I don’t recall whether there was an admission charge, but once I got through that gauntlet I rushed through the long corridors of the place as fast as I could without outright running. I moved quickly past, with just a brief glimpse of display cases and sculpture, through little rooms and winding corridors. I went quickly down a long high ceilinged hallway with huge stained glass windows on either wall and giant maps of the world made out of jade and other precious stones lining the walls between the windows. I felt like I was in some great inner sanctum of a place from another age, that exalted a god I did not believe in, a heretic. I finally got to the chapel, and except for the docent in one corner of the room, it was completely empty, and I ended up having the place to myself for about twenty minutes before the people in line behind me, moving at a more deliberate pace through the perhaps half mile of rooms and corridors to reach the chapel, started to enter the room.
My first take was that it was just a big rectangular room with windows up high along opposite walls like a gymnasium or an empty warehouse. It was the painted images on those walls and ceiling that transformed the place into something else. Every bit of wall and ceiling space beyond the windows was packed with different scenes and renderings making the entirety of the room so visually busy that it was actually hard to look at and gave me a slight sensation of being seasick.
Across the ceiling was Michelangelo’s Genesis – over 40 different panels, like the pages of a comic book, visually telling the biblical story of the creation of our world. The figures of God, Adam and others were painted very three dimensionally, so they seemed to hang in space above me. Even the separators between the panels were painted as if they were three-dimensional architectural features – pillars and moulding.
Then down one of the walls without windows was his Last Judgement, which was amazing in its scope. A single giant rendering of maybe 100 people, lifesize, in various small groups rising into heaven. The sense of motion upward conveyed in the huge piece was almost visceral. In front of this wall was obviously where the podium would be put for the cleric leading any kind of service in the chapel.
On the other three walls were scenes from the Bible painted by other artists. On one wall a series of pictures depicting Moses’ life and death. The opposite wall scenes from Jesus’ life. The remaining wall showing Jesus’ resurrection and Moses’ funeral.
Morgan had told me that Michelangelo, who was really more of a sculptor than a painter though skilled at both, had tussled with the Pope who had commissioned him to paint the ceiling and the rest of the wall area not already painted by other artists. The artist had wanted to do lifesize sculptures of Jesus’ twelve apostles but the Pope nixed that and Michelangelo ended up painting those “sculptures” high on the walls between the high windows.
The longer I stood virtually alone in the room the more overwhelmed I was by the zeitgeist of the place and the role Christian dogma had played in shaping our Western culture. I was in the inner sanctum of a religion that championed a God that, a decade earlier, I had chosen not to believe in after difficult internal deliberations. My neck started to ache as I tried to study all the detail in the Genesis murals above me on the ceiling. You really needed to lie on the floor to properly look at Genesis above you. Finally when the room started to fill with others I moved on.
The rest of the museum was not memorable. The best part was just walking down the long corridors through a disorienting array of rooms. As often happened with me, I loved the space more than its contents, and I was so pleased that I had had my solo twenty minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and was excited at the thought of sharing this with Morgan back at the hostel, and suggesting that he do the same thing I did by lining up really early in the morning.
Afterwards I went around to the other side of the Vatican complex to St. Peter’s Cathedral. I was stunned by the immenseness of the place inside, bigger than Notre Dame. I guess it made sense because this was the world capital of sorts of the Christian, or at least the Roman Catholic, religion. There was a canopy in the center of the Nave, with ornately carved pillars, which must have been 50 feet high. And the dome above the nave was so broad and high above the floor, like St. Paul’s in London but I guessed even more so. Also like with St. Paul’s and Sacre Coeur in Paris, I enjoyed climbing the various winding narrow staircases up to the external observation deck at the top of the cupola.
From that high perch I could look down into the piazza and Vatican City beyond it (which was actually it’s own tiny country!) and then the city of Rome sprawling off in all directions around it. Being able to see off into the far distance encouraged my mind to think more about the big picture of my travels. Looking down at the urban landscape of block after block of buildings and crowded boulevards out to the horizon, I realized that I was burnt out on “sightseeing”. The only thing other than going home that really appealed to me at this point was Switzerland. I had talked with some guys at the hostel who had told me about a place called Grindelwald in the Alpine valley adjacent to the famous mountain, the Eiger. They said the hostel there had a big fireplace in the main room and views out the windows of the town below and the mountains across the valley. Above and amidst all these trappings of urban society, of these massive human edifices, I longed to be in a simpler, cozier, more natural place. So I decided that after going to Florence and Venice, I would skip Vienna and go to Switzerland and spend some of my last days in Europe in Grindelwald, even just sitting in the youth hostel lodge by the fireplace and doing nothing for a few days, maybe just a little Christmas shopping.
That internal auditor in my head, that made those determinations as to what I needed to do to be worthy of my own and other’s esteem, saw fit to bless swapping out Vienna for Grindelwald, but also stipulated that I should follow through on the “Circuit” and go to Florence and Venice first. I mean how could I tell anyone I had gone to Italy but not been to Florence or Venice? And before I got to have dessert I had to eat my vegetables first! Hopefully Florence and Venice had enough about them to hold my flagging interest until I was worthy of retreating into the delicious snowy mountains, and I felt like this next week in Italy could not go by too fast.
Ever the compulsive planner, I recalibrated my timeline in my head. I would now plan to get to Amsterdam the 2nd of December, the actual day my rail pass expired – perfect timing. This I figured would work better for my departure from London on the 11th so the last days wouldn’t be such a rush. So I had 25 days left in Europe, and again I felt that they could not go by too fast. It occurred to me that my brother should have gotten my telegram by now. I really hoped he could get me that ticket to see Alice Cooper. It also crossed my mind that I better start counting every coin I spent to save as much money as possible so I’d have plenty for the presents I envisioned buying. Maybe I was crazy to use my money that way, but it would be so near Christmas when I returned and I felt I had such an opportunity to get neat things here I couldn’t buy in the States. I finished my day’s writing in my diary with the following observation…
I am very distracted these days. I think all the time about the future. I plan and plan and plan.
Returning to the hostel from St. Peter’s I got swept up in a big group of fellow backpacker types headed out for dinner at our nearby trattoria, which was fine by me and took me out of inwardness. Morgan, Jen and Sarah plus the two guys from Manchester among others. Everyone was doing the Rome-Florence-Venice “circuit” one way or another. Jen and Sarah were headed to Florence in the morning. The guys from Manchester had already been to Venice and Florence. I shared with the assemblage my twenty minutes virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel and was acknowledged by everyone for my cleverness in figuring out how to do that. After that, Jen, determined to steal the show, got up on her chair (and tried to climb on the table until Sarah stopped her) with her glass of the cheap, fairly yucky chianti we were drinking with dinner, and proposed a toast. “To all my fellow sheilas and blokes lugging your kit on your back!”
We all lifted our glasses and vocalized our approval in our best imitation of working class mates at their local pub, not something I think us any of us had experienced ourselves, rather seen on TV or in the movies. There was a part of me that wanted to stand on my own chair facing her and propose a complementary response, but even if I’d thought of a sufficiently clever turn of phrase, there was no way that part of me, that I could occasionally tap into to perform a bigger than life character on stage, could be rolled out to do so in real life. I did manage to catch Jen’s gaze and do my best nonverbal “indeed!”
The next morning Morgan and I decided to do the whole ancient imperial Rome thing. Jen and Sarah were off to the train for Florence. Hopefully I would see them again there. Morgan and I walked among the ruins of the Forum, the ancient Roman republic’s seat of governance, and Palatine Hill, where much of the Roman elite once lived. It was mostly remnants of the foundations of buildings with an occasional wall or archway still standing. Morgan tried his best with his narratives and big gestures pointing at structures that were once there, but it was hard for me to get any sense of what these locales had once been. It all seemed so small and insignificant now, amidst the huge modern city, though I tried to cut out the car noise and try and imagine the way the place once was, two thousand years ago.
We walked from there to the Colosseum, which though also basically a ruin, was intact enough for me to get more of a sense of the place in its day! The place was smaller than I imagined from its portrayal in movies like Ben Hur, a rather intimate venue for holding what Morgan said was 50,000 to 80,000 people. Down in the center of the arena floor looking up at the stands, I tried to picture what it would be like to stand in the arena looking up at crowd waiting for your blood to be spilt. Despite the wanton savagery of it all, what really appealed to the theater person and imaginative play lover in me was that they even occasionally flooded the arena floor to have mock sea battles with real ships.
Morgan and I found some food stores and bought what seemed like very inexpensive bread, cheese and milk for lunch. The bread tasted very different, rather tasteless, not like the good fresh bread I usually was able to buy. But the cheese tasted good particularly given the price. The chianti we were drinking with dinner at night, though inexpensive, was still making it hard to stay within the six dollar a day budget, so lunch always seemed like a luxury, and an opportunity to save instead by eating cheaply or not at all even.
We then caught the bus to the catacombs, and took a tour that lasted about 20 minutes. We walked down a narrow stairway into a warren of narrow passageways with burial vaults along the walls and a small room here and there that was used as a chapel. It was essentially a clandestine subterranean cemetery, where some 100,000 Christians were buried in five different levels, though we saw only one. For every narrow passageway we were led down there were many more going off to the sides into blackness. The experience was much more immersive than the ruins above ground, my imagination could really construct some sort of sense of the place and the religious insurgency, coalesced there, that challenged the more secular Roman order above it.
I resonated with the sense of that insurgency, even though theirs was built around a deity that I didn’t believe in. I felt like my cohort of fellow hippie backpacker types were in our own way metaphorically underground or at least under the radar plotting, when we were out of the older generations judgemental gaze, with our own kind, the reinvention of the conventional world as it was. We held a vision that we mostly kept among ourselves of a more egalitarian world where we were all comrades and freely moved about, making ad hoc connections with each other as fellow travelers, in both a metaphorical and actual sense.
I headed out that evening with a different crew from the hostel, two Canadians both named John from Windsor, and an American guy, A.J., from Los Angeles. Our goal was just to walk about and see the cityscapes at night, and the monuments in the center of the big Roman piazzas were particularly impressive all lit up. That said, the Trevi Fountain was a bit disappointing, with all its ornate over the top statuary, it seemed a bit full of itself and lacking any real purpose other than to show off. Though it was hypnotically soothing to sit and listen to the hissing water while the two Canadians told me the story of their ongoing effort to sell their car they had bought three months back in Amsterdam, because they were headed home. They needed the money from the sale of the car to finance their plane tickets home. More so than me, they were walking the travel tightrope without a net, and their easy acceptance of that impressed me, I would have been a wreck with worry.
We walked by a couple bars and found one we all liked that looked less touristy and full of locals rather than tourists, figuring it might be cheaper. It was interesting that with my intense frugality around my daily budget, buying a couple beers with my comrades was not an issue, it was part of the requisite social lubrication and sharing of intoxicants of our cohort. But breaking down to buy a raspberry filled chocolate bar, I considered busting the budget and a more difficult decision.
The prostitutes were out that night, a number of them near the hostel. They stood by the road in nice clothes and burned little pots of charcoal on the ground in front of them, I imagined both to advertise themselves but also to keep warm during the chilly evenings. Cars would pull over and one of the young women would approach the driver’s side and engage in a quick discussion, which would lead to either her walking away or coming around and getting in on the passenger side, the car driving off to somewhere where her services would be performed. Ironically, there was a police car in front of the hostel but the police there didn’t seem to be concerned about what was obviously going on within eyeshot. I wondered if prostitution was actually legal here of just unofficially condoned.
My three male comrades and I made comments about the “hookers” but kept our distance. We certainly didn’t have the money to afford them, but even if we had, we would probably have still been intimidated, in awe even, and stayed away. Though none of us were prudish or moralistic about sex or selling it, our young Italian female peers pawning their bodies for sex was part of that conventional world we envisioned ourselves challenging. We appreciated, or at least I appreciated, the young women trying to survive in that conventional world that somehow my generation would overturn with our very different worldview. We lingered a while by the hostel entrance watching them conduct their business. We saw several of them get into a car and head off but I was curious to see one of them return and see her body language after presumably having sex with the guy in his car. Would she seem diminished or be unfazed.
In my own inner sanctum of my sleeping bag that night, back in the hostel male dorm, I thought about those young Italian women still probably outside making their living as best they could, so beyond anything I would consider or could imagine doing. I also thought of the catacombs, the small dimly lit spaces crowded with fellow adherents of the religion of Jesus, perhaps the hippies of their own day. I felt like some sort of latent insurgent myself, the nature of which was still emerging.
Doing my nightly self check, it had been a good day with Morgan and amongst the array of other members of my own cohort. Tomorrow was Sunday and I decided I would stay one more day before continuing on the “circuit” to Florence. I’d stop at the American Express office to check for any mail and maybe stand in St. Peter’s square for the weekly appearance by the Pope.
Morning came and Morgan was up to accompanying me on my errand followed by a “possible peek at the Pope”, he laughing at my alliteration. But the American Express office turned out to be a big disappointment for me. There was only one letter, from my mom, just a short one, which indicated there should be several other letters for me, since she had told several other people, including family and friends, to write to me in Rome. I had been primed for a fix of news from home and confirmation that my circles of family and friends were following the progress of my journey. I sent off a quick postcard to my mom with a picture of the Sistine Chapel describing my encounter with the big empty room, and letting her know that I planned to check mail again in the Amsterdam American Express office on about December 2nd. Later someone told me that the Italian postal service was subject to a lot of strikes and work stoppages, and that sometimes when they had tons of backed up mail they would actually burn the backlog to help them catch up.
From the Am Ex office we proceeded to the Piazza San Pietro and were there in the big oval space with the huge cathedral on our left with several thousand others awaiting the weekly appearance of the Pope, in a little balcony about four or five floors up from the ground level, on the top floor of the Vatican office building overlooking the piazza. He appeared and spoke for a few minutes in Latin, though I wasn’t sure, and then chanted a prayer. His voice was amplified all over the square with a big public address system, and it was all rather surreal, the tiny figure in the window and the big amplified voice. There was some sort of Catholic clergyman standing next to us speaking English to this older American woman. He had what seemed like a Brooklyn accent, and was talking about how the Pope spent most of his time shut up in his Vatican apartment and wasn’t as popular as some of the other recent Popes.
My main experience with Papal politics was Tom Lehrer’s great song, “Vatican Rag”, satirizing the Church on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) where it was decided that Catholic Sunday services could be spoken in the “vernacular”, the local language, rather than in the traditional Latin. Lehrer lampooned this attempt to make the Church more relevant to contemporary society, by writing a popular song to make it more hip…
First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect and
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original
If it is, try playin’ it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate
On the way back to the hostel we went by a little trattoria that sold roast chicken and potatoes. Morgan and I split some potatoes, which were fried and greasy and seasoned with what looked like short pine needles! Whatever the seasoning was (probably rosemary) they tasted really good. We talked about each of our paths forward. He was staying in Rome to do more interviews and research for his degree work. I was continuing on the “circuit” to Florence and Venice. Morgan gave me a list of places to see in those two storied old cities, which I duly noted in my journal. But then I told him what I was now really looking forward to was not those cities, but going back up in the Alps to Grindelwald. He said he’d heard of the place but had not been there.
At Morgan’s suggestion we went and saw the Pantheon, which he said was perhaps the best preserved building from ancient Rome. The main rotunda was amazing, a circular room some 43 meters across and the same 43 meters in height, as he explained it, so it would exactly fit a sphere of that diameter inside it. The center of the dome was open, letting in the natural light, and the rain, and built to let out the smoke from the burning of animal sacrifices to the Roman “pantheon” of gods and goddesses. The dome was made with “Roman Concrete”, an ancient Roman building material that combined cement with volcanic ash. The pieces of the dome nearest the top central opening were made using that cement mixed with pumice, to make the load lighter. Morgan went into great detail on the architectural physics of the place and how the load of the heavy concrete pieces was distributed throughout the dome.
Continuing to play tour guide, Morgan walked me to the Piazza de Venezia, which was a central hub of some of the main streets in the city, a city, a city which seemed somehow to have more cars than people. We climbed up the big sets of stairs onto the monument with its long straight colonnades of pillars and stone balconies looking out in every direction at the sprawling city of buildings and cars. I noted in my journal…
Nothing like these buildings back in the states! I take them for granted over here!
My last evening in Rome Morgan and I went out for pasta at yet another trattoria with another big group of backpacker types. Without Jen and Sarah there it wasn’t as memorable, but we all exchanged stories of what we’d seen and done, and mine of my twenty minutes alone in the Sistine chapel was still the topper. I didn’t chip in for any chianti, figuring I had to be extra thrifty so I would have my six dollars a day to last me through until my flight back from London on the 11th of December. On the way home from dinner I said my goodbyes to Morgan and wished him success on his research and the completion of his masters.
Though I had really connected with Morgan during our three days together, I did not make any effort to try and stay in touch with him, get or give him an address to write to. This had emerged as a pattern with me. Over the previous three years, with a lot of my theater group comrades that I had had very intense experiences with in the course of working on a particular play together, when the play was over I would mostly not make any effort to keep the relationship going. Being shy, but also craving at least platonic emotional intimacy with other people, I found sharing intense projects or experiences with others a very robust environment for those moments of deep connection. But once that intense context was gone, I did not feel the connection could be reestablished, or else I was too shy to do the work to create a new context to reestablish such an intense connection with that person. (Forty years later this still seems to be the way I am.)
The next morning I left the hostel on my own again for the station and the train to Florence. As I waited for the train I devoured a big loaf of fresh baked bread I had bought at a bakery along the way. Filled with a belly full of comfort food, but also lots of conflicting emotions from my time in the Italian capital and imperial city of an ancient empire, a song lyric came to my mind. This time it was not one of that array of other people’s songs that seemed to spring out of my subconscious based on the situation, but my own invented words. I quickly put a simple tune to it and sang it over and over to myself in a whisper…
[verse] I want to see those faces glad
I want to see my mom and dad
To feel accomplishment and then
The mellowness of home
[chorus] Rome, I got nothing to say
Ro-ome, I got nothing to say
Rome, I got nothing to say alone
Later after boarding the train, the song still monopolizing my mind’s ear, I cobbled together a less poetic more consciously constructed second verse…
[verse] A part of life I did not see
All those people who love me
I need them and they need me
I gotta get back home
[chorus] Ro-o-ome, I got nothing to say
Ro-o-ome, I got nothing to say
Ro-o-ome, I got nothing to say… alone
The chorus after the second verse was sung more boisterously than the first, climbing up the scale while singing the word “Rome”.