“No sexy legs,” said our guide, Silvana. It was her way of reminding us that Italian Catholic churches did not allow visitors wearing shorts. And since we were on a tour of Italy, which meant seeing a gaggle (plethora? flock? herd? multitude?) of churches, she repeated it daily.
We were a mixed lot — couples, mother/daughters, and girlfriend groups, ranging in age from 14 (a boy with his mom) to about mid-70. And the younger folk tended to wear less. So “no sexy legs” might have been the first thing Silvana ever said to us, as our first visit on our first morning in Italy was to the Vatican. In addition to “no sexy legs,” there’d be “no sexy arms” either, since St. Peter’s Basilica required covered shoulders and upper arms.
Patricia and I had gotten to Rome early the day before. Our hotel was adjacent to Vatican Square, so we’d taken the 5 minute walk to St. Peter’s that afternoon, to scope the place out. We even thought we’d pop into St. Peter’s for a preview, knowing that the guided tour scheduled for the next morning would be a quick run in and a quicker run out.
See the solid line of people, starting at the far left of the photo above and continuing up against the colonnade to the right? They’re in line to get into St. Peter’s. So no popping in anywhere. The last time I was at the Vatican — 20 years ago — there had been no lines. Also, no x-ray machines, body scanners and military police. Just a couple of picturesque Swiss Guardsmen standing at St. Peter’s doors. The Swiss Guards were still there, but relegated to an obscure corner off to the side of the building. We decided to wait for the tour.
I’m Catholic (albeit a bad one) and I didn’t know that St. Peter’s (started in 1506) is not the official seat of the Pope, aka the Bishop of Rome. That would be the Basilica of St. John Lateran, about 6k from the Vatican. However, St. Peter’s is the church most closely associated with the Pope, where he conducts services on major religious holidays.
Fun fact: it’s the largest church in the world. One African dictator built a Catholic church that has a larger footprint than St. Peter’s, but includes a residential area. The church part is smaller than St. Peter’s, so as far as the Church in Rome is concerned, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Ivory Coast doesn’t win the mine-is-bigger-than-yours contest.
Some St. Peter’s highlights:
Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498-1499): Two interesting things about the Pieta, which Michelangelo created when he was 24. One is that the figures are out of proportion. Mary is larger than Jesus, because it would look awkward for a realistically-sized full grown man to be in the lap of a smaller woman. And, for reasons allegorical, Mary’s face is younger than it would normally look at age 50 or so.
Pope John XXIII: Pope (also Saint – he was canonized in 2014) John (1881-1963) can be seen in his glass coffin at the altar of St. Jerome. I didn’t see them but apparently two other popes also are displayed in glass in St. Peter’s: Pope Innocent XI and Pope Pius X. A local guide (not Silvana) told us that popes must give permission to have their bodies displayed like this. But since John was buried in the basilica crypt when he died in 1963, and wasn’t brought above ground for display until 2001, after he was beatified, I’m skeptical that anyone asked him his opinion before he died.
Mosaics: The interior domes and altar pieces in St. Peter’s, which look like they’re painted, are actually covered in mosaics. They were made by the Vatican mosaic studio, which was started in the 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII specifically to create mosaics for the basilica. The artists currently at the studio are responsible for conservation, and for making mosaic items that are for sale to visitors at various shops around town. Their work is stunning but nothing that I can even think about affording.
Visitors can climb to the main dome of St. Peter’s, which I fully intend to do the next time I’m in town. I also remember being on the roof of St. Peter’s, the last time I visited. I’ll have to look into that.
After St. Peter’s, we had time to wander down the Via della Concilliazone — the road that goes from Vatican Square to Castle St. Angelo. For the Catholics among us, it was forty-five minutes to buy souvenirs in the religious shops that lined the street. Those uninterested in rosaries and holy water could still use the shops’ lovely, clean rest room facilities. Then it was back on the bus, to make our way to the Roman Colosseum.