On our second and third full days in Rome, we covered a lot of ground. I can’t even remember the exact order in which we saw things, but we saw the: Capitoline Museum, Pantheon, Ara Pacis, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and Vatican Museums.
If it seems like there are a lot of pictures of marble statues and carvings in this post, that’s because we saw a lot of marble stuff. (And my photos didn’t do justice to the amazing engineering and architecture of places like the Pantheon or St. Peter’s, so I omitted these.)
I can’t describe how I felt in St. Peter’s and the Vatican. I guess a sense of awe and joy mixed with a mild sense of distaste. There is a lot of gold in St. Peter’s, and the cynic in me thinks that perhaps the Catholic Church could have put its wealth to better use. But I am very, very glad that the Church commissioned Michelangelo to do so much work because his paintings and sculptures and designs really are among the greatest creative achievements of human kind.
Luckily, my encounter with Michelangelo’s Pietà was much more positive than with the Mona Lisa. Although tourists are separated from the sculpture by a wall of plexiglass and crazy people were still snapping photos, I had enough space to gaze at and appreciate the work–which Michelangelo completed when he was younger than me. Mary’s sorrowful face and gentle hands cradle Jesus’ body, which is limp in her arms, and heartbreakingly realistic.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgement were equally moving. The room was crowded and, according to a tour guide I overheard, it was unusually noisy. I spotted a French couple sitting on a bench along the wall who were about to get up, so I hovered around them for a few minutes and then Jesse and I squeezed in and listened to Rick Steves’s free audio tour. I can’t believe that Michelangelo designed and painted such a huge space mostly by himself–unlike Raphael, who designed the paintings for the papal apartments down the hall but whose work was primarily carried out by assistants.
The Spanish Steps were underwhelming. Although I insisted on walking to the top, I couldn’t help feeling that they were just a bunch of steps.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) was one of the most interesting things we saw, yet it is less well-known than other sites around Rome. It is housed in a really neat building designed specifically to protect the monument from noise and air pollution. Critics loathe this modern museum constructed in the heart of the historic district, but I felt like the museum was a perfect enclosure that helped me appreciate the art rather than distracting from it.
The Senate commissioned the Altar to commemorate Emperor Augustus’s victories in Gaul and Spain. In an age long before television and the internet, big works of marble were a great way to get out the message to citizens that the Emperor was doing a good job. (There was also the “bread and circuses” strategy: gain and maintain political power by keeping the citizens fed and entertained.)
The Ara Pacis was used once again for propaganda purposes in the 1930s: it was reconstructed by Mussolini, who wanted to promote the wonderfulness of Fascist Italy.
Although Mussolini’s renovation projects actually did quite a bit of harm to the archaeological integrity of sites in and around Rome, it is another example of how Romans lives amongst their history. Historical sites in the U.S. are cordoned off and preserved as museums, whereas in Rome they are often recycled and re-purposed.
Which I think the ancient Romans would’ve been okay with. They were industrious and innovative. For them, things were not “set in stone.” They re-used marble and even re-worked statues to turn the face of a god into the face of an emperor, or vice versa. I think they would be pleased to see a modern building encapsulating the Ara Pacis and tourists lined up to marvel at the Colosseum, which is still impressive after almost 2,000 years.
. . .
Amongst all the major sightseeing, Jesse and I found time to eat some gelato while sitting by a lovely fountain in a peaceful piazza. That is, peaceful until a pigeon carpet bombed us and pooped on both our heads.
But as I told Jesse, at least it didn’t land in my ice cream.
I took it as one of life’s nice little messages about keeping things in perspective.