Journey to the Eternal City
Rome is a nine-hour direct flight from Charlotte, which is tolerable, especially if you can wrangle up some first class seats. Unfortunately, some sadist at Charlotte’s dominant airline apparently gets his kicks by making it so difficult to exchange air miles for an upgrade that you’re more likely to achieve nuclear fission from your head exploding than you are to fly up front. I remained calm, though, and bravely soldiered on through months of calls to this stupid airline. Yeah, Kimmery! Holla! Seats 1C and F. So after clearing security at CLT—I endured a full-on grope stopping just short of a cavity search—it should have been smooth sailing.
However. The seats are staggered, and I wind up across from an unkempt British fellow of ample proportions, who evidently suffers from both narcolepsy and sleep apnea. He isn’t on the plane for 13 seconds before he goes lights-out in an open-mouthed, open-legged, drooling man-sprawl. His gray sweatshirt surrenders and retreats up to his upper chest, his entire massive abdominal wall quivering as though terrified by every gurgling snore. These are really loud, really wet snores. They’re drowning out the roar of the jet engines.
So, that’s one strike against me resting. The next one is related to a personal character flaw: I can’t sleep unless all conditions are optimal. If the surface is too hard, if there’s too much light, if there’s an annoying sound, if I’m slightly chilly, or if I can’t recline enough…you get the drift. I’m The Princess And The Pea. My plan was to overcome these issues with pharmaceutical help. I bite off a big hunk of Ambien, and wait.
I don’t fall asleep.
I do feel pleasantly floaty and relaxed, though. Nothing is fazing me now. The plane could be going down, and I’d be chill. I get up from my seat and float past the flight attendants to the tiny bathroom, where some turbulence kicks up and flings me headfirst against the plastic door. Whatever. I float back out. I’m pondering whether I should take some Ambien every time I travel, not just for sleeping, but also for the heinous process of travel prep, at which I’m bad. I get a lot of anxiety about forgetting to pack stuff. Mostly this is a side effect of some prior catastrophes, such as when I forgot my incontinent infant’s diaper bag on the way to California, or the time I realized I’d left our passports in central London (long story short: the motorcycle courier got to Gatwick one minute after they locked the plane’s doors, prompting my husband to inquire if it was possible to start divorce proceedings in a foreign airport). Another time: a last-minute aborted trip to Paris.
I could go on, but you want to hear about Rome. I’m feeling pleasantly cosmopolitan when we land, perusing the incoming flight board at the Leonardo Da Vinci airport: Moscow, Abu Dhabi, St Petersburg, Dubai, Tunis, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv. And Charlotte, of course. Also: Jeddah, which is in Turkey; Zagreb (Croatia), and somewhere called Bacău, which I’ve never heard of. (Later I looked it up: Romania.)
Day One: Spanish Steps
We’re staying at the Excelsior, which is located on the Via Veneto, a central street near the Spanish Steps. It’s also next door to the enormous American Embassy compound, which will come in handy if I lose our passports again. When we get there, our room isn’t ready, so we slog over to the lobby to regroup. Then an adorable hotel woman comes over and says she’s found us a room; it's a suite. She shows it to us, and, although it's huge and has TWO bathrooms, it is very dark and overlooks a dirty wall. I must be making a high-maintenance face, because then she offers to let us sleep in another room while she finds something better. When she fetches us two hours later, she takes us to a beautiful room on the top of the hotel, streaming with sunlight from its own balcony, featuring padded chairs and a little table set up with a bowl of fresh fruit and sparkling wine. I’m simultaneously enchanted by the glorious space and sheepish about being so picky. Also full of love for the nice hotel lady.
When I go somewhere, one of the first things I always notice is the horticulture. I love the beautiful foreignness of the trees and plants. Immediately on arrival in Italy, you glimpse these towering umbrella shaped pine trees. Someone once told me the lower limbs are all trimmed off to shape them that way, but I don’t see how: there must be millions of them. Rome is in southern Europe: there are palm trees and olive trees and orange trees lining the streets, as well as lovely fragrant jasmine and beautiful non-deciduous oaks.
The next thing I notice is the architecture. In Rome, this is overwhelming. The buildings are all cream, pink, salmon, pale brown and faded orange, with crumbly stone facades laden with cornices, scrolls, frescoes, columns, and every imaginable kind of intricate stonework. The streets lead to cobblestone piazzas, which are often centered by ancient fountains, obelisks or statues.
We decide to wander around the city for a bit. The main thing that has changed about the Spanish Steps (and the Piazza di Spagna, below them) since my last visit to Rome is the proliferation of aggressive men selling selfie sticks. We almost buy one just so we can beat off the other guys with it. There are approximately 100,000 people hanging out on the steps, almost all of them posing with iPhones and selfie sticks, but we go old-school and ask some Germans to take our picture with a camera. Then we stroll down to the Via Condotti and Via del Babuino, which is where all the high-end shops are: Fendi, Frette, Versace, Valentino, Ferragamo, Max Mara, Armani, etc. Drool. We sit at a little sidewalk cafe and have a snack and some fabulous cappuccino, and this is where we meet Ali From Senegal.
He plops down uninvited in a chair next to me and introduces himself with an enormous grin: “I am Ali From Senegal! And you are from where?”
“Ah yes. A beautiful big country! North Carolina! Boomboom!” He gives us both an animated fist bump. “Yeah man! I love to meet you! Boomboom!”
More fist bumps. Then he presents us with a small plastic turtle—“handmade by Senegal”—which he refuses to allow us to refuse. He informs us under no circumstances will he accept payment for it; it is his gift to us, Senegal to North Carolina. “Boomboom!”
My husband says that’s good that Ali doesn’t want payment, as we haven’t gotten any Euros exchanged yet. No problem at all, says Ali, he will be happy to wait while we go get some. The relationship gets a bit strained at this point, as we don’t really want a handmade plastic turtle from Senegal, and we certainly don’t want to have to go exchange currency for it. Ali is very insistent, though, finally reaching the point where he says he’ll even accept dollars. Eventually we have to duck into a posh clothing store selling teeny-weeny t-shirts for €140 in order to ditch him.
(Side note: On the trip home, I will read an article in the New York Times about how ghastly and inhumane conditions are in Senegal. I wonder if Ali is one of those boat refugees from Africa, who risk drowning in the Mediterranean so they can endure at subsistence level selling trinkets to clueless Americans. I feel like an ass. Wish I’d given him the dollars now.)
On our honeymoon 13 years ago, we ate at a place called Passeto on our first night in Italy. For the purposes of romantic reminiscing, I’d made reservations there again, and we go there via taxi at 6:30. I’m going to have to say something about Italian cabdrivers here. They are all flaming lunatics. Everyone drives like they are going to be skinned alive if they don’t arrive at their destination five minutes ago, and they whip blindly at top speed around corners, clearing other vehicles and hapless pedestrians by mere millimeters. It’s a nonstop game of chicken.
No one in Italy eats at 6:30, so we have the entire restaurant, and the entire attentive waitstaff, totally to ourselves. We tell them about the reliving-the-honeymoon thing, and they get excited and send over some limoncello, which we pretend to like. They also send over Prosecco on the house, and of course we have to order wine with dinner, because it’s Italy. I am a very cheap date regarding alcohol, so I’m reeling by the time we left.
My husband and I are horrible navigators in foreign countries—and alcohol doesn’t help—so we immediately get lost trying to find the Piazza Navona, which is two blocks away. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piazza_Navona
The streets in the old sections of Rome are made of tiny uneven basalt cobblestones. Not good for drunks in high heels. When I finally wobble into the piazza, I am a little disappointed, because I remembered there being street artists with good oil paintings there. Now it’s all selfie sticks and spray-paint guys and caricatures of giant Angelina Jolie heads. We get some obligatory photos in front of the Bernini fountain (Fontana die Quattro Fiumi) which I believe is where Dan Brown killed off a priest or two in Angels and Demons. Then we lurch off in search of one of the psychotic taxi drivers to take us back to the hotel.
Day Two: Ancient Rome and Borghese Gardens
Our hotel has a brunch, which is in a clean light-filled marble room overlooking the Via Veneto. It was delicioso—everything in Italy is delicioso—but it is important to understand some differences between Italian and American restaurants. First off, they will not bring the check when you’re finished unless you ask for it, and even then it’s only after you wait for several years. My husband and I pictured some befuddled Italians dining in America: “But…but…they brought-a the check-a after I finished the eating! Was it something I said-a?” Here in Italy you must be patient. And when they finally do bring the bill, despite what you might have read online, a tip is not usually included. Everywhere we eat they make a point of telling us servicio was not inclusivo.
Americans have ruined everything with our monstrous tips. In Europe, apparently they pay servers enough to live on, and so 20% is way too much. We can’t help ourselves, though: we feel guilty leaving less. What if all the other Americans are leaving 20%? They might not realize how much we like them! However, there’s no chance to leave a specific percentage, because you can’t leave a tip on a credit card payment here. So we usually leave €20, depending on which denomination we happen to have at any given time. In short…we often overtip, and everyone seems delighted. Oh well. As long as I’m talking about tipping: bring some €1 coins, which is what you give to taxi drivers. Assuming you survive that long.
We have a tour guide, who takes us through Ancient Rome. We see a few spectacular churches, including the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and Matryrs). Like many Roman attractions, it began life as something else—in this case, an enormous bath house—and then was converted into a church. Also like everything in Rome, it’s crammed with fascinating history and art. http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Rome-144659/Things_To_Do-Rome-Basilica_Santa_Maria_degli_Angeli-BR-1.html
We skip the inside of the Coliseum, which is mostly rubble (although I recall from our last visit that you can see cells where they chucked bodies into the Tiber, which my husband really liked for some reason.) We do all the normal stuff, including the Forum, which is the low-lying valley between two of Rome’s famed hills, which was for centuries the center of the city’s public life. Here you can see the famous ruins; some of the temples date back to the 7th century B.C. The Arch of Titus, which was initially constructed in the first century A.D.—and partially restored in the 1800s—is so laden with inscriptions and columns and panels depicting military victories and whatnot that it practically requires a Ph.D. in art history just to view it. (It’s also the model for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, among others.)
We also learn about the House of the Vestal Virgins. To be selected as a VV, you had to be a noble-born girl between the ages of 6 and 10, and you had to agree to remain a virgin for at least 30 years, because you were wedded to the city. (How to explain that one to a 6-year-old?) There was also the duty of tending to the sacred fire. If the Vestals failed at virginity or fire-tending, things could get really grotesque, as depicted in the following story:
“In 114 BC the Vestal Marcia was accused of taking a lover and condemned to death.
To avoid the bad luck of harming a Vestal, the citizens of Rome had her buried alive.
Marcia was dressed in her funerary clothes and bound before being put in a sedan chair. She was accompanied by priests who paraded her through the streets of Rome before the funeral procession arrived at the entrance of a tomb.
The priests turned their backs on her before she was made to descend into the tomb down a ladder.
She was given a small amount of food, water and a lamp. The entrance was sealed and she was left to starve to death.” —Jayne Lutwyche, BBC
I’m thinking that Ancient Rome might have been fairly sex-obsessed, because there are also those Sabine women, frequently depicted in paintings and statues being forcibly carried off in the nude. Who were the Sabines, and why were they always being raped, you ask? Legend has it after Romulus founded Rome, his men belatedly realized they were missing something critical for a successful society: women. They decided they’d get some from the neighboring Sabines, who quite naturally refused to send their females off with these aggressive fools. So the Romans abducted them. This led to various wars, which the Sabine women supposedly ended by flinging themselves onto the battlefield between their murderous fathers and husbands. Here we have a valuable lesson—women should be ruling the world—which was unfortunately ignored by subsequent generations of bloodthirsty Romans. We all know how that turned out.
In the afternoon, we go to the Borghese gardens. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Borghese_gardens
Staying near the gardens is optimal in my opinion; they are like Rome’s version of Central Park. You enter through a remnant of the ancient city walls, dodging careening smart cars and farting Vespas, and step into a sea of green. It’s a beautiful April afternoon, with temperatures in the 70s, and showers of sunshine dappling through the rustling trees. There are lots of happy people: Italian families with wobbly little children; musicians with guitars; black-haired teenagers roving in polite bands; and, of course, tourists. We rent a riscio, which I think must be Italian for rickshaw; it’s a multi-person bike, equipped with a small awning overhead. It also has a motor that kicks in to give you some extra oomph once you start pedaling. Ours has terrible squeaky brakes, so we use them as little as possible and go very fast. Even though it’s technically forbidden, we dart off the paved trails and onto wide pathways covered with crushed white rocks, leading to all manner of crumbly fountains and statues, where we park and buy pistachio gelato. Heaven.
On the short walk back to the hotel, I detour by a shop full of pretty Italian frocks. I am sweaty and dressed in a weird combination of a spandex exercise shirt and bohemian safari shorts, so I worry there could be a reenactment of the Pretty Woman boutique scene. But the immaculate salesladies are able to overcome their distaste of my scraggly clothes long enough for me to purchase a gorgeous Roberto Cavalli dress. Which brings me to another bit of tourism advice: dealing with the VAT (Value Added Tax).
There are two nice things about the VAT: first, unlike the sales tax in the United States, the VAT is already incorporated into the price you see on a tag, and second, if you live outside the EU, you can sometimes get a refund. The downside is, obviously, it’s a tax. Also it’s a complicated hassle to get the refund. The amount of the VAT itself varies from country to country, and so does the amount you must spend in order to get reimbursed. In Italy, it’s €154.94 at any one store. (So it’s better to buy multiple items at one shop rather than spread it around for little purchases.)
The Italian VAT is 20%, so that’s some significant jack we’re talking about. If you are not a business traveler, you cannot get the VAT back on meals and accommodations, unfortunately, but you can on other purchases as long as you don’t use the items in the country. You must ask the retailer to fill out the form for you in the store, and attach your receipt. Some stores are also willing to handle the refund for you, but most of the time you have to do it yourself. When you leave the country, before you check your bags, you must find the customs office, have them inspect your items and stamp your forms, and then you have to find the VAT refund offices, and either get cash or get your credit card refunded. If you fail to do this, you can still do it through an online service from the United States (I had to do this after traveling to Amsterdam last year, because nobody was in the customs office at the Schiphol airport. HUGE pain in the ass.)
Dinner: Tullio. Love it. It’s a nondescript restaurant tucked on a back street near our hotel. (Interestingly—we see this in Rome a lot—there are some military-appearing guys with assault rifles guarding the building next door, which has no lights on in the windows, and no sign indicating what it is.) Inside Tullio, the waiters are old Italian guys in cream-colored jackets. Ours tells us in Italian what we’ll be having, and we helplessly agree. I have the best pasta dish of my life here—spaghetti with mozzarella and fresh peas. All these places make their pasta fresh every day, and it’s so good I can NOT stand it. Why can’t we get this stuff in ‘Merica??
Day 3: Day Trip to Florence
Another thing we are sadly lacking in the States: high-speed trains. Trentitalia’s Frecchiarossa train can get you from Rome to Florence in under ninety minutes. Or you can take a bus, and spend five hours. We opt for the train.
From Rome, you can also do a day trip to Pompeii to see the ruins, which I highly recommend (a little over an hour to Naples) and you can even go to Venice in under five hours. The main station is called Stazione Termini. Easy to find. I had printed out our tickets while still in America and we find our platform with no trouble, so we think we are all set. Nope.
A friendly Roman approaches us, employing the mysterious radar all Europeans have to identify Americans. (How? I have on French shoes, a British raincoat, and an Italian handbag. My husband looks German. But they always know to speak English to us before we say a word.) “You need-a help-a finding the train?” he asks.
“We got it,” I say.
“Have-a you scanned your tickets yet?”
Oops. No. We do not know about scanning our tickets. He leads us over to a little electronic box on the wall near the platform, and holds up our tickets to a scanner. “Now you are checked in and they will let you board,” he says helpfully.
“Thank you so much!” I tell him. Love it when people are kind to foreigners.
He gestures toward the cup in my hand. “Cappuccino,” he says. “I love-a the cappuccino too.”
Oh. Right. I hand him a Euro.
“Yes,” he says, brightening. “Another one, please.”
Wearing a glazed, hypnotized expression, my husband forks over another Euro before I can speak. The guy opens his mouth again, but I thank him quickly and move on.
We’re traveling business class, which is an unnecessary splurge, but they are wide leather seats with tables and wifi. They bring us Orangina to drink, and we read and look out the windows at the gentle beauty of Tuscany, which whooshes silently by at speeds potentially up to 360 km/h. In no time, we’re alighting at Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s primary station.
We have the most delightful guide in Florence, a pretty blonde native named Adri. Since we are only there for the day, we skip the Ufizzi, which requires at least a full day by itself. Adri leads us through the narrow cobblestoned back streets of Firenze, telling us inside stories of the buildings we pass, until we get to the Accademia. http://www.accademia.org
No matter how short your stay in Florence, it is mandatory to see Michelangelo’s David. Everyone knows of David, of course, but seeing him in person is still startling. He is 17 feet tall, hewn out of a single block of the purest marble. I am surprised to see that his pupils are carved in the shape of little hearts, and his hands and face are oversized, intentionally made bigger than anatomically necessary by Michelangelo because his viewers gaze up at him from below.
Oh, Michelangelo! Imagine being such an unparalleled genius that people still revere your creations centuries after your death. If I could time-travel and meet anyone, I might pick Michelangelo, or even more likely, Da Vinci, two of the most fascinating men to ever walk the earth. Interestingly, we know from a famous Florentine—the painter, architect and art historian Vasari—that the two men hated one another. In theory, they should have collaborated: both tormented homosexuals, both Renaissance men in the purest sense of the word, both destined to alter the course of mankind.
Strolling along the Ponte Vecchio—the famed arched bridge over the Arno river—we see the gold merchants and the Vasari Corridor, which is an enclosed passageway linking the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno. It snakes through the Uffizi and contains astonishingly valuable art. Adri says that filming is about to start on the movie version of Dan Brown’s Inferno, which is set in Florence, Venice and Istanbul, and which features the Vasari Corridor as a key plot component. After reading Inferno, I am prepared to hurtle through the Corridor and the Palazzo Vecchio dodging evil drones and mysterious mercenaries, but to my disappointment, no one attacks us.
Onward: The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as Il Duomo di Firenze. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Cathedral
This is probably the most beautiful exterior of any building I’ve seen on earth. It stuns me speechless, much to the delight of my husband.
For some reason, Adri and I decide at this point that my husband needs an Italian name, and we settle on Giacomo (pronounced ‘Jockamo’.) There are tons of people outside Il Duomo, and so I surreptitiously take Adri aside to give her a her a heads up that Giacomo has an infuriating tendency to wander off and get lost in crowds, especially in foreign countries and at theme parks. This has produced extreme martial discord in the past, especially because he doesn’t usually bring his cell phone. Adri grasps the negative potential of this immediately, and we work out a system so that one of us always had an eye on him. Luckily, he’s tall, and also he bought one of those European hats that’s sort of a cross between a beret and a baseball cap, so he’s easy to spot. We head into a dense little market of merchants selling leather goods. Mmm. I buy a luscious, soft bag.
After a lovely afternoon of more sightseeing, lunch, and shopping, we bid farewell to Adri and head to SSM Novella to catch the train back to Rome. Feeling competent, we go immediately to the line at the wall scanner so we can check in. We hold up our paper tickets. Nothing happens.
Puzzled, we stand back and watch other people scan their tickets, which always produces a beep. We try again. Nothing. We perseverate, holding our ticket up backwards, upside down, and in various other directions. No beep.
Okay. We regroup, and go to a different scanner closer to our platform. Perhaps we need one specific to Rome-bound travelers. Nope. Even though we try until our paper is nearly in shreds, we cannot figure out how to scan our tickets. There must be 300,000 people in here—okay, slight exaggeration—30,000 people in here, but there does not appear to be a single soul who works there. I select a cheerful-looking Italian teenager, and ask her how to scan. She regards my ticket, which I’d printed at home.
“Oh,” she says, as if speaking to a particularly dim toddler. “This kind of ticket is not scannable. The scanner is only for people who are buying tickets now.”
Day Four: Rain and Relaxation
I have learned that it is good on vacation not to over-schedule. You can’t see everything in Rome anyway, so treat yourself to some slovenly idleness. You’ll undoubtedly discover something wonderful to do.
We sleep really late—the kind of sleep you never get again once you have reproduced—and then stagger out to lunch. There is an intensely charming garden restaurant in the Hotel de Russie—the Jardin de Russie—which contains 30,000 feet of lush, fragrant landscaped beauty. You can just see part of the Villa Borghese at the tip of the tiered garden, perched over the palms, yews, fountains and climbing roses like an elderly face above a manicured beard. I’d love to stay at this hotel the next time we come, because the rooms look gorgeous, and it’s on the best shopping street in Rome, anchored by the Spanish Steps at one end and the Piazza del Popolo at the other. It’s Italian as all get-out, despite the name, but apparently some roguish Russians used to hide out here: Igor Stravinsky, various Romanoffs, etc.
We have an amazing lunch buffet there, and then wander through the Piazza, looking at the Egyptian obelisk and the exquisite churches on its boundaries:
Santa Maria del Popolo (containing two Caravaggios—The Martyrdom of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul) and at the entrance to the Via del Corso, the nearly identical churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto. There’s also a small museum of Leonardo Da Vinci here. On the way back to the hotel, I find an adorable children’s clothing boutique, where I get my daughters some fetching little European outfits. (My son will receive a Pirlo football jersey from a tourist store for a fraction of the cost and he will be thrilled with it.)
This is going to sound lame, but when it starts raining after lunch, we decide to forgo culture and get massages at our hotel. Believe me when I say that we have been walking for hours and hours every day, so it seems reasonable. However, owing to a disastrous miscommunication with my non-English-speaking masseuse, she reverses which body parts I do and do not wish to have rubbed. Accordingly, she doesn’t touch my feet or lower back at all, and focuses instead on my abdomen. I’m in that feeble nonverbal stage you reach halfway through a massage and can’t speak to stop her. (Who in their right mind would want to have a lengthy stomach massage? The horror! I may not recover.)
Dinner: Casina Valadier. This is probably the most romantic restaurant in the history of food. It is perched at the top of the Pincian Hill and has spectacular views of Rome, all the way to the dome of St Peter and beyond. You enter it via a red carpet flanked by potted palms, leading to one of two outdoor circular staircases. We arrive at sunset, and are seated in front of a huge window. We hold hands across our little table, and watched the pinks and golds of the sky pour like champagne over the Roman hills, deepening into dusky purples above the millions of wavy, tiled roofs. It’s an Italian restaurant in theory, but to me the menu seems very French; it’s pricy and much more formal than the other places we ate. Still, it is breathtakingly glamorous and worth the expense to have seen it.
Day Five: Vatican
Do not, repeat, do not attempt to go to the Vatican without a guide. If you can splurge on only one thing, this is the thing. The line to get in the Vatican stretches to Switzerland if you don’t have a reservation, and you will grow old and die waiting in it. If you have a private guide, you simply whisk up to the entrance to the museum and saunter in.
Admittedly, once we get in, we hadn’t bargained for the fact that our guide decides to give us a lengthy stationary lecture on the history of the entire Vatican. This starts off well, because of course I want to know the backstory behind all those millions of images. But after a half hour or so, I’m retaining about as information much as the average mollusk. To make matters worse, our guide is a close talker with a squeaky heavily-accented voice, and an intense amount of eye contact. She really knows her stuff, though.
Finally, we get moving. It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon, and apparently the entire population of Earth has shown up to tour Stato della Città del Vaticano. Oh, but there is so much to see! I especially love the ancient statues, although I discover to my horror that my own profile is pretty much identical to a statue of some aggressive-nosed 1st-century Roman man.
Our guide exhaustively covered the Raphael Rooms before my cognition got blurry, so I have a pretty good handle on what the scenes in those four rooms depict. I remember loving the Hall of Maps in the past, but this time there’s scaffolding everywhere and so many people that it’s impossible to slow down to look at anything, let alone stop moving. We’re swept up into the Sistine Chapel.
If you ever go there, shoulder your way to the edge of the crowd and wait for someone to get up from the benches that ring the room. That’s the only way you can really take your time to see the Sistine Chapel; plus, the wall can support your head, which you’ll have angled as far back as possible. This was true of Michelangelo, too: it made him so physically uncomfortable to complete the chapel that initially he was unable to look in a downward direction after finishing it.
I confess that one of the most interesting figures to me in the frescoes is a Cardinal named Biagio de Cesena, who had the effrontery to complain to Michelangelo about the vast number of penises on display in his masterpiece, which Cesena felt were unbecoming for a holy space. Michelangelo responded by painting Cesena’s face on an Underworld demon in a scene from hell. In case Cesena somehow missed the insult, he was also depicted with the giant ears of a jackass. And finally, if that wasn’t enough, he’s nude except for the large serpent wound around his torso, which is biting him in a sensitive area, if you get my drift.
I am personally not offended by the ubiquitous male nudity in the Vatican (now largely covered with emergency fig leaves after a later Papal objection), but I do have to question the way a lot of these Renaissance artists painted women. They are straight-up dudes, with giant forearms and rippling muscles everywhere, and bizarre, misshapen breasts tacked on as an afterthought. Michelangelo may not have seen a lot of real-life ladies in the nude, I’m thinking. Anyway. Moving on. I am surprised to learn that the Vatican has a very good modern art gallery, with collections by Matisse, Dali, Klee, Picasso, Rodin, Chagall and many others. We don’t spend nearly as long in this gallery as I’d have liked; our guide speeds us through and then delivers another droning monologue outside St Peter’s Basilica. Then she bolts, leaving us with absolutely no idea where to go first inside the massive, overwhelming space in the cathedral. (Don’t make our mistake. Bring a guidebook.) It’s the largest church in the world. You could spend all day in there and not see everything, but we try anyway.
For me, one of the most striking things in the church is the golden inscription in Latin around the interior base of the dome. To put the size in perspective, the letters are nearly 7 feet tall. They form words so solemn and inscrutably glorious that they seem to issue directly from the mouth of God:
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
I’m always struck by Michelangelo’s Pietá, as I am sure every mother since the Renaissance has been. http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/ Amazingly, he completed it at age 24. Gazing upon the decimated, lifeless body of her son draped across her lap, Mary’s face simultaneously conveys an exquisite agony and a terrible resigned serenity. And I take back what I said about Michelangelo’s portrayal of women. This Mary is beautiful beyond words. We stand mutely before her, and then walk out into the square, dominated by its 140 lofty statues of saints. And then we leave.
Dinner: Another tiny back-alley treasure. Colline Emiliano. Delectable. They make ravioli so fine it’s translucent, but it is robust and insanely flavorful. Who is with me when I say that one of the best things about traveling is experiencing local cuisine different from anything you can get at home? We might live in a melting pot but there is no pasta in America like the pasta they have in every ristorante in Italy. The only reason I don’t weigh 400 pounds by the end of this trip is all the walking.
I love to travel, to see the differences and similarities in life all over the planet, to view in person the beautiful art and architecture I know from books, and to taste the foods I’ve read about. But on the plane ride back, all I can think of is how much I am longing to breathe in the warm smooth scent of my children and stroke their beautiful blond heads and squeeze their little thighs. I want to hear the tiny joyful voice of my youngest child when she sees me. I want to sit on my back porch in the warm spring air, and be home in the Carolinas. So yes, one of my favorite things about travel is the return.