Posted by David
on May 23, 2009 in Upside-down Hippo
| 0 comments
We were, or at least I was, still determined to get to the Vatican museum, and this was our last day to attempt that journey. My previous visit to Rome, my ex and I had saved that attraction to the last day only to find out that it was closed and that the stupid pope was holding a mass. As if he owned the place! This time, after a bit of subway navigation, we found it awaiting us.
Father Craig had suggested we find an English-speaking guide, who could get us in for a private tour while avoiding the impossibly long lines, so we promptly engaged a cute American boy who was hawking that very thing. I forget his name, but he hooked us up with a group led by Stan, a laconic George Clooney lookalike who didn’t really come to life until much later, while explaining the artistic treasures of the Vatican. But first, he had to deal with the horrors of American tourism in the form of fawning Texan women who couldn’t believe his English was so good for a non-American (he was Canadian and spoke more intelligible English than they did) and one Angry Man who could not even be satisfied by one of the most significant collections of Western culture ever assembled and kept barking about how long the tour was taking.
The entrance to the Vatican museum is an enclosed space half the size of a football field, filled almost shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists. We congratulated ourselves on bypassing most of this, although not fast enough for Angry Man. We finally navigated our way in and saw all of the loot, including a bathtub (Nero’s) that is probably worth more than the whole of Baltimore, if not the state of Maryland. Each individual item was exquisite, but taken together, these treasures were dizzying if not, on many levels, nauseating. I’m thrilled beyond words to have spent fifteen minutes in the Sistine chapel, of course, and to have had the chance to bask in the works of some of the greatest artists who ever lived. And I also appreciate the fact that a major religion like Catholicism, especially back in the days before easy transportation and communication, needed to create a spectacle worthy of pilgrimage, which would then be glorified throughout Christendom when the reverent souls returned to their homes. But to stand amidst that incalculable wealth, where almost every visible square inch is quite literally priceless, really gave me a sense of what the Protestants were protesting. A church that had been truly interested in spreading the philosophy of Jesus and taking care of the sick and poor, instead of amassing as much worldly power as possible, could have changed the course of history (in a good way, I mean, not in the bloody, violent, tortuous way it actually did).
There’s a difference between capturing the imagination and controlling the mind. At best, I can accept that the generations of popes aspired to the former by building sanctuary worthy of the first of their number, Saint Peter. (And Saint Peter’s actual tomb, by the way, was the most awe-inspiring part of the place, actually radiating a palpable energy I could feel with my whole body, although I’m not sure if it originated from within or was only a reflection of what was projected from without.) But as they began to style themselves as opulent kings rather than disciples of a wise Jewish peasant, they chose to increase and maintain their power by doing the latter. I suppose, if he had a sudden change of heart, the one thing in the way of Ratzinger selling the whole place now to feed the hungry and solve other worldly problems in Jesus’ example is simply that not enough money exists in all currencies combined to do so. But I suspect that his highness is not so inclined, making the Church’s increasing irrelevance to the modern world an irrevocable trend. There’s a reason why literally all of the monks and nuns and a good half of the young priests we saw in Rome were African, East Asian, or South American. “Indentured servitude,” muttered a tipsy Father Craig when I mentioned this to him. Of the stomach, I suspect, and also of the soul.
But I’m a terrible guest, to enter the pope’s country only to complain about it. The Vatican is truly magnificent and, whatever their reasons, everyone in the world should see it in person. It’s just that my cynical mind can’t help but to make connections with another seat of earthly and spiritual power just across the Tiber, the Palatine, which, unable to withstand the forces of history, is now mostly dust.
The remainder of our last day in Rome was for the most part lovely. We ate lunch on the Piazza Navarone, site of the famed Four Rivers fountain, and watched the passers-by and the open-air art vendors. Soon after we sat down, however, I made Rob aware of the danger in our midst: a clown wearing a yarmulke and a red nose began setting up shop directly across from us. “A mime!” I warned, much in the tone of Admiral Ackbar’s “It’s a trap!” (Like Admiral Ackbar, I know when things are a trap.) But as in the case of Admiral Ackbar, it was too late. As we waited for our food, we were forced to watch the spectacle of the clown mocking everyone in sight, including police officers and old ladies. Most took this good-naturedly. As I was observing a different culture, it was unclear as to whether the yarmulke was Jewish pride or an anti-Semitic jibe, so I tried not to succumb to what humor there was, but luckily I was too far back from the action for my schoolmarmish attitude to attract his attention.
After our long lunch, we made our last daylight stroll across Rome back to our room. Cognizant of this, I tried to appreciate every step of the way. I also tried to talk myself out of purchasing the snazzy laptop bag I had seen the day before at the Apple Store clone near where we were staying, but powerless against my American consumerism, I knew I was going to do so. While Rob napped, I slipped out and made the transaction, my first entirely in Italian (because, until then, everyone spoke English instantly upon seeing me). Jet-lagged up until our last day, Rob continued to nap throughout the evening as I got hungrier and sleepier (I was tired but couldn’t sleep), and my blood sugar crashed. We had planned on traversing the city once more to a restaurant housed in the ruins of a theater, but once I finally roused him, Rob wanted to rediscover the corner of Pope Joan’s monumental revelation because his previous photos had not come out. Getting hungrier and sleepier by the moment, I was in short temper as I trailed after him, and prevailed upon him to find someplace closer to eat. We got into a short argument and ended up in a wonderful restaurant, on a balcony overlooking the illuminated Coliseum. Other occupants included a strolling minstrel, a guitar player, and a bridal party giving a small reception at a nearby table. The view was breathtaking, and I tried to absorb everything in my last few Roman hours, including the massive plates of food that we had ordered, overestimating our hunger.
One thing I won’t underestimate, now that I am home, is my desire to return to Italy. Despite the fact that it is basically a third-world country tacked on to Europe (mostly because of its wackadoodle political antics, incalculable bureaucratic corruption, and lingering patriarchal attitudes), there are few places in my travels that I’ve felt so drawn to as this classical Disneyland. I know that America’s history extends as far back as Rome’s and is equally fascinating, but the Native Americans, for better or for worse, didn’t leave as much of a palpable historical record. On the other hand, Italy is the land of much of my ancestry. I’ve studied the Roman Empire and can read a bit of Latin, so what is preserved of these entities leaps out at my approach. I meditated on the spot that Julius Caesar was murdered, walked the halls of Octavian’s home, stood on the very mosaic tiles that once supported Cleopatra’s feet (or more likely, those of her litter bearers). In general, I am not a fan of historical preservation as a force of glorifying the past. The past sucked, and being confined by its art and architecture is a way of being trapped in antiquated attitudes and limitations. But there’s something about seeing these ancient wonders and even the religious works, of being reminded of the capabilities of humanity when inspired by various kinds of earthly and spiritual power, that is awe-inspiring. Even that which has fallen to pieces is more interesting in some ways than anything we create today, not because the past is more interesting, but because it was built by people who couldn’t conceive of what would happen to it. No one today expects a shopping mall, for example, to last for two thousand years, and it’s not built to; it’s built to be inoffensive for a couple of decades and then paved over. But Rome was created by hubris, and Romans live under its crushing weight on a daily basis. The builders of the forums and of the cathedrals will live forever because, even when their creations are dust, they can be forever known and appreciated in a way nothing made today ever will be. By feeling an ancient marble column, we can touch two millennia of history and know that, in two millennia, if it isn’t underwater, others will be doing the same, wondering the same things. We can only hope that the future people will be able to appreciate these relics from a position of even greater social evolution, and that the lessons of history will finally be understood. That’s what history is for, and that’s what Rome is for, really.