Vatican City: It’s Full Of Papal Stuff

Previously, on “Steven and Michelle Go To Italy,” our peripatetic siblings checked out Venice and Rome.  What’s left?  The Vatican, of course!  This was our first view of St. Peter’s Piazza, a.k.a. Pope Central.


The archways on either side of the Piazza have a lot of columns on either side of the breezeway- they look like this.  Pretty impressive, right?


The way in to the Vatican museums was an enormous spiral walkway.  I don’t think this was the usual way in; they said something about the usual way being blocked off for some reason.  Anyway, this was a herd moment.


At the top, there’s a series of rooms, and this incredible view.  From here, St. Peter’s Basilica looks like a matte painting in a Lucasfilm movie, doesn’t it?


This was our tour guide.  She’s from Indiana, as it turns out, but she lives in Rome and works as a Vatican tour guide.  She has an incredible amount of knowledge.  The big bronze sphere she’s standing in front of is a sculpture called Sfera con Sfera (Sphere within Sphere) by an artist named Arnaldo Pomodoro.  Our tour guide pointed out that Arnaldo Pomodoro sounds very nice in Italian, but in English, he’d just be Arnie Tomato.  This amuses me.

Sfera con Sfera rests on a disk of mercury, and can be spun by a single person.  It’s heavy, but moveable.


I didn’t know this when I was in Vatican City, but there are actually thirteen versions of Sfera con Sfera.  I first realized it was not unique when I saw a second one at Trinity College in Dublin.  I’ll get back to that in a few weeks when I post about my trip to Dublin- we’re still in Italy.

Well, technically we were in The Holy See, not Italy.  Vatican City is a fully functioning and recognized country with its own police, fire, military, and post office.  It’s the only country in the entire world with a birth rate of zero. But I digress.

The thirteen different versions of Sfera con Sfera are all different diameters.  To give you some sense of scale, take a look at the bronze ball atop the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in the next photo.  Now bear in mind that the diameter of Sfera con Sfera is the same size as the bronze ball at the top of the Basilica.  Neat, eh?


Let’s take a break from the Vatican to talk about water in Rome.  Specifically, open water spigots that are all over the city.  There’s two or three in the Roman Forum.  They’re on streets all over the city of Rome.  The water is perfectly drinkable,  and the locals refill their water bottles from them all the time.  The locals also know that if you block the flow from the bottom, there’s a small hole in the top that turns it into a drinking fountain, like so:


Meanwhile, back in the Vatican museums, there’s a whoooole lot of busts.


I’m not really going to talk much about these next few pictures.  If you’re a student of art, particularly of sculpture, you’ll most likely recognize some or all of these.  I acknowledge that they’re amazing, but I’ve never had much to say about sculpture.  Here’s some really amazing sculpture, though.

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I mentioned that the Vatican has their own fire department, right?  Here it is.


The tour of the Vatican museums goes through the Raphael Rooms.  The artwork done by Raphael in these rooms is amazing, especially for someone who spent all that time learning to wield a pair of Sai while running around the sewers of New York.

This particular panel, the School of Athens, is my favorite.  Nobody is in this crowd by accident.   Dude in the blue robe all by himself?  Diogenes.  Serious looking man front and center in the purple shirt and calf high boots sitting by himself?  That’s Michelangelo.  Pythagoras is in there.  Euclid is there.  Alexander is there.  Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, all present and accounted for.  Raphael painted himself in, as well as his favorite girlfriend.  The depth and detail in this fresco is amazing.


I’ve seen Rodin’s work before, several times in several places, but seeing an original of The Thinker always makes me stop and ruminate.


You’re not supposed to take pictures in Michelangelo’s master work, the Sistine Chapel.  I’m a rebel.  This room is pretty incredible, though.


After the tour, we wound up in front of the Basilica again.  There were big banners up because during the Pope’s service the next morning, two nuns were to be canonized.  That is, they were to be sainted.  I’ve forgotten their names, but I’m sure there’s a Papal website that lists them somewhere.


The Pope’s altar is set up and ready to go.


Before we ran out of time, we took the walk up to the Cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica.  You know me and my love of tall places.  I have to climb.  The first part is a short elevator that gets you to this level, and shaves 200 steps off your climb.


From there, it’s still more than 300 steps up, but the view is worth it.  Oh yeah.

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After we climbed down, we finally went inside the Basilica.  The light does this amazing streaming thing that, once again, looks like a matte painting.


I was a little bit amused that the Basilica uses Bose speakers that are painted to blend in with the marble.   Very Popey!


No visit to the Vatican is complete without a few minutes spent marveling at the Papal Swiss Guard and their mighty multicolored pantaloons.  Members of the Swiss Guard must apply for the position.  They must be Catholic, single males with Swiss Citizenship, between the ages of 19 and 30.  They must have completed basic training with the Swiss Military.

They must also be able to appear dashing while wearing a black beret, and they must be comfortable with wearing a sword at their left hip, cos it’s there.  Hidden in this photograph, though.


I mentioned earlier that the Vatican also has its own Post Office, right?  Here’s the front doors.  You’re not supposed to take pictures inside, so you can only guess what I did when I went in to mail a postcard.


On our way out of the Vatican, I turned around to take one last picture of St. Mary’s Basilica with the sun behind the Cupola.   It’s a hell of a building, if you’ll pardon the pun.


Finally, to wrap up our time in Roma, we went to the pizza restaurant which, according to Trip Advisor, was the number one rated pizza joint in the vicinity.  Apparently, being number one means you don’t have to stay open.


Luckily, the place across the street was open and inviting and kind of amazing.  It was also called Henry Cow, which I kind of love.  I had this pizza.  Visible on the pizza are, clockwise from the 12:00 position: artichoke, mushrooms, an egg, prosciutto, and in the center, black olives.   It was absolutely delicious, and it was a fantastic last supper.   I mean it was a great last meal in Italy.


Have you ever seen the Sistine Chapel?  Is that the biggest ball of brass you’ve ever seen?  Have you ever had an egg on a pizza?  Is soy gelato still technically gelato?


Rome: It’s full of ancient stuff!

The Italian trip continues!  After my sister and I wrapped up our time in Venice, we boarded a Trenitalia train bound for our next stop: Rome.  I’ve mentioned before that I love traveling by train; Italy is no exception here.  The countryside we passed through was often quite pretty:


When we arrived in Rome and got our stuff to the hotel, our tourism followed two categories:  Ancient stuff and Vatican stuff.  First, the ancient stuff, starting with the Colosseum.  The Colosseum is one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  (Note to self:  See if anyone’s done research on the most recognizable structures in the world.  I bet that would be fascinating. And I bet I’ve seen a bunch of ’em already.)


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…and this is among the ruins in the Colosseum-adjacent area.


Don’t let rumors of the fall of the Roman Empire fool you-  they’re still hanging around:


For still more fascinating ruins, there’s the Roman Forum.


The stones of this roadway were very hard.  Since it was raining on and off, they were very slippery also.  It’s fascinating to think about just how old this walkway really is.


It wouldn’t be Rome without Vespa biker gangs.


…and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t go somewhere very tall to take a picture.


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rome Edition.  I didn’t realize until I started researching just how many Tombs of the Unknown Soldier exist.  Many different countries have their own variant.


The Spanish Steps.

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Trevi Fountain, one of the more famous water-bearing landmarks in Rome.  A traditional legend says that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain, they will come back to Rome.  I didn’t know this at the time, so I didn’t throw any money.  I guess I won’t be going back to Rome.


I particularly liked Triton and the water-winged horse.


The Pantheon is quite large.


No, really.  It’s huge.  Here’s my sister for scale.


One of the coolest things about Rome is that you can just walk a few blocks through the city in any direction and you’ll wind up in another cool Piazza or find another amazing church.  For example, we were walking between two things we knew about and stumbled across Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a hidden-away church with a big elephant in front.  Here’s the elephant.


…and here’s the interior of the church.


Gelato!  Gelato in Rome!  They even had a soy based chocolate for me, so I was pretty happy about that.


This pretty garden was another “just stumbled across it randomly” space.  It was quite peaceful.


I kept seeing these Short Buses, but I never managed to get a good picture that shows just how short these things were.  You can kinda see it here, almost.  They were hilarious.


It cracks me up that people will write this on a dusty car- the joke is the same in any language.


Next up, The Vatican!  Have you ever been to Rome?


After all the pictures this week of water where there really shouldn’t be quite so much water, I thought it would be nice to show a place where the water is supposed to be there.

In early May, my sister took a birthday trip to Italy, and we started in Venice.  I met her in Venice and we did touristy things together.  The weekend was intensely busy, so I’m not going to write a blow-by-blow travelogue for this one, I’m just going to talk a little bit about each of the pictures I’m posting here, in no particular order.

The airport in Venice is on the mainland, not on the island of Venice.  To get to the island, you can take a water taxi, a vaporetto (a sort of water bus,) a train, a land bus, or a taxi.  Wheeled vehicles can’t go past the very front edge of the island, so the most direct way to your hotel is a private water taxi.  It’s pricey, but it’s really worth it.  Plus, you get views like these.  The first one is looking back at the airport, and the second one is my sister enjoying being in Italy.

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I refer to Venice as an island, but it’s actually roughly 118 small islands connected by canals and tiny bridges.  The one famous snaking s-curve of canal that everyone knows is the Grand Canal-  this is what everyone thinks of when they think of Venice, and it looks like this from sea level.


We took the water taxi to the hotel, dropped our bags off, and headed immediately to the Royal Garden near near Piazza San Marco, which is a lovely little garden and a great place to stop for some peace and quiet.


Piazza San Marco is the largest open courtyard space in Venice.  There’s a couple of giant pillars facing the sea-  they used to execute people there by hanging them between the pillars.  There’s also an enormous bell tower that you can climb.


These long white buildings were originally official offices for the people who ran Venice.


The Basilica of St. Mark is hugely impressive.  The Doge’s Palace sits off to the right.


Inside the Basilica there are tremendously ornate mosaics with real gold inlaid into the tiles.  It’s pretty stunning to see.


Near the Basilica is a recently restored astronomical clock.

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You can climb the bell tower for a small fee, and the views of the island are fantastic from the top.  For example:

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Back on the ground, there’s a small canal where you can see the Bridge Of Sighs in the background.  It’s the enclosed bridge in the background of this next picture.  You can’t walk across it from the outside, because it connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison building next to it.  You can see it from the inside on a special tour, though.


Two very common things to see in Venice-  Gondolas and street musicians.  There was street music everywhere.

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In every city I’ve visited, there are street performers and buskers also.  These people pose for pictures.  Taking a picture of them without tipping is considered rude… oops!


The docking posts with stripes or colors are privately owned.  The ones without are “anyone can park here” tiers

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This is the stairway at the hotel we stayed in.  The office, check-in desk, and breakfast room is at the top of these stairs.  Our room was pretty near the bottom of these stairs.   We did a lot of climbing in Italy.


The famous Rialto bridge is one of the larger pedestrian bridges in Venice.  This one spans the Grand Canal, and it’s wide enough to have shops in the center of the bridge itself.


This is a Vaporetto, or water bus.  There are several different lines that cover getting around Venice quite nicely.


Our hotel was in one of these buildings, right on the Grand Canal.  I’m still not entirely sure which building it was, though.


The gondolas were very nice, and they were all uniquely ornamented.   It takes three months to build a gondola-  they are custom made out of eight different types of wood, fitted for the specific gondolier who will be rowing it.   The metal ornament at the front is usually a counterweight for the gondolier standing at the stern of the boat. Because each gondola is balanced for the specific gondolier, if the gondolier gains more than about 10 Kilo, he will need a new boat.




Have you ever been on a gondola?  Was it in Las Vegas, or Venice?