Our last full day in Rome. I cannot believe how quickly it has gone. Time seemed to drag in Sorrento, but here I've hardly had a spare moment to sit down and capture my thoughts. And yet, despite all of my sightseeing, I don't feel like I've even begun to sample the sights and tastes of Rome. It is such an amazing city, one of the few in which I could lose myself.
I think the succession of early starts is weighing on me. Mary needs to nudge me this morning after the alarm sounds to get me moving before dawn. I am still thinking about iconic photographs—St. Peter's, the Coliseum—and this morning seems like a good opportunity to add the Trevi Fountain to the list. Readers with good memories will recall that we visited Trevi Fountain two days ago, but it was so mobbed with people I was unable to get any nice shots of it. There is a secret to taking photographs uncluttered with people: 6:00 AM. The pre-dawn hours are far too early for the casual tourist, and you are likely to only encounter those with morning vocations: street sweepers, garbage collectors, and delivery drivers.
You will imagine my surprise when, having reached the Trevi Fountain before dawn, I discovered tourists present. One girl, dressed in tight, white jeans and thigh-high, black boots, was mugging for her boyfriend's camera; another man sat on a bench, book in hand, his drag-behind suitcase resting beside him. What were these people doing out so early? Didn't they have homes, or at least hotel rooms?
Well, at least it wasn't Wednesday's mob scene. Two members of the Carabinieri (the national police force) stood guard at the fountain. I assumed this was to keep intoxicated tourists from imitating Anita Ekberg's famous wading scene from La dolce vita. The other possibility is that they were on hand to protect the loot. Because of the tradition which states that those who throw coins into the fountain will return to Rome, around 3,000 euros land in the fountain each day. These coins are removed nightly and used to provide food for Rome's poor. Difficult to know whether it is the money or Anita-emulators which drives this vigilant oversight from Italy's finest.
I take my photos and hurry back to the flat. Our operational order calls for a morning assault on St. Peter's before the tour groups arrives. The basilica opens at 7:00 AM, and this would be an ideal time. Unfortunately, the Euro2008 team is not as keen on mornings as I am. We are aim for 8:30, and (give or take twenty-five minutes) arrive on schedule.
It is still too early for a line to have formed in front of the security screening station (by contrast, ninety minutes later when we emerge from St. Peter's, a line stretches all the way around the immense square, a thirty minute wait for admission. There wasn't a security search the first time I visited; it is a sad commentary on the modern world that you have to be scanned before you can enter a church.
What superlatives possess the linguistic power to convey the grandeur of Christianity's largest and possibly most magnificent church? St. Peter's overruns expectations, defies adjectives. It is simply a stunning edifice, the burial place of popes and (possibly) of the Apostle Peter himself.
The church sits on Vatican Hill, the old Roman cemetery. According to tradition, the Apostle was buried in this cemetery after his martyrdom. From fairly early on the site was a place of pilgrimage for Christians. After Constantine defeated Maxentius and took control of Rome, he ordered that a church be constructed over Peter's tomb. Roman engineers leveled the hill, knocking down the mausoleums of those interred there and backfilling the lower slopes to create a flat site. The remains of this cemetery, now excavated beneath the floor of St. Peter's, can be visited by special arrangement.
Construction of the present building began in 1506, and it was completed in 1626. It covers nearly 6 acres and holds 60,000 people. Although a number of architects had a hand in its long and checkered history, Michelangelo was the designer who brought the building together in its current form. The dome, also a product of Michelangelo's genius, is the tallest dome in the world.
Walking inside the church is like entering a gold-leaf-embossed 747 factory. You could easily park jumbo jets within this great ecclesiastical hangar. Marks have been embossed into the central aisle to show how the sizes of the other great churches of the world compare to St. Peter's. The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) is the first cathedral listed. The mark on the floor demonstrates that the great Byzantine cathedral would easily fit into St. Peter's, and as we discovered, Hagia Sophia is not a tiny chapel.
We were pleased, when we entered to find that the usual crowds clustering around Michelangelo's other great creation, the Pieta were absent. We were able to linger before Mary with her son draped across her lap, with no pressure from other tourists pushing us along. This doesn't last long, and within thirty minutes, the tour groups begin to push their way in.
Mary and the girls are keen to climb the dome. I remember doing this the first time we visited. We were trapped between the two layers of the dome like sardines in a can during our ascent and descent. I have no desire to venture to the top, so we happily part, they to climb, I to continue investigating and photographing the treasures of the basilica.
I am particularly taken with a picture of St Jerome, receiving his last communion, placed over the sepulcher of Pope John XIII. After studying it for a while I realize that I'm not looking at a painting, but rather, a mosaic. The detail is incredible, with subtle, painting-like transitions between the tones. The stones must be nearly microscopic. If you didn't look closely you would swear it was a painting.
When my companions return, we head back to the flat. The skies have grown dark and the first splatters of rain strike our unprotected bodies as we pass through the line of people waiting to enter St. Peter's. The heavens open and we are drenched as we walk through the wet, cobble-stoned streets of Rome.