Friday, May 29, 2009

The Vatican

Within a small'ish set of walls on the Western side of the Tiber sits the smallest country in the world. The Vatican City. This fiefdom of the Papacy is a shockingly impressive place. Approaching the vast Square of St Peter, you witness an architectural illusion. Much like the Taj Mahal, the conceptual balance of the place hides its scale – it can accommodate 250,000 worshippers. Only as you approach St Peter's Basilica itself does the vastness of the surroundings take hold.
St Peter's Basilica

This immense building completed in 1626 after more than a century in the making (and arguably a religion in the splitting – but that is another story) is the largest Church ever built. How do you get more imposing than that? I'll tell you how, by having every square inch intricately decorated. Decked with grand paintings, searing marble pillars and gold gilt carvings. For all this, I did not find it an inspiring space. Quite different to the square outside, the scale and effect is diminished by an almost tacky display of wealth (and power). It lacks the serene simplicity that man at his best can capture. All in all too gaudy for my tastes.

Climbing up to the dome is a pleasure. The giant shape hovers 120m above the tomb of St Peter and is ever so nearly as big as the dome of the Pantheon, completed a multitude of centuries before. Around, up some more stairs and out to one of the best views I have been lucky enough to witness. All of Rome in front of you with the snow-capped mountains behind. Old, new and everything in between. Some perspective in this most majestic and prevailing of Western cities. We were up there a while.
On departure, I distinctly remember golden light sheering across the high innards of St Peter's. I'll reassess another day.


I don't regret having gone to the Vatican Museum, but part of me regrets having paid for it. For sure, it has one of the most impressive collections in the world, but there was something of a bitter taste in paying a tidy sum to such a vastly wealthy supposedly "not-for-profit" organisation. When it can so clearly afford it, why not share these treasures with all for free? A gift and sign of the positive force the Church wishes to play in the world. Plus, neither of us particularly took to the Sistine Chapel. Seismic in its scale yes, one of the most moving pieces of art in the world no, at least not for me.

Out and away

Not soon after we left this mini-country, just about avoiding the temptation to post a Vatican City stamped postcard in the Vatican's very own post office. For a souvenir we took no more than a copy of the local newspaper, complete with surprisingly well crafted articles. For thoughts, the juxtaposition of the humblest of men being followed by an institution that, in the Vatican at least, so overtly shuns humbleness. Back into the hustle and bustle of Rome…we'll talk politics another day.
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