Rome: St. Peter's and the Berninis

Some guidebook advice is worth following. Rather a lot of it, in fact. Of St. Peter's it says "the queues can be horrendous unless you get here before 9am." So I was there at 0830, went through the metal detectors and straight in without problems. When I left at 1200 I watched the creeping 100 metre long line of umbrellas standing in the rain and thanked my Rough Guide.

Happily, it wasn't raining when I went in. And knowing that it would rain soon enough, I chose to make the climb up the cupola first. That's a hell of a climb: the guidebook lists it as 551 steps - probably accurate, but the first part the steps are very broad and very shallow. What makes it entertaining is when you get into the multiple other varieties of stairs: some are very tight spiral stairs, but my favourite was the ones pressed against the inside of the dome so the walls on either side of you are canted to the left or right.

photo: Guard duty up St. Peter's Dome (shot through metal mesh)

a guard sits alone on a long (and beautifully decorated) catwalk

At the top, we're all caged in against the basic marble ornamentation, behind metal bars. The views are very good, and made me realize how incredibly flat Rome is: of course it's old, but there must be a few new buildings ... and none of them is more than six stories. The view of St. Peter's square in particular is wonderful.

St. Peter's square is ... both amazing and horrifying. It's one of the grandest (and most grandiose) architectural achievements in the world, this huge space enclosed by almost hand-shaped sets of colonnades, sweeping around a great oval. But the space inside Bernini's grand vision is now carved up by barricades that looked a little like the dividers I've seen in videos of cattle slaughter yards ... you can't just walk across St. Peter's square (nor could you a decade ago: this isn't a new circumstance). I think this is mostly for crowd control during the Pope's weekly address. Under the colonnades, for a large portion of their run, there are metal detectors - part of the security infrastructure involved in getting thousands of people a day into St. Peter's proper. But from the top of the dome the barriers are insignificant and you can see the lovely design of the space.

The rooftop tour exits into the cathedral itself. The building is immense, the ceiling a gold-leafed jewel of detail - although its thoroughly ornamented, it's a repeating pattern rather than the tromp l'oeil I've been detailing so enthusiastically. There are multiple chapels around the periphery, several reserved "for prayer," which you couldn't enter unless you knew the secret Catholic handshake.

There are sculptures and tombs throughout the building, but the most famous of all of them is of course Michelangelo's Pietà. I've already ranted about sculpture on this trip, and I'm sure I'll continue to do so, but this is probably the greatest there is. It's an image that's iconic in Western art - the mother holding and mourning for her dead son - and it's a simple sculpture, but no one has ever brought it the simplicity or beauty that Michelangelo managed. I got a very old poster of it when I was about 20, and it's hung on my wall ever since (seriously - my entire adult life). More recently I've been fascinated to see it again since some source pointed out to me that Mary is significantly larger than Jesus. You don't feel it when you're looking at it: she's the Mother, she holds her child. And it finally occurred to me that Mary should be older too: she appears the same age as Jesus. But Michelangelo did these things on purpose and they work.

Before I left on this trip I spoke to my grandmother: she and my grandfather couldn't see the Pietà because they were here the week after the hammer attack in 1972. This is perhaps not an incident people who don't know the sculpture are familiar with, but it's certainly well known in the timeline of the sculpture itself ...

I've gone on about Bernini, but don't think I believe he can do no wrong: the more I look at the baldacchino at the centre of St. Peters (English: baldachin, "a permanent ornamental canopy, as above a freestanding altar or throne"), the uglier it gets. The pillars are huge thick spirals, the whole thing is painfully heavy looking, and it's entirely done in a grubby black. The word Rough Guide uses is "grotesque," and I'm inclined to agree.

Bernini has a couple other things in there, one of which I noted last time although I didn't realize it was by him. The monument to Alexander VII has a winged skeleton near the base, with one of its bony arms extended and clutching an hour glass - but it's having some trouble (and is a little hard to make out) because it's half smothered in a massive marble drapery. (Rough Guide calls it a "monument," but I wonder if it isn't a tomb.) It's simultaneously absurd and rather wonderful.

I also went down to the Vatican Grottoes under the basilica to see the tombs of most of the popes.

I had a different sandwich at Panino Divino for lunch (not as good as yesterday, sadly), then took a couple hours in the B&B. In the late afternoon I headed to Villa Borghese, one of the largest green spaces in a city sorely short on parks - although I was mostly looking for Galleria Borghese. Since I was a couple hours early, I asked Google Maps for "bars near me" in the hope of having a beer while I waited. Apparently "bar" means something very different here: it tossed up a number of places that had reviews that said "great coffee!" and all seemed to have closing times between 1700 and 1900. The first gave me a cafe latte and then told me they were closing in ten minutes (much earlier than Google Maps had thought), and the second gave me an espresso and a donut with crema. Back to the Galleria Borghese.

[Now follows a particularly long rant about Galleria Borghese and my dearly beloved Bernini sculptures. Read it at your own risk ... or perhaps if you need a soporific. Sorry - I just love them this much ...]

Should this name not ring a bell, this is (like the Doria Pamphilj a couple days ago) another pope house. The Borgheses were one of the richest and most influential families in Italy, and the pope who started this collection was a huge fan of the arts, had good taste, and the money to buy the good stuff. For me the place is mostly about the Berninis, but it does have something like six or eight Caravaggios: It's an astonishing collection. Entry is timed, with my group being let in at 1900, from which time we had two hours to peruse about 15 rooms. They make you check your bags (my back appreciated not carrying it), but I left my camera in the bag because I saw the signs saying "no photography" (or pictographs to that effect). But everyone was taking photos and the guards didn't care, so I was in possibly my favourite art collection in the world without my camera. <sigh> I have quite a few questionable quality photos on my cellphone that I'm going to have trouble retrieving (Apple products work magically with other Apple products: I have an Apple phone that does NOT work magically with my Linux laptop).

As I mentioned, it was about the Berninis. But to my surprise, a couple of Bernini paintings on the top floor got added to the roster of my favourites: he has a couple self-portraits there that I loved, one at about age 25, the other at perhaps age 40. They appear to be honest enough to be quite interesting. I looked at the Caravaggios, but mostly wanted to get down to the ground floor.

Downstairs is a spectacular collection of statuary, much of it from "Roman Imperial" times according to the plaques. But the centrepiece of the first room is "The Rape of Proserpine" (I tried to write that "The Rap of Proserpine:" that would be a very different and singularly more modern sculpture). The main Berninis for me are, when you stop and think about it, two sexual assaults, a subversion of the hero trope, and a stilted columnar statue in a style that was old when he tried it. Proserpine (English: "Persephone") is being dragged off by the god Pluto: he's grinning like a madman because he's got a PRIZE as he clutches her, and he doesn't give a damn how she feels about it (not well, as you might expect). Bernini's a master of facial expressions, and I love the hair he puts on them - it's more stylized than the very realistic faces, but so beautiful. Although this sculpture is possibly most famous for the virtuoso portrayal of Pluto's grip on Proserpine, with his fingers indenting her skin. And all of them have essentially perfect physiology.

Next is Apollo and Daphne: Apollo pursues, Daphne flees - and escapes by becoming a tree. I overheard a guide telling her group about the disappointment you can see in Apollo's face, but I disagree: I spent a lot of time looking at both their faces. And while he's got a hold of a woman who's growing bark, I don't think he's realized yet that he's lost this battle.

Then there's David. This is the same David (he of "and Goliath") that Michelangelo left behind for me to see in Florence, one of his greatest masterpieces. But Bernini has taken a radically different tack: this David is winding up to hurl his stone at Goliath, his whole body tense. He stands over a heap of discarded armour he wasn't comfortable wearing. And his face is contorted in his concentration and effort: this is not the face of a classical hero, calm and prepared. This is someone working desperately. Thing is, the first time you see it, it's a shock. It's so unexpected of a "hero." It took me a while to adjust to, but now - dear lord I love that one.

photo: "David" by Bernini

biting his lip in concentration, David stretches out his sling

And last is "Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius." This is a columnar statue, with Aeneas carrying his father on his shoulder, and his son walking very near his feet. The style probably comes from Bernini's father as Bernini was very young at the time and it was one of his first major commissions. It is, as it's been accused of being, a contrived construction. But the contrast between the three body types is brilliantly done, and again - it's about the facial expressions. Their city (Troy) is burning behind them, and they're leaving as best they can in resignation and sorrow.

photo: "Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius" by Bernini (Ascanius is behind Aeneas, not visible)

Aeneas carries Anchises on his shoulder, who holds the images of their household gods.

I would stare at one of these for five minutes, then wander to the next room and stare at another, and I just kept cycling through until they kicked us out. I'm afraid I'll never see them again, and they're the greatest sculptures in the world ... (at least for me - it's interesting how differently people see sculptures).

From the sublime to the ridiculous: even though it was 2100, I decided to walk back to the hotel although it was about 5 km. I hadn't got very far when it started to rain. A little further, and it started to pour. By the time I decided that maybe I did hold with the idea of taxis, everyone else had done so as well and there were none to be had. (The metro was never really an option: the stations I might have used, although they weren't very close, were the ones that are still out of service for reasons unknown.) Eventually it stopped mattering if I stepped in puddles, as my shoes couldn't get any more wet.

And so the day ends with a healthy glass of limoncello and a computer.