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Cameron at the Basilica di San Pietro
2,000 years ago, in the early days of Christianity, the Apostle Peter (upon whom Jesus said he would build His church) went to Rome to preach. The Romans, intolerant of any religion that did not worship the Roman emperor as a God, crucified him on an upside-down cross in Nero's Circus. The site of this crucifixion became a secret place of worship for early Christians in AD 65, then a church in AD 313. Today, La Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square) is the foundation of La Cittą del Vaticano (Vatican City), the capital of the Catholic Church and an independent "country" that occupies more than 100 acres in the center of Roma.
On February 25th, we set out to explore La Cittą del Vaticano, a half-hour walk from our apartment. Our goal was to leave at 10:30 AM, tour the Musei Vaticani and the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) first, then walk over to La Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter's Church) in time for the 3:00 daily guided tour. This schedule was completely dashed to pieces by a series of unfortunate events:
We decided to save the Musei Vaticani for another day; and instead of waiting until 3:00 for the guided tour of the church, we would visit it on our own with our trusty Mona Winks guide book.
At the entrance to La Cittą del Vaticano is the impressive Piazza San Pietro, where the Basilica di San Pietro is framed on either side by 284 Baroque columns that reach around you like two gigantic arms. From this elliptical "square" one can see a granite obelisk brought over from Egypt 2,000 years ago, the Pope's apartments, and the roof of the Sistine Chapel barely visible in the back.
The Basilica itself is gigantic, running the length of two football fields (on the inside floor, there are plaques marking how tiny many other famous churches -- including London's St. Paul's Cathedral and Firenze's Duomo -- would be if they were placed inside thee Basilica), although it was purposely designed to look much smaller than it actually is. Originally designed by Michelangelo, the cross-shaped church and its cupola (dome) are ornate and impressive beyond words. As Rick Steves says, "to call it 'vast' is like calling God 'smart'." Highlights include Benini's bronze canopy over the central altar (which is actually the height of a seven-story building), a painting of St. Peter's crucifixion on the actual spot where it occurred, and Michelangelo's famous sculpture of St. Mary cradling her dead son, the Pietą (it is now housed behind bulletproof glass, after a vandal almost destroyed it in 1972).
A painting of St. Peter's crucifixion -- at the actual site where it occurred 2,000 years ago
After two hours of gaping upwards in the church, we called it a day for touring and headed back to our apartment. We were fortunate, as it began to rain just as we hit our doorstep.
We were not so fortunate the next day, on February 26th, when we went to visit the Museo Nazionale Romano. Rome's highly recommended National Museum is located across town near the train station, a long walk east of us across the Tevere River. We set out at 11:00 AM and got caught in several downpours of rain; it ended up taking us one and a half hours to walk there. However, once inside, we saw one of the best collections of early Greek and Roman sculpture anywhere in Europe. As usual, Rick Steve's Mona Winks provided a running commentary just right for the children, and we learned all about the generations of Roman emperors from Julius to Augustus to Caligula (commentary censored by Russell) to Nero, through the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Gail remarked that it was wonderful to put faces to the names, as we moved from statue to statue of the person we were learning about. The walk back went faster (only one hour; we were now going downhill), helped by the boys getting a pastry halfway home.
But despite all of the wealth and glamour that is the Catholic Church, despite all of the history and art that is the Roman Empire, Cameron and Joss' favorite part of the entire experience was running around in the Piazza di San Pietro chasing pigeons. As Cameron remarked, "If you every think we're too rambunctious, just bring us here and make us run around chasing pigeons. This is a fun place!"
Joss and pigeons
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