June 12th 2014
The following morning, the 6th, Eugenio and Ann departed on their honeymoon of sorts to Amsterdam while the family took a public bus to The Vatican. This was their last full day in Italy.
The poster boy of the Vatican-the world’s smallest nation - is the Basilica of Saint Peter- the world’s biggest church. In the 64th year of the Common Era, during the reign of Nero the whackjob, a great fire consumed Rome, cindering large swathes of the metropolis. The fire was rumoured to have been started by Nero himself, to clear up land for the Domus Aurea, a self indulgent palatial extravaganza. With the commencement of its construction in the newly freed areas, resentment grew among the citizens of Rome over the cause of the fire and the personal fortune that Nero wrestled from the tragedy. In order to deflect blame from himself, a sect, who called themselves Christians, were charged with arson and made culpable to appease the masses.
Numerous members of the sect, their leader included- a man who went by the name Petr, from the Eastern Provinces- were tortured and executed by burning or crucifixion. Petr, or Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, himself was crucified near Vatican hill (named after Vaticana, the pagan goddess of death), which at that time was a necropolis, and buried in a grave close to the spot of his crucifixion.
With the slow but certain ‘triumph’ of Christianity over Paganism in the western reaches of the Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D., it was only a matter of time before the growing influence of the Christian populace held sway over the continuance and administration of the Roman Empire. In the most consequential political masterstroke of all time, the wily Emperor Constantine claimed conversion to Christianity and decreed it the official religion of the Roman Empire in 325 A.D.
Constantine constructed the Basilica in its original form over the small shrine built on Saint Peters tomb on Vatican Hill. The Basilica in its present form is the result of a comprehensive overhaul and redesign ordered on the 4th century A.D. original (by Pope Julius II in 1506) and claims Michelangelo on its panel of architects. Proclaimed as the finest ever example of Renaissance architecture, it is the second holiest place for Catholics after the site of Jesus’ birth in Nazareth. The forecourt of the Basilica is the sprawling, colonnaded Saint Peters Square, centred by an obelisk (which dates back to 13th century B.C. Egypt and transported to Rome in 37 A.D.!!), said to mark the spot where Saint Peter was martyred.
We reached the Vatican to find thousands in the Square attending Mass. It was a commemorative service to honour 200 years of the Carabinieri, the Italian Military Police, so the Basilica was off limits. In return we did see Pope Francis milling through the congregation in his mini motorcade, stopping to bless children and shake people’s hands, at the completion of Mass. From the square we made the short walk through the throngs to the entrance of the Vatican Museum, avoiding the snaking queues thanks to Ameeta, my cousin, who had the foresight to book Museum tickets online (20 Euro).
The Musei Vaticani lies within the walls of Vatican City and attracts over 5 million visitors a year- that’s about 14,000 a day, and I can vouch that there were more on the day we visited. Waves of groups of tourists, one after the other, it was crazy! Here’s how not to visit the Museum:
Wait in line to buy a ticket.
Visit with people who dictate the pace of movement.
Visit with children.
Visit on the last Sunday of the month when the museum is free for all.
Visit with American tour groups that won’t stop talking.
The Museum (its various rooms themselves masterpieces of renaissance art and architecture) has been in commission, collecting and displaying exhibits, since the start of the 16th century. From sculptures dating to the birth of the Roman Civilization (500 B.C.) to modern day abstract art, all the big dogs – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rapael, Caravaggio, Dali, Kuri- and more, through their agencies of expression, are on showcase. You could be months if you contemplated every single work.
The motivation for many, like me, to visit the Museum was the Capella Sistina, located almost at the end of the unceasing Museum circuit. Michelangelo’s most famous work, a fresco style painting depicting various scenes from the Book of Genesis, with the iconic ‘Creation of Adam’ at its centre, adorns the chapel ceiling. I’m not an art critique, I’m unable to explain the technical brilliance of his masterpiece in an academic capacity but suffice to say it resolves the crescendo of its anticipation into an opus magnum of emotion. You know the surge of electricity you feel through your body when you so much as even graze that mysterious hottie you have insane chemistry with? Well, imagine a sustained surge and that’s how I felt. That’s the genius of the man; every mechanism your body employs is recruited to cope with the parallels of emotion he elicits. You want to scream but you gasp, you want to cry but you choke, you get weak in the knees but you still stand, you want to reach out, feel, but you don’t. Not Raphael, not Dali, no one else can do this.
Intelligent, technologically superior, extra-terrestrial colonies of Galactic conquerors (ITEG) exist. They determined the Earth with its human inhabitants an ideal civilization to enslave; anyway it was only a matter of time before the humans nuked themselves. On the 28th of April, 1978, an advance unit was dispatched to chalk out tactical plans for a comprehensive invasion when they came upon the Sistine Chapel and beamed back images of Michelangelo’s roof. Following consensus, the ITEG leadership voted against the annexation and let humankind be; a life-form capable of such greatness did not merit colonization. On that day they did however deploy their representative, disguised to the world in the body of an inconspicuous new born baby, and tasked him with the responsibility of monitoring and reporting waning human achievement. ITEG await instructions to execute the infringement and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before ET gives the word.
Photography is prohibited inside the chapel but Nicky and I took roofies (selfies with the roof as the background), without the flash, right under the Creation of Adam and just like that the wardens and the masses herded us out, much too soon.
Weary legs were rested back at the hotel. Later in the evening my mum and I bought an open top bus tour of the city. After yesterday’s sojourns every turn the bus took was familiar- historic Rome isn’t really spread out. The cousins with the kids met for dinner at a restaurant close to Fiamma and later that night Nicky, my brother and I rode the public bus to Trastevere.
The three of us spent some time watching a group of impromptu street musicians perform North African tunes on one of the bridges across the Tibre and then ambled through the lanes of the lively locality, people watching, while sipping granites and slurping gelatos. We took a second dinner of freshly baked thin crust pizzas, a third dinner of Moroccan chicken and Baklava, and returned to the hotel after collapsing into a taxi. I felt a tinge of sadness; this was my last night with the folks. From now on it was solo dolo for me. Actually, not really.
I met Sheila Zago from Brazil for the first time on the 28th of April at my apartment in Bangalore. During the course of our conversation we learnt that we would be in Rome at the same time in June, she for a friend’s wedding and me during the days following Ann’s. We promised to meet again in Rome and true to that she texted me on the 6th just after her arrival from Delhi. Sheila had found a hostel for 18 Euro a night and since I had to check out of Fiamma with the rest of the family on the 7th, I requested her to make a reservation for me as well.
After breakfast on the 7th a big bus came and took my family away, bags and all, destination Fiumicino Airport. I, bags and all, walked the short distance to Via Cairoli and Fiesta Hostel on the far side of the Termini Station, in the China Town equivalent of Rome. The locality had an edgy, run down feel to it – graffiti on the walls, litter on the streets, begging sun baked Roma gypsies and soliciting Chinese hookers.
I reunited with Sheila (her favourite song is Sheila ki Jawani), a travelling Art Researcher, and was introduced to Rodrigo, a high school Physics teacher, also from Sheila’s home town of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Sheila and Rodrigo had met the previous day in Rome through a common friend who put them in contact with each other. We hung out at the hostel until late afternoon comparing notes on the events of the past month and when Sheila left for Piazza Venezia to attend her friend’s wedding, Rodrigo and I took the Metro to Saint Peters Basilica – I couldn’t visit it the previous day because of the Carabinieri mass and Rodrigo came along to see what the fuss was about.
Second time unlucky. The Basilica was closed to tourists for a second straight day due to a public celebration at the square. Rodrigo and I walked to Piazza Novona, not a long distance away across the Tibre, and took in the vibes of this popular tourist venue with the standard winning ingredients – Renaissance era duomo, Egyptian obelisk with Baroque era fountain, cafe, free style street performers and fake handbag peddlers. In fact we walked all the way back to Hostel Fiesta from the Vatican; after visiting Piazza Novona we called in at the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Presidential Palace, the Piazza Garibaldi and a few hundred churches. I must’ve been a familiar face on Via Nationale by this time.
Later in the evening Rodrigo and myself walked to the department store across the street to buy groceries for dinner – bread, cheese, yogurt, Nutella, veggies, diet cola and beer – 11 Euro in all and sufficient for brekkie the following morning as well. I attempted to make polite conversation with the cute checkout clerk but she was only interested to know if I required an extra carry bag. What, a taciturn Italian woman? Shocking.
In India I’m accustomed to double takes from strangers who occasionally hold gaze for that fraction longer. We are, without doubt, a staring society but it does feel good, at some level, to be noticed. Ostensibly, in this desensitized demography nobody gives a damn. Italy was cutting me to size and how.
After an assorted sandwich dinner I showered and slept.
The three of us lazed the next day until past noon. Sheila and I contemplated taking a flight to Paris if we could find friends to stay with. Nice too was an option with Altaf and Pauline, friends of Ann’s I met at the wedding, offering to host us at their apartment. We decided to go south to Naples instead the following day.
Late morning, Manuel from Guatemala was assigned a bed in our dorm for 6. It’s only natural that when three heterosexual men of non-Italian descent congregate in Italy, the conversations settle to the appreciation of Italian women and their feminine gifts (much to Sheila’s irritation I suspect). Manuel claimed he had three children from two marriages and feared the numbers would’ve been five and four respectively if he was living in Italy. I pointed out that starting a conversation with one woman was proving to be a challenge let alone marrying four of them. Maybe the boy had some skills.
After spending more than a month in India, Sheila was of the consideration that Indian women were gorgeous and while I agreed that there existed a small percentage of aesthetically attractive women, I opined that the overwhelming majority of the female population was ordinary, or even less than, rendering the average unimpressive. She of course disagreed and had nothing flattering to say about the physical appeal of Indian men either, and as much as I loathe agreeing, she knew what she was talking about. We need to work out homies. Get some style going.
I boasted to the Latino boys that the women I rolled with back home (so many puns intended) were stunners, so naturally I was asked to produce photographic representation to that effect. Proudly, I displayed photographs of some of ma’ gurls, including those of many of you reading this (please panic, all your names and phone numbers were revealed), but surprisingly, excepting for one photograph of Shruti Hassan at an IPL game (that Aanu, my fellow SHFS devotee, had whatsapped me), none of the others hit a chord with the lads. I suggested to Rodrigo and Manuel that perhaps they were a bit blind but also partly blamed my ageing Blackberry and substandard photography skills. You’ll are all beautiful.
On hindsight we could have been more productive that morning.
Early in the afternoon the four of us walked to the Termini station and took the public bus to Saint Peters after Sheila and I booked tickets to Naples for the following morning’s train. I was third time lucky; the basilica was open to tourists and despite the snaking queue and baking square we waited our turn to be security checked and attire inspected (shoulders covered, no skin above the knees) before being allowed into the imposing church.
SFHS=Shruti Hassan Fans’ Society