Monday, November 21, 2005

Rome - last day (18)

The Metro beckons, and day tickets are only 4 Euro. So it's off to the Vatican, Cipro stop. Where the Church's profit motive and trade in religious artefacts continues. But the Vatican Musuem is a wonderful and eclectic collection of decidedly non-religious artefacts, from Egyptian figures, through the whole Graeco-Roman early periods, to the Church proper in the single-digit A.D's. The Sistine Chapel, by contrast, was a let-down: Michelangelo's ceiling is positively familiar through endless reproductions, and the walls, even though by Botticelli et al, are just standard religious kitsch. And the chapel is infested with two types of repellent turisto: the overawed Catholics, who sit around the sides and just gawp, overwhelmed; and the illiterate, who have not figured out what signs saying in words and pictures "No cameras/videos/flash", actually mean.

The sheer length and opulence of the galleries leading to and from the Sistine are the main impression. But it is an ossified exhibit: there is little life, relevance to these times, or attempt to draw parallels. Very much a case of 'look how powerful we were and still are'.

The Vatican equivalent of the Bungy Jump is of course the climb up the Duomo, the viewing gallery near the very top of St Peter's dome. We take the lift to the gallery after coughing up the obligatory indulgence fee, and being warned that the climnb is not for those of 'cardiopatic tendencies'. In the gallery, there is the sound, far below, of an ending Mass, with organ accompaniment, which puts us very much in mind of Evensongs past. Onwards and upwards: the first part of the ascent is an internal spiral stair to the base of the Dome (itself - the Dome - another Michelangelo design), then a narrow, and increasingly tilted/inclined stair around and up the Dome itself. Which is built with a double-skin, these stairs being between the two. Then, finally, a straight climb over the Dome's upper slopes, and then outside onto the viewing gallery itself. With reputedly the best view in Rome.

And a couple of things become clear. The profit motive in the Vatican fee structure may be somewhat repellent in religious terms, but it certainly funds an impressive maintenance and conservation effort. From the Duomo, Vatican City is clean, gardened, mown, clipped and litter-free in exactly the way the rest of Rome, frankly, is not, but should be. And the genuine feeling from the pilgrims to this holy place leaves it's mark: there's a civitas which is very absent from the rest of Rome.

We descend onto the roof of St Peter's, where an iced tea goes down very well. Souvenirs (yes, there are shops and loos on the very roof of the Pope's church) are purchased. And so, down again to floor level, but we are elevated by the whole experience. A morning well spent.

As always, the little vignettes amuse us. The four-wheel-drive tractor, driven straight down the (ramped) steps in front of St Peter's with bits of the papal platform in tow, after the usual 1100 Wednesday Papal appearance. The throngs of slightly unruly pilgrims leaving after this event, complete with costumes and props right out of the Pythons' Life of Brian. The obelisk in St Peter's Square: an Egyptian artefact lifted from Heliopolis, by the Roman emperor Caligula. Sanctified, it is said, by a fragment of the true cross somewhere on top. Funny thing, belief.

Metro back to Spagna, and the famed Spanish Steps. Which turn out to be just awful: thronged by tourists just like us, and the church above under renovation and scaffolding. Which latter would not be so bad if a massive Rolex ad had not been plastered all across it. It is the usual fashion now to drape such work with a trompe l'oeil wrapping which replicates the facade of the building under restoration. It's just so tawdry having advertisements instead, so we leave in disgust.

Which is only heightened when, one crowded tube trip of a single stop later, we alight to realise M's bag has been sliced, in an abortive attempt to get inside. Nothing lost, and nothing of value there anyway. But it does mean a hurried replacement bag shop, and a nasty taste left. Lack of civitas, you see. Kiwis do not easily get used to seeing themselves others can see them - as prey - and our inclination to see the best in people makes us targets. But why live this way - having to constantly scan for the predators? Still, as one of the untouched souvenirs in the bag is a pair of St Christopher medallions, we allow ourselves a superstitious and perhaps smug thought, that the thieving insects didn't realise what they were up against.

We retire, a little disillusioned, to our round-the-corner ristorante, where we are greeted like old friends and set up for another glorious meal. But the wary feeling remains somewhat, and at Stazione Termini the next morning, we see a number of pickpockets cruising. Funny thing is, a high percentage wear white trainers. Everyone has their uniform, it seems. And we have boned up on the polite and cruder forms of 'Go Away' and are happy to practise them on these low-lifes while waiting for our InterCity to Firenze.

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