Saturday, February 25, 2012

Climbing St. Peter's

Along with the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) is one of Rome’s most familiar landmarks.  It is visible from all over the city, and it’s beautiful form is irresistible to photographers.  But equally fascinating is the view from the dome, as we found out on a breezy, clear afternoon last week when we climbed the dome of San Pietro.

St. Peter's Basilica dome rises beyond the Ponte Sisto and the Tiber River.

The building history of St. Peter’s is long and complicated (read a good account here), but the ultimate design of the dome is Michelangelo’s, though he died more than 25 years before building was complete.  The drawings below show architectural sections through the building and show that the dome is really two domes with a narrow space between them.  That space is where some of the stairs to the top are wedged.  

Above, a cross section through the Piazza and Basilica of St. Peter, looking south.
Below, a cut-away drawing of the dome, cupola in Italian.

Visitors are allowed as high as the base of the colonnaded lantern that rises above the dome, which is plenty high enough to provide sweeping views in every direction (365’ or 111 mt. above the pavement).  To get there requires climbing 537 steps and costs €5, though you can shave off 217 steps if you’re willing to pay an extra €2 to ride the ascensore (elevator) to the first roof level. 

Above, visitors crowd the railing just above the dome.
Below, the first few steps after elevator delivery to the roof.

Inside, in the tiled space between the inner and outer domes, there is a ramp  which leads to the interior balcony overlooking the central crossing of the basilica.  Above, the ribbed dome rises to the bright sky-lit lantern.  Below, far below, the marble floor patterns stand out around the baldacchino and the pope’s altar, with people looking so small that at first I didn’t even see them.  The mosaics circling the drum at this level below the springing of the dome seem huge and reinforce the giant scale of the whole building.

Views through the balcony security screen.  Above, the chancel holding St. Peter's Chair.
Below, the Baldacchino is just visible at the right.

Delicately detailed mosaics dwarf normal humans.

The 320 stairs to the top circle around, do some switchbacks and finish by winding up a spiral so narrow that there’s only room for one foot on each step and the central column is a stout rope handhold.  Along the way are some narrow slit windows revealing tantalizing glimpses.  There was a goodly crowd, so progress up the stairways was slow and easy—which doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of people huffing and puffing over the effort.


A peak through a slit window
These people are standing vertical,
 but the domes are sloping in.
Looking up between the inner and outer domes.
Finally we popped out at the base of the lantern, finding unrestricted views once we wormed our way through the crowds lining the railing.  I picked out the rampart over on the Gianicolo from which I often view the Vatican, and it was fun to pick out the other spots around the city that we’ve come to know.  There was also an all-encompassing view of the Vatican grounds, gardens and buildings otherwise hidden from public view by massive walls and closed gates.  When we toured the Vatican gardens many years ago, when John Paul II was pope, the coat-of-arms of Santa Maria were laid out in topiary plantings in front of the government building.  Now it’s the arms of Pope Benedict XVI.  It was a great day to take the postcard picture looking straight out over Bernini’s colonnaded piazza with its fountains and obelisk.  Off to the left we could see the elevated passage running toward Castel Sant’Angelo from the Vatican, famously featured in Dan Brown’s  Angels and Demons.

Looking south toward the Gianicolo.
Garibaldi's statue is among the gray, leafless plane trees at the left.

The governance building and piazza of Vatican City.
Below, the herbaceous coat-of-arms of Benedict XVI.

Above, Radio Vatican.
Below, the expansive Vatican Museums. 

The shadow of the cupola falls across the Sistine Chapel.

Looking east across the piazza and down Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber.

Old Rome, with the Pantheon just left of center, the white Vittorio Emanuele II monument at right.

After an unhurried descent to the rooftop level, we inspected the unusual views available from there—of architectural details, roofs and skylights and the statues ranged across the main façade of the basilica.  On this level is also a large gift shop where, among other things, one can mail postcards using Vatican City stamps.  And, this being almost Italy, there is also a typical bar/cafe.

Above, looking back at the dome from the roof over one of the nave side aisles.
Below,  a lion honors Pope Sixtus V, who finally got the dome done.

Above, lanterns act as skylights into the basilica.
Below, statues of Jesus, John the Baptist and 11 of the apostles look out from the top of the façade.
Peter's statue is elsewhere.

Afternoon seems like the right time to make this climb.  For one thing, the lines of visitors tend to get shorter later in the day.  For another, the sun is from the west, lighting up Rome and not blinding eyes and cameras.  And with luck a colorful sunset will grace a retreating view of San Pietro.


Monday, February 20, 2012


More than a month ago we started seeing sprinkles of colorful confetti in various piazzas around our neighborhood.  These were early hints that the excesses of carnevale were beginning.  The relaxation of inhibitions and the celebrations that result are traditional in many countries during the time leading up to the Christian season of Lent.  In Italy the religious implications remain, but it’s also a good excuse for a party.

Stray bits of confetti stick to a sidewalk utility cover.
In Rome the pre-Lenten activities don’t compare to the frantic excesses in Brazil or Trinidad, or even to the elaborate and colorful Venetian parades and masked balls, though there are parades and costume events.  But one thing every Roman can do during the carnevale season is throw confetti, known here as coriandoli.   It is sold in packets small and huge, consisting of colored paper bits that are round, square, star-shaped or amorphous.  By now, two days before Ash Wednesday, every piazza, gathering place, and sidewalk in the city is likely to have at least a scattering of the stuff, evidence that something fun happened there.

Coriandoli, above, up close,
below, scattered widely on piazzas and sidewalks.

Coriandoli means coriander seeds, and at least as far back as 16th century carnevale celebrations, actual coriander seeds that had been coated with chalky gesso—giving them visibility and a bit of weight for throwing—were tossed into the crowds.  The seeds when crushed have a pleasant citrusy aroma (quite different from the coriander or cilantro leaves of the same plant).  But near the end of the 19th century both triangular and circular bits of paper replaced the expensive coriander.  People loved the falling-snow effect of the new material but kept calling it coriandoli.  (In Italy, confetti are almonds coated with a hard sugar shell and are thrown at weddings for good luck, the egg shape calling up fertility.)

Italian confetti, candy-coated almonds, remain behind after a wedding in Ravello.
The most coriandoli we’ve come across appeared during a small parade Sunday from Piazza della Repubblica down Via Nazionale.    There were six animated floats, what the Italians call carts, that were expressions of free speech—satirizing some public officials, the European Union, and the new Italian government's belt-tightening and tax-raising.  But what was the most fun and put a smile on everyone’s face was the rampant throwing of coriandoli, while dancing to a samba beat.

A carnevale parade float with Queen Euro.
Some Italians blame the currency for their financial problems.
  She holds streamers that say Lacrime and Sangue, tears and blood. 
While decrying budget cuts and higher taxes that may cut the country's throat,
these folk are smiling because they are about to throw coriandoli at someone.

Giant bags of coriandoli in readiness on the float.

Someone just got a shower.

It's snowing coriandoli...

You can't tell that the little girl in the red dress is laughing, but she is, because she just threw a big handful of coriandoli at Roberto.  And got him.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Anniversary of the Roman Republic

Here in Rome we can’t set foot outside the door or even look out the window without coming up against history.  In our case, out the window is the base of the Janiculum Hill, the Gianicolo.  In ancient times it held the gateway to the Via Aurelia and maybe the house where Cleopatra stayed.  But its more recent history is critical to the existence of modern Italy and not far out of living memory.   We attended a ceremony yesterday that made me delve a bit farther into what happened in our backyard.

February 9th is the anniversary of the founding of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849, a major step toward the ultimate formation of a unified Italian nation.  The Roman Republic was the result of a popular uprising against Pope Pius IX, who ruled Rome as part of the Papal States.  Among the strictures enforced by the pope was the prohibition against practicing any religion except Catholicism or Judaism.  The pope fled from Rome, and in his absence a new constitution was declared which provided freedom of religious choice, the right to vote (declared grounds for excommunication by the pope), abolishment of capital punishment and other liberalizing reforms.  You can read more detail here

Pope Pius IX, 1846.
The pope called on Catholic countries to come to his aid, and Louis Napoleon, despite the French constitution, sent troops to drive out the upstarts in Rome.  The Roman Republic’s volunteer military force, with young men from all over the Italian peninsula, was led by Giuseppe Garibaldi.  The defense of Rome took place on the Janiculum Hill, which rises to the west of the city.  The Garibaldini, as they are often called, withstood the French siege throughout May and June of 1849 but were finally forced to negotiate a truce and withdraw after heroic fighting but overwhelming casualties.

Each year on February 9th there is a ceremony on the Gianicolo to honor and remember those defenders of  nascent Italy.  Yesterday was the 163rd anniversary, and we walked up the hill to observe the memorials, which began at the mausoleum and ossuarium built to honor the caduti, the fallen. 

The mausoleum. 

In addition to an honor guard from the modern Italian army and two carabinieri (military police) in dress uniform, there were veterans from specialist and historic army groups, some in uniforms of another time.  The bersaglieri corps (high-mobility marksmen) were easy to pick out with their distinctive black-feathered head gear.  Regimental banners and floral wreaths remembered Garibaldini from many parts of the Italian peninsula.  Also in attendance were several classes of high school students who were supposed to learn a history lesson in a more tangible way than in a classroom.

Above, part of the army honor guard.
Below, a veteran in an historic uniform.

An unmistakeable feathered bersaglieri.

The primary speaker was a retired general who gave us a wonderfully animated summary of the political history and the battle to defend the 19th century Roman Republic.  Then Anita Garibaldi, the great granddaughter of heroic Giuseppe Garibaldi and the namesake of his wife, appealed to the patriotism of today’s generation, telling us (and especially i studenti) to rise above the problems of modern Italy in the spirit of the audacious defenders of Rome from a century and a half ago.

The retired general and the great granddaughter of Anita Garibaldi, flanked by carabinieri.

After an enthusiastic rendition of the Italian national anthem, the entire assembly left the mausoleum, walking up Via Garibaldi to the top of the Gianicolo to lay wreaths at both the monumental statue honoring Giuseppe Garibaldi and at the one nearby for his wife, Anita, who was also fully involved in the battles.   

The procession walks up Via Garibaldi and...
 skirts an overlook with the Vittorio Emanule II monument in the background.

The monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi. 

Anita Garibaldi's monument.

It’s a bit humbling to live next to such an important historical site.  Not many physical remnants reflect the deadly battles fought on the Gianicolo, but almost every street in our neighborhood of Trastevere bears the name of a fallen hero.  We live on the corner of Via Luciano Manara and Via Goffredo Mameli.  Manara was a bersaglieri from Milan, Garibaldi’s chief of staff, who died at age 24.  Mameli was from Genoa, a patriot/poet who wrote the words to what is now the Italian national anthem. He died from a gangrenous battle wound at age 22 and is interred in the big mausoleum on the hill.   When I walk through the hilltop park, many of the fallen keep me company in the form of white busts that line the paths, putting faces to the names.  I don’t know whether the history lesson had any effect on the high schoolers at the ceremony, but it made me take a closer look at some of those statues.


Villa Vascello, one of the few buildings left that show signs of the 1849 battles.
The bust of Luciano Manara with others of the Garibaldini atop the Gianicolo.