From the quiet of an early Mass at St Peter’s Basilica to the surprising colours of the Sistine Chapel’s famed ceiling, there was plenty for pilgrims to appreciate during a visit to the independent city-state that is the Pope’s home.
The very full day in the Vatican City and Rome began with a 5am wake-up call and 50-minute drive from the city’s north to the Vatican for a 7.15am Mass at St Peter’s Basilica on the feast day of St Mary Magdalene.
From there pilgrims began a walking tour of Rome, taking in the outside of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Pantheon as temperatures reached 36 degrees.
Art and architecture
Pilgrims have been exposed to a trove of iconic art and architecture during their week in Italy.
The Vatican Museum tour introduced students to the lasting impact the Renaissance had on the art world with the sense of perspective it introduced and the new level of emotion painters such as Michelangelo showed on their subjects’ faces.
It is said to have taken a reluctant Michelangelo only four years to pain the 1,110 square metre ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a task he rushed to get back to his favourite medium – sculpture.
With its famed Old Testament scenes rendered in bright pastel colours of pistachio and leafy green, orange, red, rose pinks, golden yellows, and sky and oceanic blues, the 40-metre long artwork was a highlight. Guards regularly called a reminder for quiet within the busy sacred space, ‘silencio’ broadcast to the afternoon crowds. Again no photos allowed inside the chapel, which was built from 1477 by Pope Sixtus IV and painted at the commission of Pope Julius II.
Pilgrims were also taken past the Pieta, on their return to St Peter’s Basilica in the afternoon. They were chagrined to find out it was an Australian (geologist Laszlo Toth) who nearly destroyed the marble sculpture of a crucified Jesus in the lap of his mother Mary in 1972 by taking a hammer to the statue’s arm and face. It has since been restored with the aid of a faithful copy housed outside the Basilica.
Free time at lunch allowed pilgrims to explore the inside of the Pantheon and note the varied colours of the marble floor and walls inside, fading due to exposure the elements and after being flooded with water often before the Romans walled in the Tiber River.
(Students experienced a flood of sorts of their own, after a water pipe burst one of the students’ rooms back at the hotel.)
The Pantheon stop also gave students a chance to taste some of the best gelati in Rome at the nearby Cremeria – a great way to beat the heat.
Appreciating the history
Pilgrims heard hundreds of interesting facts about Rome, where ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern elements appear to coexist peacefully.
It is unlikely that any one student took the same information away from their comprehensive tour of the city which has gained approximately 10 metres in height since ancient times due to the Roman’s habit of recycling elements of existing structures and building on top of them.
Ancient habits made for some grizzly tales too, including the brutal battles at the Colosseum, Saint Bartholomew who was persecuted for being Christian and, according to some, skinned alive, and Romulus and Remus. The brothers were left in in basket to float down the Tiber River, to avoid being put to death like their mother, a vestal virgin who was buried alive for conceiving them unwillingly of the pagan god Mars. They were fed by a she-wolf, adopted by a shepherd and grew up to fight, with Romulus killing Remus to claim as his kingdom the new city of Rome.
The various build dates, dimensions and additions to Rome’s architecture and the popes, emperors, politicians and other people behind the buildings rounded out some intense learning.