The International Writers Magazine: Roma
The Holy See - an artist's perception
Fred C. Wilson III
The Vatican City State or Holy See is the world’s smallest country. It’s located in the heart of Rome the Italian capitol. When planning your visit to this unique country within a city bring along a pair of good walking shoes.
Vatican City, San Francisco and Seoul, South Korea aren’t cities to visit if you’re out of shape; all three are hilly. In warm countries were opportunities for outdoor exercise abounds keeping the fat off isn’t much of a problem. Here in Chicago it’s too cold in winters, at the time of this writing the temperature’s -16 below zero; too hot summers and too dangerous year round. Most Chicagoans work like automatons. They don’t call this ‘the city that works’ for nothing. We watch too much TV and eat like there’s no tomorrow. Chicago’s numerous world class restaurants make is hard to fight the fat during long winters. Not so with Italy. St. Ambrose once said ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do.’ Italians stay in shape though I did see my share of pot bellies.
The city of Rome is internationally known for its grand Catholic-Christian worship centers. Oddly enough where my wife and I stayed there wasn’t a church for miles the only one being St. Peter’s Basilica the world’s largest Christian house of worship but a hell of a hike from our hotel. We’re both up in years.
We trekked past a number of sights we read about in travel journals. Rome isn’t a clean city. Historic buildings are all littered with graffiti; bad graffiti unlike the colorful gang signs that regularly decorate garage doors, freight cars, warehouse walls and schools here in Chicago where graffiti has evolved into an art form. Italian graffitists are a disappointing lot.
I don’t speak Italian but I remember one instance when my wife and I were in search of someplace to eat when unbeknownst to me I blurted out a sentence in perfect Italian when I asked a passerby directions to a nice place to eat; talking about the Gift of Tongues. We dined at a high-end small family owned restaurant where they serve real Italian, great booze with a large array of cakes and pastries smothered in rum. The dinner was expensive but oh so delicious!
||Upon our arrival at the mother church of Christendom it was like going through a typical TSA security check at O’Hare replete with long lines, uniformed security guards, full body scans and baggage inspectors before being admitted into the piazza St. Peter’s Square. A basilica is a designated church where a pope could set up shop in case of emergencies. St. Peter’s Basilica is as grand as travelogues/periodicals depict. Thanks to America’s Knights of Columbus the huge façade is new.
Our people did a grand job refurbishing the grand old girl though the well worn black bricked square could use a major touch-up. A few hundred waste receptacles stationed throughout the square might encourage tourists to ease up littering the Square with their used water bottles, candy wrappers and other discards so the place could at least look clean.
Once my honey and I got through Vatican security we made our way to the grand church. St. Peter’s is a treasure trove. Paintings, statues, bas relief’s, papal tombs, the High Altar, St. Peter’s statue with its well worn foot made smooth from 500 years of countless kisses of pilgrims. The Baptismal font, the many side altars, the Papal Altar, Confessionals and Holy Water founts hand crafted by some of the world’s premier artists/artisans are strategically situated throughout the massive structure.
Critics accuse the Vatican of hording the ‘gold’ instead of sharing the wealth with the world’s poor. What they don’t know is the Catholic Church feeds, clothes, educates and hospitalizes more people than any other sectarian/secular organization in the world. As for hording the gold as a practicing artist I can attest that nearly all of those great artists whose works decorate churches/museums were once dirt poor. When they were starting out the Church was the only group that supported them and appreciated their work. Point—I’m a ceramicist and portrait artist. I know first hand the difficulties in making sales. A large portion of my ceramic works hangs in one of Chicago’s grandest churches and rectory! If it wasn’t for the Church believing in these Renaissance masters they would have died broke, unappreciated and forgotten.
Everything has a price tag. During the building of St. Peter’s the Church used dubious methods to finance construction; the sale of indulgences. Indulgences can’t be sold. No organization/individual can bequeath a spiritual entity for financial gain. In short time the once mighty Church of Rome was hobbled by the preachments of a little rotund German priest-professor. To this day Catholicism is still smarting from the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Age of Enlightenment - two movements that continues to chip away at the mighty fortress of Roman Catholicism. Fundamentalist preachers snatch thousands yearly from the bosom of Rome. St. Peter’s is visual proof that art can be costly in terms of money and souls.
One fine Italian quality we experienced was that nobody need feel like a stranger in the Eternal City. Italians are a homey and accepting lot unlike other places we’ve visited examples being New York, Bangkok, Memphis and some ethnic neighborhoods here in Chicago. St. Peter’s has the feel of an ordinary parish church replete with Baptisms, private services, the usual round of Liturgies, Confessions and places for private prayer.
Death comes to us all. Seeing the final resting places of roughly 40% of Rome’s Supreme Pontiffs was a sobering experience. Seeing these Messengers of Faith united in death their tombs dating from Christianity’s early days gave me a feeling of Christian continuity. I was part of something much grander and larger than myself.
|The focus for my Roman holiday was art. The Vatican museums are top heavy with art treasure too numerous to see in a single afternoon. Like the massive Louvre its popular French cousin a person could spend months meandering through its exhibits and never see it all. Most people who comes to the Vatican wants to see its two main attractions the Pope and the Sistine Chapel. At the appointed time my wife, me, along with a cast of thousands of mostly young people filled the Square. The pilgrims were chanting the pope’s first name in gleeful anticipation of the Papal appearance.
People waved their national flags as we waited for His Holiness to lead us in his Noon day recitation of the Angelus prayer. At the precise hour Pope Benedict XVI made his appearance from the window of his high balcony amidst the noise of pilgrims gathered below. The pope waved and thanked us for being there. Then he mentioned each group by name and thanked them individually as cheers rose after each group was mentioned. After which he led Noon prayer, blessed us, waved then departed. The huge throng was polite, well behaved and friendly. Despite the multi-lingual quality of the crowd everybody appeared to have understood what each pilgrim was saying. I got into a conversation with a young man from Poland. Not only must a pope be a role model to billions the man selected for the top job must be semi-fluent in many languages or at least have a working knowledge of them just to function. I can understand why ‘Papa Benedicto’ stepped down; being pope is too much responsibility for one person let alone one in his late 70’s. Modeling Pope Francis’ example people in high profile jobs must delegate authority or go mad. Former Russian Czar Nicolas II learned this the hard way as the sitting American president is still discovering. The Czar and his family paid with their lives.
Admission to the Vatican museum isn’t expensive; however the crowds are huge. Once we were inside we proceeded to the Sistine Chapel that marvel of artistic genius by Renaissance master Michelanglo Buonarroti (1475-1561). I think I can safely assume most people know how Michelangelo’s majestic ceiling looks along with a working knowledge of the history behind his massive mural. What they don’t know is the great man was a bit of a trickster.
Michelangelo started out his illustrious artistic career as a body snatcher. At age 17 he began cutting up corpses exhumed from church graveyards to learn anatomy a valuable artistic tool. After his career got off the ground Michelangelo destroyed his anatomical drawings and notes. When my wife and I gazed up at the Sistine ceiling we were joined by many other tourists awestruck at the color and splendor of this master’s work not knowing the secret messages painted into this work of artistic genius.
Five hundred years after the fact, unbeknownst to previous generations of art lovers, Michelangelo’s inner illustrations emerged. He had worked them into his fabulous ceiling. On May 2010 in an issue of ‘Neurosurgery’ John Hopkins University neuron anatomists Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo wrote a paper along with Dr. Frank Meshberger’s paper published in the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ that deciphered the artist’s imagery; in brief the artist in his ‘God Creating Adam’ portion of the painting’s central panel was perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section. Meshberger speculates that the Renaissance genius surrounded God with a shroud representing the human brain to suggest that God was endowing Adam not only with life but supreme human intelligence. In other parts of the panel researchers found a precise depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem!’ For more on this recent discovery please go to ‘Michelangelo’s secret message in the Sistine Chapel: A juxtaposition of God and the human brain’ by R. Douglas Fields | May 27, 2010.
What really pisses me off is seeing the stereotypical American tourist going to ritzy places in foreign countries dressed like slobs. Dressing like a refugee from a big box store walking the aisles pigging out on tubs of buttered popcorn, hot dogs, and thick deep dish slices of cheese and sausage pizza (yummy!) is perfectly okay here in Chicago; but abroad ‘ugly Americans’ give us all bad names. Point—there was this…half-balding…Hawaiian shirt sneaker short pants wearing fat ass (as if I should talk) American tourist type being bodily thrown out of a Vatican museum for inappropriate attire. Seeing my compatriot abused thusly made me want to either help the guards or defend the poor guy. Nobody should order pizza in Italy; it should be outlawed. For those tourists who desire to gorge on junk foods but ignore the epicurean delights of Italian culinaria prepared for those who appreciate the delicate art of fine dining should stay their sorry butts at home!
||One of my favorite painters is the other Michelangelo not the one of Sistine Chapel fame. I’m referring to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio who lived from 1571-1610. Like his genius predecessor Caravaggio had a wild streak and a terrible temper. He spent his days cranking out masterpieces his evening hours brawling, quarreling and making life hard for himself and others. In a drunken tussle he killed a man in Malta. He would challenge anybody, anywhere and anytime to fights. Having a heavy price on his head he was always on the move.
He would travel weapons at the ready with an armed servant behind him to watch his back. An assassination attempt left him crippled for life. In time his wild ways caught up with him. He died at 38 a ripe young age even for those times. Some say of a fever others that he may have been killed by persons unknown. The artist had a great many enemies but could he paint!
A favorite work is ‘Judith beheading Holofernes.’ The painting depicts Bible writer Judith dispatching Bronze Age proto-Nazi Assyrian General Holfernes Israel’s ancient enemy. This painting begs analysis. Viewers see a beautiful but very vengeful Judith casually slicing off the head of the enemy commander with blood gushing everywhere! The scene is nasty, ultra-violent yet religious; she prayed to be given strength to do her dirty deed. The master work allows viewers to see into the souls of all three central characters; the vengeful stares and posture of her maid servant, a surprised enemy who roused from sleep was shocked at being done in by a ‘mere woman.’ Unlike her maid’s hateful stare Judith appears resigned but unwavering. The Biblical writer’s stare is hateful yet determined to do what she had to save her people Israel from extinction. Perhaps this picture could be interpreted as a harbinger of worse events yet to come during the mid-20th century with the Shoah and the Jewish peoples triumph over enemies bent of their extermination. One could look at any picture and garner enough materials for a good sized book. British art historian-hermit-teacher-writer Sister Wendy Beckett did just that with various artists.
The most historical and artistic residence in the world is the Vatican Palace. The building it is also referred to as the Papal Palace or Apostolic Palace the official residence of the Popes until very recently. The building is located to the right side of St Peter's Square. Nicholas III was the first pope to reside there; the last recently retired Pope Benedict XVI. For a variety of reasons paramount among them the current pope’s desire to make the Catholic Church more amenable to the poor, Pope Francis makes his home in a small room in a Roman hotel. He drives to his ‘job’ every day but returns nightly to receive guests, eat, pray and sleep. Perhaps he fears for his personal safety knowing historically the Vatican to be a place of dangerous intrigues some resulting in the untimely deaths of a number of past pontiffs. Access to the Apostolic Palace is off limits to outsiders.
|My wife and I gazed piously on Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ now under glass after being vandalized a few years ago by a crazed wannabe’ Hungarian ‘artist.’
Many statues grace the walls of the Museo Pio-Clemetino. Clutz that I am I nearly tripped and fell down Giuseppe Momo’s (1932) ‘Spiral Staircase.’
It was Arnaldo Pomodora’s giant metallic sphere resting in the Pigua Courtyard that reminded me of an album or CD cover of some heavy metal group; an awesome orb!
Pope Francis recently sacked the commanding general of the Swiss Guards for his heavy handedness in dealings with subordinates and tourists. The guy ran the Guards with an iron fist. These fancifully dressed papal police officers should be tourist friendly. I found out one wasn’t the hard way when I made a major mistake of asking one a simple question.
There is no United State Department Advisory on the Holy See that I found however Rome can be dangerous. Beware of pick-pockets who’ll slash your bags and steal your stuff. You corner one of them be prepared to loose an eye or two. Public transportation and tourists sites are favorite haunts for gangs.
© Fred C Wilson 111 March 2015
Fred C Wilson 111
Meeting up with pen-pals in Tokyo
Fred C. Wilson III
The Gambling industry depends solely upon the continued prosperity of other Asian economies
To find out more about Vatican City and its environs here are a few useful sites you may want to consider:
· www.darkrome.com/ vatican