Friday, May 30, 2008

This morning, I wake from a deep sleep to the persistent honk of my alarm clock. My muscles are stiff when I roll out of bed, but when I open the shutters overlooking Via dei Polacchi and crane my neck out the window, I see a promising blue sky, which renews my energy. On a morning such as this, it seems a shame to waste Euros on a taxi ride to Vatican City, and I’ve heard horror stories about the pickpockets on Bus 64. I have a 10:30 AM reservation for an official guided tour of the museums, but even after eating breakfast there is plenty of time to spare, so I decide to walk instead.

I turn left down Via delle Botteghe Oscure, stroll past a few ancient and incongruous pillars on the right, and run smack into a major Roman ruin. It’s Largo di Torre Argentina and it’s fascinating. The sunken square reminds me that the modern city of Rome has been elevated by layers of debris.

As I turn up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I watch impatient Italians on motor bikes push through the streets as fast as the morning rush hour will allow. Shopkeepers are rolling up their doors. The sight of two little old ladies walking arm and arm makes me smile. Rome is a different city by day, but it’s wonderful just the same.

When eventually I reach St. Peter’s Square, turn right, and wind my away around the Vatican walls in search of the museum entrance, I begin to wonder where the infamous line is, the one people stand in for hours when they don’t have a timed reservation. I want to appear smug and self-satisfied with my computer printout in hand.

When I find the doors I realize that the line is no more than 40 or 50 people long. It barely wraps around the first bend in the wall. Nonconformist that I am, I’m tempted to join the queue and avoid the extra fee for the tour, but I don’t. I look for the line reserved for guided Vatican tours and show the guard my printed confirmation.

Once inside, I still have to go through security and pay for my ticket. But afterwards I am directed to a roped off reception area to wait with other visitors. We’re handed Whisper headsets so that we can hear the guide and a group of us are amused when she holds the microphone to her mouth and asks anyone who can’t hear to come up to the desk for assistance. After all, if you can’t hear her voice through the earphones, how are you supposed to follow her instructions?

In the end, it’s a good tour and lasts about two hours. We see courtyards, tapestries, and domes, even a room devoted exclusively to sculptures of animals. Our guide is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but it’s easy to lose sight of her once we reach the more crowded rooms. I notice that the other tour guides around me are all holding silly objects in the air for their clients to follow: an umbrella, a paddle that looks like it came from a Sotheby’s auction, a large felt flower. We have nothing.

When we reach the map gallery, I think it’s so incredible, so captivating, that I linger a little too long taking pictures. At first, her voice cuts in and out as the signal fades. Then it disappears altogether. I have no choice but to follow the masses forward down what feels like a one way street. I know I’m getting close when I start to pick up bits of static and snatches of speech. It feels like I’m in a crowded swimming pool playing “Marco Polo.” Once inside the Raphael Rooms, I spot her at last, just as she starts to collect the headsets. She explains that we will visit the last room on our own. It’s time for the grand finale.

As everyone knows, there is a no photography rule in the Sistine Chapel. The reasons for this are muddled since photos are allowed everywhere else in the Vatican Museums. The explanations range from the perfectly understandable to the downright silly. On the understandable side, it is a place of worship and should be respected as such. Granted, a reasonable person might recall the story of Jesus and the money changers and decide that the souvenir shops scattered every ten feet throughout the museum threaten the sanctity of the place about as much as tourists snapping pictures, but I digress.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is a desire to protect the frescoes from the damage caused by a million or more flash bulbs a year, and yet no one seems to be particularly concerned about that in the map gallery or the Raphael Rooms.

Then there is the stuff of urban legend — tales of the Japanese firm that paid to restore Michelangelo’s work in the 80s and 90s and how they cleverly acquired the copyright to the images along the way. As I follow the crowd toward the room, I overhear some tourists grumbling about how it’s all a conspiracy to get people to buy overpriced postcards and guidebooks in the gift shop afterwards.

Whatever the truth in that rumor, the sign over the entrance door is clear. Camera + red X = No pictures. I cannot in good conscience plead innocence to “The Rule” and so I slide the power switch on my Nikon D40 into the off position with a gentle click.

As soon as I enter the chapel, I find myself overwhelmed by two things: the crushing weight of the crowd and the breathtaking beauty of the ceiling. Actually, the first can’t even compare to the second in importance because everyone is looking up anyway. I feel the unnatural closeness of the strangers around me, but I do not see them. My eyes see nothing but Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, I can feel the room pulse with energy.

After the initial sense of awe has subsided in my brain, I take in my surroundings and begin to realize that “The Rule” about photography is unenforced in the most spectacular fashion. I squeeze onto a bench along the wall and observe human nature as it takes its natural course.

There seem to be three main strategies employed. The first is a simple version of grab and run. One guy looks furtively around, snaps a quick picture under his arm, and moves nonchalantly away as if nothing happened. An old woman gets caught by a guard after taking her turn and tries to explain that she doesn’t speak Italian, and therefore didn’t know better. A teenager confidently points and shoots in utter disregard for the consequences. Sneak it, feign ignorance, or do as you darn well please. It’s simple, really.

Put it all together and the whole system works rather like a “Whack a Mole” game. The guards step in to stop one person from taking pictures, and three others use it as cover for taking their own.

The problem is that the penalty doesn’t seem too bad. There is no real disincentive. The guard who approached the old woman did not confiscate her camera, nor did he escort her to the door. He merely wagged his index finger back and forth saying “no, no, no” in the tone of voice you use to chastise a child who has done something that is in equal parts wrong and amusing.

This presents both a moral dilemma and a physical challenge. I feel swept away. Is this what people mean when they talk about the psychology of crowds? I can just see myself saying to the guard: “But you see, sir, everyone else in the room was doing it.” And he says: “What if everyone else in the room jumped off of the dome of St. Peter’s, would you do that, too”? At this particular moment, I think that I might.

I try to distract myself by listening to Rick Steves’ commentary on my iPod, but a sequence of thoughts begins to run through my head… My camera is still slung around my neck, but it’s getting heavy. It would feel good to rest it on my lap for a while as I sit. I wouldn’t want to rest it facing down, of course, because that might scratch the lens. Up would be better. But then it would be easy to bump the power switch with my hand, and if that happened I would be able to press the shutter, too. Accidentally, of course. These things happen. And how would I know, with the digital screen on the back of the camera hidden so completely from view?

Who am I kidding?

I do what needs to be done. As I leave, I look back over my shoulder at the “Last Judgment,” at Michelangelo’s depiction of the tormented, writhing bodies of the damned, and my moral compass kicks in at last. I am going to H-e-l-l. But at least I’ll have lots of company…

Mi dispiace.

After a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, I head back around the walls to St. Peter’s Basilica, stopping only to look for “Pope-eners” in one of the souvenir shops along the way. When I see one, it’s actually a bit of a letdown. It’s a gold and silver bottle opener with Pope John Paul II’s likeness on one side and St. Peter’s on the other. It’s not as kitschy as I had hoped. It’s got a great name, though.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the security line at the basilica is short and efficient. I wonder at first if the sleeves on my blouse will be long enough to pass muster with the guards, but in comparing my own sartorial choices with those of my fellow travelers, I start to relax. Shorts, halter tops… don’t these people read the guidebooks? There is a strictly enforced dress code at St. Peter’s.

Yeah, and there’s a ban on photography in the Sistine Chapel.

Perhaps they both work the same way because a guy in front of me just got through with shorts on. His knobby white knees are totally exposed. I can’t decide whether he really doesn’t know about the dress code, or if he’s just playing it cool and hoping no one will notice. Eventually, they do. A guard comes scurrying up from behind, taps him on the shoulder, he shrugs and away they go.

Inside, St. Peter’s basilica is meant to be an impressive site, and it is. It’s dimensions are mammoth, self-consciously so as it turns out, because as I listen to another Rick Steves podcast he points out the Latin inscriptions on the floor that mark where other churches would fall if they were placed inside of St. Peter’s: St. Paul’s in London, the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s in Venice. It’s an amusing image, to think of the great cathedrals of the world as a giant set of Russian nesting dolls.

I enjoy seeing art in museums, well lit and perfectly placed at the optimal viewing angle. But it’s so much better to see it in situ, where it belongs, its context intact. Here, there is Michelangelo’s first Pietà and Bernini’s Gloria window made of transparent sheets of alabaster, not to mention a stunning array of mosaics so detailed they appear from the floor to be painted in oil.

I visit the crypt next to see the tomb of Pope John Paul II, then make my way back outside to join the line to the dome. I have a choice to make… Climb the whole thing, or pay two Euros more to take an elevator half way. I can’t get the extra coin out of my wallet fast enough!

Even with the elevator, it’s a challenging climb. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view from the top is fantastic. My eyes fix on St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with the angels all the way east to the Victor Emmanuel monument at Piazza Venezia, which looks like an oversized wedding cake. To the right of that, I spy the Colesseum.

After my descent, I limp into a shop nearby and reward myself on a job well done with a heaping dish of gelato: pistacchio and crema.

By now it’s 5:00 PM, but there is still plenty of time before dinner, and with the gelato holding my hunger at bay, I decide to visit the interior of Castel Sant’Angelo. It’s a long, slow climb up a dark interior ramp, but when I reach the terrace on top I can see the full length of the bridge, a bend in the river Tiber, and to the west, the dome of St. Peter’s. When I rest my hands on the windowsill to lean out, my fingers fall into the deep grooves of graffiti carved into stone. I wonder who BOTTESINIE was and what he thought about as he stood here. How long ago? One hundred years? Two hundred?

By the time I realize I left my beautiful tri-fold, laminated map of Rome somewhere in the castle, I’m already back on the bridge. The logic centers of my brain know that it might be possible to retrace my steps, to find and reclaim my map, but my legs plead for mercy. There is, after all, the long steady incline both up to and back from the terrace to consider. I decide to wing it instead. Tomorrow, I can always pick up one of the free paper maps they offer at hotels, but for now there is the immediate problem of dinner.

Weeks ago, it had seemed like a pleasant task to pick out restaurants from guidebooks and online discussion boards. Someone on Trip Advisor recommended “La Pollarolla” and that worked out well the first night. For this particular evening, I had highlighted a pizzeria called “San Marco.” I had even circled its location on my map with a marker. Now that I’m here, there is no map, no circle, no way of knowing where Via Tacito is.

I wander for a bit around Piazza Adriana and then stroll back over the Ponte Sant’Angelo as I formulate a game plan. It is only my second day in Rome, but already my determination to eat consistently good, authentic Roman fare is giving way to the reality of hunger and exhaustion. I decide to go for something — anything — close by.

Desperation brings me to “Antico Caffé di Marte” on Via Banco di San Spirito. When I see the large poster by the door showing pictures of the various dishes they serve, I know I’m in trouble. It’s a tourist trap with a capital “T.” I figure that as long as I’m here I might as well go all the way and order a Coca Cola Lite… with ice. I remind myself that I’m going to hell for taking that picture in the Sistine Chapel, anyway. How much further can I slide?

Ultimately, the pizza margherita isn’t very good. In fact, it’s dry as a bone, but the insalata caprese is fine, made with nice, fresh ingredients. By the time I finish, it’s approaching nine o’clock and I feel energized again and ready to position myself for some night shots.

An hour later, I’m satisfied that the pictures I’ve taken of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica have turned out well. Both buildings are beautifully floodlit and after the sun set the sky had deepened into a rich cobalt blue. I decide to head back to the hotel, but because of the descending darkness and the fact that I still don’t have a map, I opt for the safety of a taxi instead. Although, as it turns out, safety is a relative thing.

I walk to the taxi stand in front of St. Peter’s. The driver at the front of the line doesn’t speak any English, and Via dei Polacchi is a tiny little street, so it takes some time for us to reach a mutual understanding of my destination. Once we do, the car is off like a dart down Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The guy is like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. I peer over the front seat and see that we’re going 100 kilometers per hour. I figure that’s about 60 miles per hour. Pretty fast for the center of town. The best part comes when Mario beeps his horn preemptively at all of the intersections, just in case someone is foolhardy enough to try to cross in front of him. When we arrive outside my hotel minutes later, he gestures triumphantly up at the sign and says “Via dei Polacchi!”


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