Saturday, 26 December 2015

Rome at Christmas, by Carol Drinkwater




I am in Rome. I usually make the ‘pilgrimage’ at some point during the run-up to Christmas. The street illuminations are magnificent, the shopping is deliciously decadent and hectic and the Irish Catholic child in me thrills at St Peter’s Church and Square decked out in all its Nativity glory. Except that this year the crib is not ready. It looks like a building site. When I asked one of the volunteers keeping the flow of tourists moving when they expect it to be on display, she said they had high hopes it will be completed by the end of this week, which will be past Christmas Day. It rather confirms the cliché image of Italian punctuality.

I brought my 91-year-old mother this year, a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic who never misses Mass and believes firmly in the infallibility of the Pope. As we stepped outside the great church, the largest religious building in the world, erected over the tomb of the Apostle Peter who was the first of an unbroken line of Popes, into the December sunshine, we stood gazing out across St Peter’s circular piazza with its towering Christmas tree and obelisk (taken by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt).



The Vatican City is an independent state, a walled enclave of 44 hectares, situated within the city of Rome. It counts approximately 840 inhabitants, including thirty female Vatican passport holders, which makes it the smallest internationally recognised independent state, both in size and population, in the world. Its monarch is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is an independent economy, a free city in its own right with its own armed guards. Since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, security has been more vigilant. As well as the traditional halberd and sword, these men now carry guns.

                                                               Papal  Swiss Guard at Vatican

There is no charge to enter St Peter’s Basilica but one does pay to visit the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. There is at least one bookshop – very well stocked with history and religious material, tourist mementos, postcards and Vatican stamps. The funds accrued from the sale of ticket entries and publications are, apparently, what keep Vatican City solvent. Its currency is the euro.

What surprised me was to learn that the Vatican City State only came into existence in 1929. I had assumed it would have been created during the period of Risorgimento or the Unification of Italy, which began in 1815 and was completed in 1871 when Rome was declared the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the role of the Catholic Church including the Pope’s status within Italy was disputed for 58 years until an agreement was finally reached and signed in February 1929 becoming effective in June of that same year. The signatories were the Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, representing the King and the Cardinal Secretary of State on behalf of Pope Pius XI. According to the signed treaty, the Holy See has “full ownership, exclusive dominion, sovereign authority and jurisdiction over its city-state”.

In 1984, UNESCO declared the Vatican City State a World Heritage Site.

Its genius and beauty were created by Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael to name but three amongst many including the greatest Renaissance architects. It is considered to be a continuous artistic creation as well as the seat of Christendom. This is why I return again and again. To Rome, the Eternal City, yes, and to the Vatican City because there is always something to discover, to celebrate, to marvel at. The long queues to reach the Sistine Chapel, a Holy Grail of a journey, rewarded at its end by that ceiling which never fails to astound, to leave me silenced with wonder. I will never forget the first time I lifted my gaze upwards and saw that reach, those fingers, that look between the two figures and a frisson ran through me which never lessens no matter how many visits I make.



Or St Peter’s Baldachin, the sculpted bronze canopy that stands 95 feet tall beneath the basilica’s dome and over the spot where St Peter is buried. Yesterday, there was almost no one in front of the baldachin when I reached it. I had the view of its dark towering presence all to myself – my mother was resting, perched on a great marble plinth nearby because all the seats in the church had been removed.



I took a breath and momentarily closed my eyes. Somewhere in a remote corner of the building a Gregorian chant was being sung, possibly a recording   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dlr90NLDp-0 and then I glanced upwards at the dome. Michelangelo's work, his vision, but he died before it was completed. Still, he dedicated seventeen years of his life to this building. It humbles me to reflect on this fact.



Yesterday was the first time I have ever been in the basilica when no mass was taking place. Usually there are several going on all at once with priests crossing the marble floors in twos – one to say mass and one to serve – intent on one of many altars. My habit is usually to walk from my hotel in Prati, attend the first mass of the day which is performed at 7am. At this time of day, particularly in winter, there is rarely more than a handful of attendees. After mass, when I leave the church, day is breaking. I always take a moment outside to watch the sun rising up beyond the hills of Rome, breaking in golden streams across the colonnades and ruins of this immortal place.
The surrounding beauty, a combination of man-made and natural, swells up within me like an injection of warm liquid, leaving me drunk with joy and the knowledge that, in spite of everything, life is blessed, magnificent.

Beyond this, I rush about the city, seeing friends, choosing new leather shoes and handbag, eating plateloads of pasta, drinking Prosecco, buying panettone, huge chunks of fresh crumbly Parmesan before making one last stop at the Trevi Fountain. One euro tossed in the gushing water to guarantee my return, although it has been out of action for a while due to renovations. Next time, I might make the climb up to St Peter's cupola and see the city from this aerial viewpoint, which in over forty years' of visits, I have never done.


Happy holidays one and all. May 2016 bring some peace and sanity to our troubled, angry world. 

9 comments:

Miranda Miller said...

I used to live in Rome, Carol, and your blog filled me with nostalgia. My next novel will be set there and I've been reading about Rome in the eighteenth century, when there were few tourists in summer as winter was the fashionable season. You used to be able to get straight from St Peter's to the museums beyond - no queues!

debbie whewell said...

You never fail to inspire me with your writing.As a Catholic,one of my bucket list is Rome ,and all it's beauty and history.But you brought the facts and beauty of the city wonderfully alive with your writing.

Grier said...

Many thanks for this evocative post. I felt like I was there with you, hearing the echoing voices, gazing with awe at the marvelous art, seeing the sunrise.

burstimage said...
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Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely. I've never been to Rome - maybe next year!

Melissa Bennett said...

What a wonderful trip you just took me on, it brought back raw feelings of joy and wonder when looking up at the dome. It is time for me to go back!

Mary Butler said...

How uplifting to read this - capturing an almost undefinable 'magic' - I want to go to Rome again...

Leslie Wilson said...

I visited Rome first as a seven year old and adored it: wept bitterly when we had to leave. It was the art and the architecture. It felt like fairyland to me. Returning 40 years later it was still as marvellous though I hated crossing the road. I was struck though with the power and wealth of the Vatican; what would Jesus have thought? And the confidence of that inscription on the inside of the dome: WHAT YOU BIND ON EARTH I WILL BIND IN HEAVEN. Or arrogance even? Sorry if I'm offending Catholics. My grandmother was one, so I feel entitled to criticise. I think Francis is a decent man but still so limited as far as women's issues go.

Leslie Wilson said...

The amazing thing about Rome to me was the bits of the ancient past literally built into the structures. ...