At the Glittering Vatican, All Is Gold

By William J. Furney

Men in high-vis jackets walk up and down the aeroplane aisle, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the delayed flight before we take off. A while later, it’s decided there’s an issue with lights, and we, the puzzled passengers, are told to disembark and get onto a standby plane that’s conveniently beside us. “It will take a while to warm up the engines and get them going,” a steward says. 

A few hours later, we are descending into Ciampino Airport in Rome, one of two airports in the Italian capital, the other the larger and main Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. It’s around midnight and there are no more public services (buses) into the city, which is around 15 kilometres away. A sole, sad taxi rank outside the small airport is lined with people praying for cabs that do not come. There is nothing else to do but join them. 

And then, almost before I know what’s happening, a taxi pulls up and the driver starts shepherding startled people, including me, into the vehicle. I find myself in the front and there are three in the back who seemingly are meeting for the first time. No one is in the mood for chitchat; I try, with my fellow passengers, and fail.

“It’s more expensive to take you inside the wall,” the frantic driver says as he speeds us away from the airport and down dark countryside-like streets lined with spindly trees. He’s referring to the ancient  Aurelian Walls surrounding the central part of the Italian capital — built between 271 AD and 275 AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperors Aurelian and Probus and designed to keep barbarian invaders out — but none of us care about cost; we just want to sleep. 

One by one, the driver drops us off at our locations, and when it’s my turn, I ask him how much. “It’s up to you,” he says, and I haven’t a clue, but then he mentions a figure and I gladly hand over the euros and realise the entrepreneurial driver has made a packet on this multi-passenger trip. 

Fried, by the Vatican

My apartment is just down the street from the Vatican, the smallest country in the world and a city inside a city — and Roman Catholic Church HQ. The population is a mere circa 800, mostly comprised of priests and those kaleidoscopic Swiss Guards (and, of course, Il Papa); and no matter your religion, or even if you’re not a believer, the imposing St. Peter’s Basilica and its expansive square is a mesmerising attraction for tourists seeing the sights of Rome. 

One of the first notable things that happened on this trip was my laptop died and could not be resurrected; I suspected a power surge was the culprit. There was no possibility of an electronic Lazarus occuring, and my unpublished travel piece on Amsterdam died along with the fried hard drive (I recently gave it new life by rewriting it from scratch).

Then, while out running one Sunday morning, police barricades protecting the pontiff, who was soon to give a mass, meant I couldn’t get back to my flat, and so I ran around in circles for ages, before the cops eventually let me pass. I had enjoyed running on a low path alongside the Tiber river — a route popular with other runners — and the uplifting views of the slow-moving waterway that winds through Rome. 

After the security blip, I got back to my flat in time to change, have breakfast and make it to thronged St. Peter’s Square in time to see a beaming Pope Francis circling around in the popemobile. I am not Catholic, nor religious, and I think the rolling priestly sex abuse scandals have done the church an enormous amount of harm, but I admire the current pope. He’s frugal — shunning the luxury of former pontiffs and opting for simple digs instead — and appears humble, down-to-earth and relatable. 

Holy Show: The celebrity status of popes means they transcend religion and draw big crowds. (Photo: William J. Furney)

If the Catholic Church specialises in anything (besides the obvious), it’s putting on a glitzy show. The Vatican, after all, is famously opulent. But outside the gilded halls, I found many people begging, and many unwilling to give them anything. One morning I looked on as a corpulent bishop came wading past a beggarwoman, dismissing her with a flick of his fat hand when she appealed for something. 

What would Jesus have said?

A Showy Vatican Spectacle

“Skip the queues!”, a VIP Vatican tour advertised, and I weighed the options of spending hours in line or paying a lot more to get straight into the various parts of the Vatican. I chose the latter, as I was also planning to take the train to Firenze (Florence) to see Michaelangelo’s towering David — on a later trip to Italy, I would also view the Italian Renaissance giant’s Last Supper, in Milan. And so I paid at a ticket office off to one side of St. Peter’s Square and joined a small group on our walking tour of the Vatican’s splendours. 

There were no queues. 

But there was plenty of glitz. 

So much gold leaf adorned the high-art ceiling of the Gallery of Maps that you practically needed sunglasses to look at it. 

Gilded: The ornate ceiling of the Vatican’s Gallery of Maps. (Photo: William J. Furney) 

In the tiny Sistine Chapel, crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder tourists — and guards to prevent photographs being taken — all eyes were heavenwards, gazing at Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Arguably one of the most famous works of art of all time, along with The Last Supper, the ceiling fresco depicts a bearded God about to touch Adam and spark life into humankind. 

The snapping itch proved too much for a woman near me and she whipped out her phone and shot Adam — only to receive a roar of “No photographs!” from one of the guards. 

Similarly gripped by a compulsion to capture the holy creation for myself, as if the work had never before been imaged, I also went for it, although I held my phone at waist level, pointed it upwards and snapped. 

In the silent chamber, the shutter sound of my phone’s camera ricocheted up, outwards and off the walls. I had neglected to put the device on silent mode. The daring and prohibited act did not earn me a guardly rebuke. And all I got was a blur. 

Forbidden Fruit: A clandestine photo inside the Sistine Chapel, showing a blur of Renaissance masterpieces but not the Creation of Adam. (Photo: William J. Furney) 

Later, and almost at the end of a tour that included various museums featuring statues and artefacts, I meandered around cavernous St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, stopping at numerous chapels for a glance at the faithful in prayer and a look at the “incorruptibles” — the bodies of former popes that did not decay after death and are therefore considered extra-holy, or even divine. 

Preserved: The body of a pope, in St. Peter’s Basilica, which has not undergone the decaying process and is a “miracle”, the Vatican says. (Photo: William J. Furney) 

In a gift shop off to one side of the basilica, I bought a silver ring with a prayer in Latin inscribed around it. And outside, on steps overlooking the square, a furious-looking crow perched directly in front of me, glared and gave a long screech, like it was possessed and mocking: a symbol, perhaps, of the eternal struggle between good and evil. 

Scenes from St. Peter’s Basilica. (Photography: William J. Furney)

* * * * * *

The high-speed train whisked me to Florence, around 230 kilometres north of Rome, in about an hour and a half. La Galleria dell’Accademia was a short walk from the train station, past the distinctive Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and its white, pink and green marble facade, but the entrance was so nondescript that I walked past it. It was only when I saw a small queue forming at the small door that I realised it was the museum and home of Michaelangelo’s David. 

The museum houses the usual kind of Renaissance paintings and other works, with a spotlight on leading Florentine artists of the time, including Giotto, Andrea Orcagna and Agnolo Gaddi. Wandering through the collections, you got the sense that visitors were just paying them scant respect, by briefly stopping and viewing, before getting to the main event. It certainly felt like being at a rock concert and impatient listening to the warm-up acts. 

Turning a corner into a sort of main hall and seeing the giant marble man in the distance was an arresting sight. David towers 17 feet above his plinth, and it’s sad, if not pathetic, to think that this masterpiece and celebration of the human form that was created over 500 years ago is a cause of shame for some. Earlier this year, prudish parents in Florida forced the resignation of a teacher at a Catholic school who showed images of the classical David to her students. It was, said the numbskull parents, “pornographic”; one even said she was “point-blank upset” about the pupils’ viewing of a naked man portrayed in stone. 

“To think that David could be pornographic means truly not understanding the contents of the Bible, not understanding Western culture and not understanding Renaissance art,” museum director Cecilie Hollberg said.

Indeed, and during my viewing, people lingered for long spells around David, marvelling at this wonder of artistic achievement that has fascinated people through the ages. Those daft American parents should get themselves back to school. 

Masterpiece: Michelangelo’s David, at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Back in Rome, I toured the central parts of the Eternal City, and saw the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and collections of ruins that once were part of the empire. I met my friend Fabio on the Spanish Steps — the famous meeting point in Rome where it’s since been outlawed to sit on them — and we went to a nearby cafe. Fabio downed his espresso in one, as Italians do, while I gulped at my steaming and much larger Americano, foolishly thinking we would be lingering and chatting, not knocking it back and going. 

“I have espresso a few times a day at Italian cafes; they’re a good place to meet people too,” Fabio said as we strolled the old streets with their cracked-plaster buildings. 

“They look like they’re crumbling and in need of repair,” I observed of shops and hotels in one narrow, cobbled street, “but actually they’re perfect.”

It was a November evening in Rome, and we watched the city from an open-air restaurant on a hill as we sipped vino rosso and the chill set in. There are few finer places. Later, and inspired by this trip and the gold of the Vatican, I painted this:

  • Title photograph by William J. Furney.

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