“We av four hundred churches, just in the centre,” said the gentle voiced Roman taxi driver. I saw five of them walking home last night and all were full for Mass, at 6.30 in the evening. Visiting churches is a wonderful way to mine the glories of Roman art, of course, but one of the strangest was a tiny little byzantine church in Trastevere, that felt like walking into an episode of the Da Vinci Code. I shared a smile and the joke with a pretty blonde Italian lady, who later told me she was not a Christian. In the intimate little chamber they were singing Silent Night in German, and men in black boots and monkish robes, with cross on their fronts, looked extremely bizarre. They were Heralds of the Gospels, one of the many orders that proclaim and defend the Word. It seemed to need little defence next day, inside the museums of the Vatican. The crowds were swarming, and 5 Euros seemed hardly much to pay to skip the enormous queues. The little hand-held audio guides, numbered to particularly interesting objects or rooms are very well done.
I went straight for the ‘short walk’ to the Sistine Chapel, little knowing it would take me through so many gorgeous rooms, especially for me the Map Room, and the chambers Raphael painted in his marvelously vivid colours. There the blending of ancient religious themes and contemporary artistic life was exemplified by portraits of artists turning up in the allegories, particularly of young Raphael himself, Lenoardo and Michelangelo, who was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the time, before he turned his hand to his extraordinary Last Judgement. I suppose it’s fair that the commentary has a gentle Catholic bias, especially when talking about those nasty, hating Calvinists, but the explanation of Michelangelo’s thundering masterpiece was very good indeed, though in my memory I had somehow rearranged where the Creation of Adam actually is, namely in the middle of the ceiling above you. I am afraid I scoured the walls and ceiling for any sign of a mouse, Michelangelo’s Mouse, of course, and failed to find one. What you do find is a work of the most monumental genius, a true agony and ecstasy, and a picture of Michelangelo himself, in the tormented skin held in the hands of one of his God-like figures. The commentary stressed Michelangelo’s own doubt, and there it is, incarnated, as if all this art, this allegory, this attempt to understand and embody, has hollowed him out.
What are not hollowed out are the extraordinary statues in the other rooms of the Vatican collection. With 1400 rooms it is the second largest museum in the World and, the popes have long gazed on and accumulated the great fragments of the past, from Assyrian to Egyptian and Greco-Roman civilisations. I wonder what the Greek shopkeeper we had met the night before in a bar in Trastevere, demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles, would have felt, but in its way it rivals the British Museum. I am sure there was a mouse somewhere in the astounding Room of the Animals, beyond the wonderful octagonal courtyard, beloved of one of the more classically minded Popes. Then there is the Circular Room where you see the monumental status of Roman Gods and heroes; the giant bronze Colossus of Hercules, and statues of Claudius as a God, Minerva and Augustus. You forget how significant it is that Augustus, after the Civil wars that errupted with Julius Caesar’s assasination, truly began the Roman Empire, and the raising of Roman military leaders to the status of Gods, just as Christianity began. Wherever you go keep your eyes on the floors though, as well as the ceilings, for the marbles taken from the port of Ostia, are often as lovely as the ever-changing ceilings.
The great courtyard of the Pine too is a place to escape the swarm, which in the Sistine Chapel is repeatedly silenced by officious guards or the sudden tanoy. But the feeling of that museum is pleasantly democratic, in opening so many remarkable treasures to the public. The only thing it seemed to be lacking was a Holy Grail, but perhaps I had already met her in that little church!