Rome: An old (old!) library and the Vatican Museums

Cars are noticeably smaller in Rome. Three years ago it looked like Smart had a hit on its hands in Canada, but I've seen a lot less of them on the road in Toronto in the last year - maybe they fare poorly in the Canadian winter. They're everywhere here. Comparably sized cars include the Fiat Seicento (R.I.P.), the Aixam, the Ligiers, The Toyota iQ and Aygo ... there are a lot. It's about fitting through and parking in small spaces - you see the Smarts parked at 90 degrees to the curb all over the place. But they're not the smallest car on the road. The electric Sharengo (which, if you parse out the name carefully, is a rental) is even smaller, and my favourite is the unusual (and also electric - I didn't know that until I looked it up) Renault Twizy. It seats two, but A) front-and-back, not side-by-side, and B) not really: you can get a kid or groceries in the back.

My first stop of the day was Biblioteca Angelica, Europe's oldest public library. Big tall reading room, old, old books. Very cool.

Right next to it was Basilica di Sant'Agostino: glorious by North American standards, but I'm afraid my senses have been blunted by multiple even more impressive churches in the last few days.

I also visited Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which my guidebook tells me is "Rome's only Gothic church ..." which evidently means "very dark." Possibly because they hadn't worked out architecturally how to add more windows because they needed a huge mass of stone to support their very large church ... It also meant some particularly vivid grotesques on the tombs, in the form of skulls, skulls with wings, and even skulls with crossbones. (I've mentioned before, but not on this trip - I like grotesques.)

I meant to visit a couple more libraries, but was defeated by my own impressively bad navigation and a need for a restroom: public restrooms are in staggeringly short supply in this city, and it was easier simply to go back to the hotel. I give myself some credit on the navigation, central Rome is about as un-grid-like as it's possible to be ... but I have to deduct a lot of points for not looking at the phone sooner to see that I was headed off at 90 degrees to the direction I needed to go (I'm often very sure of myself as I go completely wrong).

Lunch was at Panino Divino, a tiny little place just around the corner from my B&B. I had the "Ciro" sandwich, which had "Black pork cheek grill, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese, chilli jam." And they nearly lived up to their name: very good stuff.

Just a short walk to the Vatican Museums. It took me several minutes to figure out that I needed to go into the very clearly and repeatedly marked "Group Entrance." How does that make sense? Then the airport-style security check with bag through the scanner and a body metal detector. Which I wouldn't normally mention, but I decided not to bother putting my keys in my bag ... and I completely forgot I was carrying a mid-sized Swiss Army knife. Neither of which set off the metal detector when I went through. And then there was only one person in front of me at the ticket booth: the Museums are notorious for long line-ups, but apparently 1400 really is the time to go: I was in in moments.

The Vatican Museums are very large. And exceptionally poorly signed. I imagined the library's website UX person tearing her hair out over the multiple repeated signs saying "Sistine Chapel <arrow>" - but since you can't go in any direction but the way the mass of humanity is flowing, and the Sistine Chapel never seems to appear ... a distance to your target would be a huge plus. But finding anything else is disastrous: in one instance, I found three signs for the same place within a couple metres of each other, all pointed in different directions.

This is not to knock the museum as a whole: it's one of the best in the world. But I don't really understand their choice of layout: if they allowed people to go straight to the Sistine (instead of having to take a one kilometre walk with no exits or entrances), all the other galleries would be quiet and easily enjoyed. Whereas now the flow of people through the Galleria della Carta Geografiche (and any corridor on the path to the Sistine!) is such that standing still is almost hazardous to your health. I got off to the side as much as I could in that corridor: damn near every room in the Vatican museum is a work of art before you even start talking about the Etruscan pottery or Greek statues or Renaissance masterpieces they've hung on the walls, and even in that place the Galleria della Carta Geografiche is a stand-out. The walls of a 120 metre corridor are covered in maps of Italy as they knew it at the time, and the ceiling is sculpted with stucco and vividly painted for the entire length. It's beautiful and awe-inspiring.

photo: Galleria della Carta Geografiche

gloriously colourful and incredibly long ceiling of many paintings

I think I'm more of a fan now of the Sistine Chapel than I was on the last trip: that's not much of a compliment as I went out of a sense of duty both that time and this. But maybe I get it a bit more now, particularly the "Last Judgement" on the end wall (not the possibly even more famous ceiling). I looked closely at some of the details, and they're quite entertaining. Again, like the Trevi Fountain, the staggering number of people around me made it difficult to concentrate (and impossible to sit down - there are seats along the wall, but they're very hard to come by).

I ended up at the Museum of Carriages for a while: it's not on the Sistine run, but entirely separate. There you can see not only many of the Pope's horse-drawn carriages going back centuries, but quite a few cars - including several lovely Mercedes across several decades, and three Popemobiles (two glassed in, one not).

I had to ask one of the guards how to find the sculpture I most wanted to see, "Laocoön and His Sons" ( ). This is an old Greek sculpture that was hugely influential on Michelangelo and Bernini because it was rediscovered in their time. And I think it's one of the great masterpieces of sculptural art. It's anatomically exceptionally good (except possibly for the snakes, but they're supernatural), and conveys the agony of his knowledge that both he and his children are going to die. (I didn't say it was happy.) I walked through their spectacular - and almost entirely devoid of people - several hundred metres of galleries of old Greek and Roman sculpture. These are of a quality that you simply don't see anywhere else: they have the best in the world. And they have a LOT of it. Made me wish I appreciated it more, although I'm happy to say I did find some things to like.

photo: Laocoön and His Sons

marble sculpture being viewed by teens, one taking pictures with his phone

Did I mention? They have (at least) three of Dali's paintings on display.

After Laocoön, I also had to ask after my other favourite from the last trip. I had to describe it because I didn't know the name, but no worries: it's distinctive. It's a three metre brass ball in the middle of a garden. So now I know it's called "Sfera con sfera" ("Sphere within a sphere"), and it's by Arnaldo Pomodoro. (You can see a photo here, although in a different setting: - apparently he cast another one, and it lives at Trinity College in Dublin.)

I had dinner at L'Archetto, a pizza place nearby. The pizza was as good as that at Ai Marmi, and the dining experience was a lot more laid back (unless you prefer elbow-to-elbow and noise and rush). And a wonderful tiramisu I shouldn't have had after. While I haven't had tiramisu in a long time, theirs I think ranked up there: very good.

photo: a plaster, metal, and straw test angel by Bernini

a test model for one of Bernini's many angels - this one looks quite creepy for missing all kinds of pieces