A Rome away from Rome

On Sunday I went out on my bike with the intention of filling some pages in a little sketchbook, pages that have been empty for too long. Somehow I found myself leaving Italy to enter Vatican City, inside St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time in years.

I live less than a mile from Pope Francis but it is rare that I drop in on his little nation. The few times I’ve done so in recent years has been in the company of friends from out of town, with the obligations of showing them what I already know. This time it was just me, with no particular aims other than getting some sketching done.

Since I moved to Rome the Vatican has become a logistical challenge. Security is heightened of course, but where there is mass tourism there is also mass commerce which makes everything a bit messy.

I parked my bike on a pole nearby a tchotchke-vendor who was concerned that it would be in the way of his van at the end of the day. I didn’t point out that his stand was on the sidewalk in the way of a million pedestrians. What was the point?

I wasn’t really planning on going in since I remembered long lines for the metal detectors from past visits. However, the metal detectors had multiplied and the lines diminished so there were only three people in front of me (plus one Italian who tried without success to cut in). In moments I was through security and climbing the steps to the gates of Carlo Maderno’s 17th century facade.

San Pietro in Vaticano is the product of just about every major architect from Bramante (who began the project by demolishing most of the Constantinian basilica on the same site) to Michelangelo who completed the dome and Bernini who laid out the piazza with the grand colonnade. Peruzzi, Raphael, and Sangallo all worked on it at some point. They went from centralized plans to linear ones, back and forth from Greek to Latin crosses until the building took on its present form.

The visit I remember most was early one April morning in 2005 when passing by on my bike I saw the lights on in the papal apartments. I knew John Paul II had been ill and something made me want to stop at the church. I was practically the only one there at opening time, but later that day the Holy Father passed away and lines of pilgrims began to form around the block.

On this trip what struck me most were the ubiquitous phone cameras. Today everything is a shot to be captured, usually with the shooter in the frame. I love photography and video, but making images is for me part of an experience, not a substitute for it. I saw many people enter the church shooting, experience the massive enclosure not in all its greatness but on their tiny screens. People seemed disoriented by the massiveness and sought reassurance in the device in their hands. Some were video chatting as they walked. Were they sharing the visit with grandparents back home, or just doing a FB-live? They walked drunkenly staring at their screen, bumping into each other.

In the past I would go right to Bernini’s baldachino over Peter’s tomb, and then to the same artist’s masterpiece tomb of the Chigi pope, but both were barricaded off (because it was Sunday, or is this the new normal?). I found a comfortable spot to sketch the dome, which led to the usual conversations including a tourist who asked if she could photograph me (at least she didn’t want a selfie with me). I drew quickly and chaotically in my too-small book, but it was a great way to see work of Michelangelo and Bernini in one frame.

At one point the guards began to herd tourists; I knew was a signal that something ceremonial was to take place. Would it be the Pope? No, just some cross-bearers and other clergy, but dramatic nevertheless.

As I exited the church I looked around again at all of the people, from all over the world. I imagine for many this was a major lifetime experience, and they were unsure how to take it all in (except with their smart phone, of course). For me it was just a casual and spontaneous morning outing, one of the privileges of living in Rome. It began to rain and I recovered my bike (practically buried under cheap souvenirs) and headed home to Trastevere.