits worn by the Swiss arm at that time with the addition of the crossed keys symbol of the Vatican. The modern uniforms we see when visiting the Vatican today are actually a redesign by one of the Guard's own... Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921).
Repond studied the frescoes in the Vatican itself for the inspiration that led to the colors of the Medici (blue, red, yellow) on the Guards medieval, (and what some see as) clown-like outfits. He also introduced the fairly simple beret as the main headgear, although the metal and ostrich feathered helmet (called a morion) are still used for full dress assembly (along with white gloves). The Pierrot-like ruffled collar was morphed into a simplistic white collar. For everyday outfits, they wear a simple purple uniform which still maintains a Renaissance flair.
The everyday purple uniforms for recruits
Although the Swiss Guard is supposed to be a rigidly trained, elite military group, Pope Francis sees it a bit differently. The Pope was angered after he saw a young Swiss guard standing outside his papal suite all night. The Pontiff told the young man to sit down for a rest, but the Guard replied that sitting was against strict orders. Apparently, the Pope replied, "I give the orders around here" and brought the guard a cappuccino. Because of this event and others he witnessed, Pope Francis fired the chief officer of the Guard, Colonel Daniel Rudolf Anrig for being "too strict" in 2014. Another deciding factor was Pope discovering that Colonel Anrig had moved into a luxurious apartment over the Swiss Guard's barracks in the Vatican.
Still, the Swiss Guard remains a tough, intensely trained army to protect the both the Pope and the treasures contained at the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica. There are the Guard that are apparent to all visitors, with their colorful dress, but there are also members with more stealthy duties akin to the U.S. Secret Service. Whenever you see the Pope in public, they surround him looking away from the Pontiff into the crowd. They all are packing some pretty serious heat: fully automatic and compact Sig 552 machine guns are hidden under their jackets. But don't write off the soldiers on public duty... they receive specialized training with their Renaissance-age weapons, and are very cable of using their 9-foot long steel pike to stop an attacker or terrorist. There is also a arsenal of weapons, both modern and old, that the soldiers train with constantly with. Of course, handguns are used... notably the SIG P220 pistol.
The fancy dress barracks
What they carry under their suits
Swiss Guard's on the way to aid during an earthquake in Northern Italy
Besides the Swiss Guard, the Pope and Vatican City itself is protected by the 200 year old GendarmeriaCorpodella Città del Vaticano (Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State)--its own uniformed police force. They are on duty in St. Peter's Square, direct traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular), and investigate crime within the Vatican City boundaries. Essentially, they are the State Police of Vatican City. They are even trained in counter-terrorism, explosive ordinance disposal and anti-sabotage techniques.
Gendarmeria Corpo della Città del Vaticano in riot gear and everyday uniform
In addition to all this, there is an infrastructure to go along with all of the Papal protection, led by the Inspector General of the Vatican. It's the Inspector General that leads security teams when the Pope has a state visit somewhere in the world.
As you can see, Pope Francis, and all that is contained in Vatican City are well protected... well proven by the 3 hour long lines trying to get into St. Peters Basilica!
So, when visiting the Vatican, take all the photos of the Swiss Guard that you like... just remember, they are not clowns... they are real, workaday soldiers dedicated to their task-- to protect the Pontiff.
Artist's rendering of what the river walls will look like
Rome has lots of graffiti. Tons of it. Way too much of it. Well, now, someone is going to be power-washing a bit of it.... a tiny bit... around stenciled, shadowy images formed by the grime and graffiti left behind.
South African artist, William Kentridge (Huh? Not an Italian?) is going to power-wash his 1800 foot work of art onto the walls of the Tiber River in Rome. The frieze will stretch from Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. His work involves placing stencils onto the filthy, graffitied stone walls and power-washing the stone around the stencils--the stencils will be removed, revealing a ghostly silhouette of each image underneath. His concept (he dubbed Reverse Graffiti) is that the imagery will eventually become dirty and covered with graffiti over time and blend back into the ancient stone walls which prevent the Tiber from flooding over its banks.
William Kentridge with the study sketches for Triumphs and Laments
Piazza Tevere on the banks of the Tiber
The project entitled Triumphs and Laments, is sponsored by Tevereterno, an organization working to clean up and revitalize the Rome river walk.
Even though Kentridge isn't a Roman, his work smacks one in the face with his gritty style and images of pain, valor, bravery, banality, joy, war and religion--all part of Rome's history and contradictions.
If you want to see the work, it will be revealed on Rome’s 2,769th birthday on April 21st. I hope they have enough candles for the cake!
Ok, so while researching my post about our Bocca della Verita mascot, I came across this gem. Apparently, back in the 1980s, a vending machine company had just come up with a new design for a fortune telling machine. They showed off their machine to a prospective Italian client and he loved it--with one catch. They needed to make it look like the Bocca della Verita.
Manufactured by DPS-Promatic in Italy, apparently the idea was a hit because the company claims to have units in countries all around the world. Apparently, they also make the machine in different versions: Horoscope, Tutankhamen, and a Gypsy. There is a floor standing model and a smaller wall-mounted one.
Here's a video of how to use it. Stick your hand in the mouth and it will scan the lines of your palm. Wait until it analyzes, then it prints out an ATM style fortune...
The Temple of Jupiter Anxur, also known as the Sanctuary on Monte Sant’Angelo, was originally inspired by the great architecture of Hellenistic Greece. It is one of a series of ancient sanctuaries in Latium that were rebuilt on a monumental scale during the late Republican period of Ancient Rome, around 150 BC. The Temple sits on a cliff high above the town of Terracina, located 47 miles southeast of Rome on the Tyrrhenian coastline.
The temple’s dual importance is obvious as a strategic and defensive stronghold and a place of worship. During the first century it was also used for military purposes. At the decline of the Roman empire in the 5th century, the site caught fire and burned. Afterward, a Benedictine monastery was built in its place. It was later abandoned in the 16th century.
Artist reconstruction of the complete temple
From its altitude of 750 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea, Voyagers can enjoy the unforgettable vista Terracina far below, the Pontine plain, Mount Circeo and looking far out to sea, as far as the Pontine islands and Ischia.
Since the year 2000 the Temple is protected as a “Natural Monument” in the Lazio Region, and is host to the famous Anxur Lumina Sound and Light show. The temple is open all year long and offers a panoramic cafeteria located inside the archaeological area.
The God Jupiter Jupiter (also called Jove) was the King of the Gods and the God of Sky and Thunder in Ancient Roman religion and mythology. Jupiter was the chief deity of Roman state religion throughout the Republican and Imperial eras, until Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire.
Jupiter is usually thought to have originated as a sky god. His identifying implement is the thunderbolt, and his primary sacred animal is the eagle, which held precedence over other birds and became one of the most common symbols of the Roman army. The two emblems were often combined to represent the god in the form of an eagle holding in its claws a thunderbolt, frequently seen on Greek and Roman coins. As the sky-god, he was a divine witness to oaths, the sacred trust on which justice and good government depend. His sacred tree was the oak.
Visiting Terracina (Halfway between Rome and Naples, perfect for a weekend getaway) Terracina is snug against the Tyrrhenian Sea on the Riviera of Ulysses; so-called because legend has it that Odysseus sailed through on his travels. Nothing says "Odysseus was here" like Mount Circeo, rising out of the sea like the jagged profile of a reclining witch. The sorceress Circe is said to have lived there, plotting to turn Greek sailors into beasts. This uniquely-shaped rock formation is visible from other towns along the Riviera of Ulysses but Terracina is at just the right distance to create the perfect panorama of sea, sky, and mountain. The Mount Circeo is visible from most points in the city, perhaps none as overwhelming as when you're standing in the sea, looking North. Each evening, the mountain goes up in flames: no two sunsets are ever alike.
Terracina's centro storico has ochre colored houses with green shutters on narrow cobblestone streets. There are the ruins of a mosaic-covered Capitolium and a massive rose colored square. The old quarter's nightspots attract live music fans, tourists, and locals alike.
Don't forget that Terracina is a beach town, so fresh seafood is great here. Restaurants run the gamut from family-run trattorias to seafood shacks and small osterias with young Foodie chefs. Voyagers can enjoy risotto alla pescatora, calamari fritti and spicy boar sausage, while deep-fried filled Zeppole (doughnuts) are eaten hot in the evenings. Terracina hosts a number of sagre (festivals) including a strawberry festival in late Spring, a chestnut festival in the fall, and a muscatel grape festival in late Summer. Terracina's muscatel wine was the wine of Ulysses and still claim to be sweetest in the region.
As for music, there is traditional folk music, Italian reggae, and Italian rap. The Anxur Festival draws the area's best musical acts.
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It seems like Italy needs a lot of help from corporate donors to rejuvenate many of their national monuments... for instance, a visitor to Rome will find the Trevi Fountain covered with scaffolding, swarming with workers and with a catwalk above and in front of the watery treasure--all paid for by Fendi, a private Italian corporation. Many are outraged about "Corporate Medici" gaining control or favor over their pet projects... (read more about it here...)
The Colosseum will be covered in scaffolding for almost three years when an ambitious 25 million euro (£20 million) project to restore the 2,000-year-old monument begins later this year. (more...)
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When you get to Rome, one of the more interesting treats is also one of the smallest... a keyhole.
High above Rome, on the top of Aventine Hill,a surprise view waits for your camera... If you come early enough, or perhaps late enough, you'll pretty much be alone, but some tourists have caught on to this magical view and you might find a line leading out into the street in front of locked doors. Then as you get closer, you'll discover how thousands of people peering through this keyhole have worn away the paint right down to the bare wood, and the metal of the keyhole itself is worn and polished from thousands of peering eyes and pressing camera lenses. Still, this view is a treat, albeit a bit touristy, just as la Bocca della Verità is worth standing on line to take a picture of you with your hand shoved in it's mouth, or how you'll be compelled to "hold up" the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
JustaftertheOrange Garden,the Keyholeof the Gateof the Prioryof the Knights ofMaltaoffersthe most popularandpicturesque viewofSaint Peter's dome.Looking atitthroughthe ornate keyhole gives a magical view--an alignment, really--of St.Peter's dome framed byhedgesof the gardensof the Priory.
If you haven't already visited the Giardino degli Aranci (Orange Gardens), do so. There you'll find a wonderful park with more amazing views of Rome. Before you enter the gardens, look for a beautiful mask fountain to the left of the gate.
Aventine Hill, Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 3Rome
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