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Europe: Italy Vatican City - March 18

First off on our second day in Italy we get breakfast, preferably this time, in a place where prices are visible. Google finds us a lovely little cafe, where we get pastries and rolls and I get a capuccino. The proprieter has the world weary look of a dad who has maybe seen so much, beaten to quiet, grim perseverence. 

Minutes later his son appears, tattoes all up his neck, and, while he was perfectly civil you can only imagine the heartache and shouting matches he's had with his son. Even with the various proprietors and waiters we've chatted with, some of whom have rather excellent rapport and well rehearsed openers, this man, who could not have said more than 5 words to me, illicited most of my sympathy.

We decide to brave the subway. Jets and sharks be damned. It, of course, is a smooth ride. Get the tickets, get on the right line (compared to London, the simplicity of lines here is a welcome change), and head to Vatican City.

It's just the media diet of the average North American combined with whatever stereotypes we get of Italy there, but I imagined a much more.. chaotic affair. Late trains, train conductors and passengers gesticulating wildly at one another, a donkey cart, for some reason, upturned and blocking the track, someone down an alley singing opera. (This too, might be one of the many strong contributors to the Italian coolness we experience from time time, having to deal with these mental expectations of the average tourist).

Our tour guide this time also has the slightly concealed bubbling excitement for history that I've come to expect in a tour guide. Vatican City, a city state unto it's own in Rome, is just absolutely jam packed to the gills with folks going through the Museum. You don't just have the Catholic faithful, but you also have the slack jawed tourists like my and my family, shambling about priceless artifacts and testaments to one of the great religions of the world.

Here the guide again does not shy from the ugly histories. Mussolini features heavily, Italian invasion of the Papal lands, and the retreat of the Pope to what is now Vatican City. So many sculptures and pieces of art that I know of, if not know about. All gathered under one roof. At one point the number of sculptures and frescoes, both from Ancient Rome, as well as from the Renaissance pushes my brain into tilt. That, with my inability to stop and properly read all the plaques I want to read, my brain is a cinder, smoking. 

And then all is quiet, we shut off our cameras, and shuffle through some windowless corridors, and make our way to the Sistine Chapel.

Without the mental crutch of being able to take pictures of literally anything, so we can digest them later, one is absolutely forced to remain in the exact moment, soaking in as much as the imperfect human memory can cram.

First off, there is a constant murmur, folks hear the 'do not speak' and 'complete silence' rules and, as humans do, assume it's for other people, or 'certainly I can whisper this one thing', multiply that by an absolutely crammed Sistine Chapel and you get a murmurration of tourists, gabbling as people do, maybe before a particulary high brow show, something involving violins and Russian composers. 

Even with the prep, even the preambles of this painting or that painting, there is nothing that quite prepares you for THAT amount of art. That most famous painted ceiling in the world. Right in the heart of the Vatican, from which the white or black smoke emits during papal election. Your eyes try and rake in every nuance and detail, but you have to know, deep down, you are unequal to the task.

The one thing that stays with me is how absolutely and utterly jacked everyone is. Nobody ever skipped any day at any time. Middle aged women reaching their arms out in one painting stil have a mountain of a bicep ready to crush, I suppose, heathens? And elderly woman, well into her golden years is completely flexing her bicep, her 40 AD clothes not up the task of containing her serious guns.

But aside from that there is a dynamism to every painting. It's compounded by two interesting facts. The paintings on the WALL are done by lesser masters, and not quite up to the Renaissance standard of human realism, they are somewhat 3D, but not the extent Michaelango is painting. The contrast is startling. 

And then there is the fact that Michealango was a sculptor first, and did these under duress. Every figure pops and lives in all dimensions as only a sculptor can imagine. The poses seem purposely picked to show 'what's the hardest ever pose to paint'. And then top it with the fact that his sculptor training can't be bothered to paint backgrounds, leaving them blank, further accentuating the dimensions of the bodies.

And what I was certainly not prepared for was the end wall painting, which was done by him, the Second Coming of Christ. Which is just an assault of form and drama and colour. It's not on the ceiling, somewhat etheral, so far away, so difficult to really look at for any length of time, it's the entire end wall. It seems like an acre of paint (and might very well be, actually). 

The tiny monkey brain in my head trying to suck all the details in, trying to appreciate every form, it was entirely unequal to, but what an experience.

Our tour ends in a building I"ve heard of, but really know almost nothing about. St. Peter's Basilica. Yes, largest church, etc, etc. But nothing really concrete.  I'm a lapse Catholic, sure, but apparently not a very attentive Catholic before I lapsed.

There are massive doors, and a flood of constant tourists/pilgrims, but once you get in... it's like everywhere you look is a far larger than life sculpture or mosaic that you'd expect to line up for a good part of an hour to see. But are just.. there. There's Michelango's Pieta, some incredible bronze St Peter's Baldachin (a bronze canopy larger than most houses), a piece of the true cross over there, St Veronica with her veils of marble flying free, in defiance of all physics.

On the floor are markers of where OTHER churches make it, in length. A bit of the Italian braggadocio. St. Paul's Cathedral only makes it here, Some California Cathedral only Here. And it's marked in marble, this is something that the upper leadership of the Catholic church thought it was important to highlight. Yes, yes, we get it, the Basilica is the largest church in the world, ok. 

But even with that, the spectacle, but in sculpture, is too much to take in. And, also, not enough plaques, which I suppose would be out of place in a church.


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