Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Chuck in the Roman Empire

Day 2 (first entry)

At the end of our second full day in Roma, heading home in the rain, having just heard my guardian angel advise “Hold on to the railing” as we descended the stairs into to Metro station, I slipped and fell, sliding down several stairs, and bruising my arm and wrist. Claire screamed “JESUS CHRIST” and “OMIGOD.” I think this is clear evidence of a religious conversion in the midst of this holy city! Then, seeing the startled, open mouth gapes of the nearby pedestrians, “He's OK.” I am not sure if this was a hope or an instant assessment. In any case, I was able to slowly stand, determine that it was only superficial scrapes, and continue on home. But, I consider myself very fortunate; it could have been so much worse.

The earlier part of the day was lovely. We arose early, again, preparing for a 9am departure from the campground. We arrived in Roma without mishap – we did not get lost even once; however, finding our way around once we were afoot was a continuing challenge. We were determined to fit in all the walking sites we could before the rain hit in the afternoon. We actually succeeded in that – see Claire's comments for details; by the time the rain began, we were headed toward the Vatican Museum. This was a long walk from the Metro station, but there was NO waiting line at 2pm when we arrived; our advisers are onto something.

My main reason for going to the museum was the Sistine Chapel. So, we blazed through most of the museum, knowing that we could backtrack and pick up on other things. It seemed like we walked the entire floor plan of the museum before we arrived at the chapel; but, it was certainly worth the wait. I had brought a small mirror, hoping to save my neck from looking up; but, its quality was so poor that I gave up immediately; the binoculars were no better, they magnified so much that I could not see the forest for the trees. I managed to sit down on a side bench, after a bit of a wait; I turned on my Rick Steves audio guide and 30 minutes later I knew all there is to know about that room. It is so difficult to believe one man – Michelangelo, not Rick – had the talent and perseverance to achieve all that appears in that space. It is simply magnificent.

My second favorite site for today was the Pantheon; I had only dimly recalled what it was; but, Rick Steves had 20 minutes of audio tour that covered the basics from Roman times to the present day. The part that most impressed me was the description of the dome. This was a feat of Roman engineering that was not duplicated for over 1000 years; Brunelleschi got permission to cut into the dome to discover its secrets and found that the materials were thinner and lighter as they approached the open top of the dome. This Renaissance architect then went on to build the Duomo in Florence.

We also thought it was exciting to be on Caesar's assassination spot – or close, anyway. Apparently, he was not killed in the Forum, the regular meeting place of the Roman Senate; the Forum was temporarily “out of order” and the Senate was meeting in Pompey's theater when the deed was done by a group of disgruntled Senators who mourned the loss of the Republic and the rise of the dictator, Julius Caesar. Imagine his surprise when one of the assailants turned out to be his adoptive son, Brutus: “Et tu Brute?”

A comment on food: The wife of Italy's Victor Emmanuel II, Margherita, gave her name to a pizza that is defined by the ingredients basil, mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce – green, white and red, just like the Italian flag. But, not in Italy! Here, the watchword is BYOB: bring your own basil. For some reason, most pizzerias do not include fresh basil in their ingredients, even when they tell you to your face that they do: “Si, si!” We began overcompensating and have enjoyed adding fresh basil to our camper-cooked meals. Yum. I have yet to try it in our morning cappuccinos. On the whole, our pizzas have been underwhelming; so, I expect that Napoli will win our pizza sampling award for best pizza. Stay tuned.

Speaking of cappuccinos, I discovered over the past two days that non-tourist spots have delicious and inexpensive cappuccinos: I paid 1 Euro in the local spot by the train station and 1.10 Euros at the train station in Roma. As long as you don't mind standing while you drink, you can have a great value.

By the way, I was shocked to learn that the modern Italian state did not exist until 1870! Next time I go to college, I will take a European History course. The stuff I never learned in school would more than fill the alleged four miles of the Vatican Museum. But, in my favor, I like to think I have practical smarts.

Day 1 (second entry)
Our first day in Roma was very exciting for me, once I arrived; as we walked out of the train station and viewed the Coliseum for the very first time, I was simply amazed at how much larger it appears in person than in my imagination (based only on movies and still shots.) A recurring theme for me, as I view ancient sites, is how grand they are. I thought the entire ancient complex of Coliseum, Constantine's Arch, Forum, Capitol Hill and Palentine Hill was quite small; they actually covered many acres and completely wore us out, and we still covered only part of the sites. There were some recently discovered frescoes on Palentine Hill, but the line was long and we were exhausted. Maybe when we return – though Claire declares this is the final trip to Roma for her.

I was delighted to see the remains of the house of Livia. Viewers of the BBC series, I Claudius, from the 70's(?) will recall her as the interestingly evil character who poisoned her own husband to allow her son to prosper; she realized her wickedness and agreed (in the series) to tell the full story of her past provided that Claudius agree to make her an immortal god upon her death. Claudius, not having received tenure yet, agreed to this bargain to gain the correct information. Who says that academics have boring lives?

We discussed taking the day off, tomorrow, to relax; but, we had already invested in the Roma Pass which covers transportation and reduced admissions for 3 days and tomorrow will be our third day. So, we will plan and go again, anon. Wednesday is now scheduled to be our day of rest and laundry.

Day 3 (third entry)
We went into Roma, today, with 4 sightseeing goals: Cappuccin crypt, Michelangelo's Moses, La Bocca della Verità and St. Peter's Basilica. We did it – with time to spare. By that I mean that we have to arrange our return around the campground shuttle bus schedule; otherwise we need to take a taxi; the shuttle limits us to pm pickups at either 1700 or 1900 hours. We choose the earlier time in order to preserve our bodies and our sanity, as we arise early and leave on the first inbound shuttle.

The sky was clear when we began our day; but, rain was predicted and we hoped to do most of our traveling before the deluge. Fortunately, we were fully equipped with rain gear and the rain was light. We are accomplished Roman travelers, now, and we zipped around the various train and metro stations like seasoned veterans. The 3 days of prepaid travel and skipping the wait in the first two entry lines more than justified the purchase of our Roma Pass.

The most startling thing about the Cappuccin crypt was the diminutive size of the skeletons: Many of the complete skeletons seemed like those of children. But, I have noticed that a number of monks and nuns (of various orders) are quite short. I read a book a while back about the year 1000 in England; the author claimed that human skeletons there from that era were comparable in size to those of modern day Englishpersons: It was not until The Plague wiped out much of the population and its productive capacity to provide ample bodily fuel for growth that people began to shrink in size.

This is the overall message the Cappuccin Monks wanted to convey:
"What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

Michelangelo's Moses is in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church, which also houses the chains that held Peter in prison before he was crucified upside down – the bodily orientation was at his own request. The eyes and facial expression of Moses are very arresting, when viewing it in person. This is supposed to represent a man determined to stop his tribe from worshiping the golden calf and idols.

St. Peter's Basilica once more illustrates the importance of size and grandeur for the ancients, the Renaissance and the Baroque eras. This is the most impressive church in the world, largely thanks to the artistry of Michelangelo and Bernini. The church nave was doubled in size from M's original floor plan, in order to accommodate more worshipers. The atrium area near the entrance is larger than most entire churches. The winged dove on the alabaster window at the end of the church appears to be about one foot high: It is six feet! By the way, did I mention that Charlemagne's coronation was inside the predecessor of this structure – in 800 A.D.

I finally decided that I wanted to hike to the top of the dome, provided that Claire accompany me – in case she needed to carry me up and/or down; she gamely agreed, even though this was her third trip here! It was not as hard going up as I anticipated – at least not after I had gone about half way up. But, I confess we took the elevator up part way; so we only had 320 steps to climb.

Cupola view up stairs

Even the outside of the Basilica is impressive. The elliptical St. Peter's Square is enormous. The columns outside the Basilica are both numerous and gigantic – 52 feet tall, I believe. There is a ring of statues of saints topping the columns. I was unable to identify individual saints; but this one caught my fancy.

Saint with a video camera

St. Peter's Square

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