Thursday, July 7, 2011

Vatican Art

I was surprised my wife had no interest in the Vatican Museums but after a look at St Peter's in 2007, duly impressed by the vastness of the Pope's personal synagogue she moved on. Me, I am hung up on the art and history inside the walls of the Vatican City State.

The Vatican has been collecting art for as long as there have been popes, which is a long long time and the collection in the display rooms, miles of them, is a tiny part of what's preserved inside the city away from prying eyes. That said the modern papacies have made vast leaps forward in promoting their collection to the people, Urbis et Orbis, as the Pope says in his traditional blessing, To the City and to the World.

I of course wanted to see the profane art, meaning pre-Christian but it was closed. Never mind there was plenty more stuff, with thousands of complete strangers vying for the same privilege.

At €15 a head my profane thought was they must have taken in a cool quarter million in devalued US dollars if there were ten thousand of us parading through the halls. It felt like ten thousand.

Conditions weren't conducive to pausing much and enjoying the art, it all rather got away from me but by by all means check out the official museum website to see really good reproductions without my commentary! though will get you to the multi lingual portal of the Vatican website. The official language of the Vatican is Latin but they are pretty hand with a variety of modern vulgar idioms

My favorite Hall is the Sala Carte Geografiche, the map room which lays out in a series of frescoes the possessions and neighboring kingdoms of the 16th century Papal States, including southern Umbria which remained under papal rule until 1861.

Corsica was shown upside down for some reason:

But the map room is just one of hundreds of corridors through the Vatican Palace...

...leading all the thousands of us...

...inexorably to the one true goal of all visitors to the Vatican City:

The Sistine Chapel painted over the course of years by many of the great names of 15th century Italian art at the behest of pope Sixtus who got the Great Chapel renamed for himself. The chapel got the finishing touches from Michelangelo and they took him a few noted years to this was not something done in a hurry. Nothing is when it comes to Popes. They tout this chamber as a sacred place and I suppose it is but we were standing in there shoulder to shoulder staring up at the fingers almost touching on that famous ceiling (bring a mirror for proper comfort) and the guards were squeezing through the press admonishing people not to take pictures "No Foto!" was the cry reverberating round the sacred space in a multi- lingual order everyone ignored.

Suddenly the desire for space overcame me and I got out and found an open window away from the flood of humanity and pulled myself out of the stream to enjoy some open space. Above the Vatican Radio, below a Vatican visitor:

It was a tremendous 90 minute shuffle through the corridors forcing everyone to at least get a chance to see everything on their way to the goal. In some respects it seemed rather old fashioned and paternal to force everyone to shuffle through in these long lines (bathrooms are available just before the entry to the Great Chapel to help improve the mood, no doubt), but the perverse in me liked the stodgy antiquated requirement. It gave one time to pause and step out of line and admire a face perhaps,

Or enjoy some of the more surprising modern pieces on display. In a world where we take less and less time to allow serendipity into our lives I appreciate the Vatican's old fashioned mulishness.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to peek out into the back yard of the most exclusive micro state in the world. 900 residents and an elected Pontiff for head of state. How weird. But the Pontifex Maximus, to use the Roman title adopted by the descendants of St Peter have a nation to run and a business to operate, and they do that very well too.

Selling dust catchers is a universal preoccupation in a world driven by tourism. I grew up a Catholic, as one only could if one was Italian, but the rites and mystery dropped away as the mulishness reappeared in the form of devotion to idiotic social restrictions that hurt people and keep them apart, and the contradictions drove me away.

I maintain a certain fondness for the nuttiness of the institution but in a world that seems increasingly uncertain I suppose the certainties sold behind the Vatican walls get more irresistible to people who demand certainty from a life that is by definition uncertain.

The human paradox made bearable by the immutable nature of Christ's representative on Earth. My wife's people are still waiting for their overdue redeemer to show up, on Key West time perhaps and recently we had the nutty promise of imminent Armageddon and then future promises of Mayan (of all people!) destruction next year so these walls better be strong. While shuffling through the endless corridors I overheard a young American woman, in that babel of different languages, explain to her equally Protestant friend, apparently, that "they" believe that "he" speaks with the authority of God Himself. Only in matters of Faith and Morals I wanted to correct her, but upon mature reflection I think she's right. Too bad really because like any walled city, the Vatican cuts the Pope off as much as it protects him, and his ideas on any subject to my jaundiced eye seems based on blind hope. Rather in the way they made us all shuffle every step of the way to the divine chapel I wonder what they expected us to get out of that forced march? Divine revelation? I'd like to hope the shock and awe of all that art will make us all think more about the reality of our lives but my pragmatic self thinks that likely for just a few of the thousands there Wednesday; for the rest of us it was a hot sweaty walk- but good!

-Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

July Seventh #3

Thank you Gary for letting me use this picture of the West Martello Tower while on vacaciones.Cheers to all, enjoy your July,

Tiber River

The Romans thought of it as a sewer outlet and as a source of water for the city's surprisingly efficient water delivery system. Modern Romans do their best to ignore it now that it is carefully channeled between flood prevention walls. I decided to stop the scooter on a whim and take long look at this ancient and valuable waterway. Parking the scooter was easy even on a slope. I just walked it back in to the space between cars, engaged the front wheel lock and the hand brake and walked away.

A couple of Romans seemed to be on their lunch break meditating upon e river flowing in front of them. They sat apart, unspeaking and ignoring each other, sitting on their private piles of newspaper to keep their bottoms clean.

I discovered an absentee landlord's temporarily unoccupied bedroom in the corner nook of the river wall. Rome has it's homeless population too like any dynamic city. Here they call them barboni, which I find rather offensive as it refers to their beards as a term of derision. Barbarians were a bearded menace to Romans and the word is the root of a modern barber who removes your beard for you. But I digress.

The river rises in Emilia Romagna 250 miles to the north and flows though my home region of Umbria where I shall be motorcycling this weekend. It was a major waterway in Roman times but the river has a tendency to silt making navigation difficult or impossible without dredging which doesn't happen anymore.

It's an unattractive shade of green around here and you won't see many Romans amusing themselves on or in it. Italians aren't much given to watersports not least because the fiscal police (Guardia di Finanza) have the unhappy habit of assessing taxes based on assets and not just on income. So owning an expensive boat might be a bit of a give away...But some people get out on the water and enjoy it anyway.

I saw another dude possibly on lunch break enjoying the water after a fashion. He was probably on the phone but I at first thought he was doing tai chi of all things.

My wife asked me about whether people live on boats on the river but I have no knowledge of such eccentric behavior. I lived in a house in Italy and never even imagined people might live on boats. I only took the practice up myself when I moved to California. I did see a river fire house moored to the bank complete with satellite tv dishes.

Legend has it that the twins Romulus and Remus founded the city after the she wolf plucked the orphans from the river and looked after them as shown on the shield of the modern city. SPQR incidentally means Senatus Populusque Romano, which in English translates as The Senate And People of Rome, by whose will all things were done in the ancient Republic.

Naturally things went badly between the brothers and Remus lost the dispute to Romulus as to which hill to build the new city on, and with Remus dead it was an easy choice to name the new city after himself, Romulus. The bores of history tells us that the city was actually founded by Etruscans along their eastern border but as no one knows anything much about them the she wolf story gets more traction in our modern short attention span lifestyle. For modern Romans the river is a nuisance...

...requiring the rushing traffic to be funneled into narrow bridges running across the thick green water that is not unfortunately thick enough to support even a modest little scooter.

It is an ignominious fate for such a storied body of water.

July Seventh #2

I will be home in two short weeks and the blog will resume in it's normal, ironic, detached way but until then our hats off and thanks to reader GarytheTourist who donated discs of his holiday pix to me to use. There are many jokes in the ether about holiday pictures. Not here not now.
Rain on water by GarytheTourist.

MP3 by Piaggio

My wife said a 125cc scooter would be plenty for our rides around Rome not least because when we were booking the trip a 250 cost about one third more at a hundred bucks a day. I rarely over ride my wife on matters fiscal but here I put my foot down. We were going to ride either a Honda 300 which I'm curious about as it is touted as the best scooter ever and is unavailable in the US, or I was going to check out the absurd MP3, the three wheeled scooter built by the same people who build Vespas.

The MP3 uses two front wheels articulated in a complex miraculous way that allows the scooter to ride just like a regular bike- once rolling there is no difference in the feel of the thing though getting going the steering feels heavy. It is nothing like a traditional scooter to look at, such as this Indian Stella, known in Italy as the Star:

The MP3 uses the same 250cc engine used in the modern Vespa GTS but with the extra weight and complexity one loses some acceleration and top speed, though it will still out accelerate all but the most determined Roman driver.

Even though the scooter has two front wheels it is not actually any wider than a modern maxi scooter with all the protective plastic paneling they use to keep the weather off the rider.It fits as easily as any scooter in the many public parking and illegal parking spaces used around Rome.

The MP3 which I test rode in Miami a few years ago always struck me as a brilliant engineering solution for a problem that didn't exist and riding the scooter has forced me to consider what it's purpose really is.

Given that there are quite a few on the streets of Rome I'd say they are a success and given that the 250 is the one I see most I'd also say I'm renting the correct model, at a hundred bucks a day that's a good thing. For American scooterists the thing to understand is that in any crowded Italian metropolis a scooter is a very effective tool, with gas at €1.60 a liter or $10 a gallon a 60 or 70 mpg scooter is the only way to go, especially when you consider the complexities of traffic jams and parking congestion which scooters sidestep brilliantly in the unconventional way of Italian urban riding...These aren't enthusiasts or bikers in any sense, they are just sensible urban dwellers who may even resent the imposition of a scooter in their lives with all the problems of helmets and weather and risk of accidents.

My MP3 has been ridden hard and put up wet in it's life as a rental and the suspension seems tired as we careen over cobbles and pot holes, the seat is hard and uncompromising for both rider and pillion (according to my wife), but as an urban discovery tool it is fantastic. I have found this weird scooter's purpose in life. It is simply to allow visitors to Rome to keep up with locals on local roads at insane local speeds. I am certain I would have either tumbled or been rear ended on a conventional scooter before now but this thing sticks to tram tracks, cobbles wet or dry and bounces like a bronco but it remains sure footed and under control no matter what the abuse.

It has ample under seat storage with room for a full face and a half helmet as well under the rear portion, or you can pack foul weather gear, guide books and camera accessories with room to spare. It of course has awkward helmet hooks so you don't have to walk around carrying them and the electronic key is a nice theft deterrent in a theft prone city. With the front wheels locked the bike stays upright and with practice you can engage the wheels rolling up to a traffic light and never have to put your feet down but I am not that confident in these road conditions. Nevertheless I have never used the center stand, I just lock the wheels and engage the hand brake:

In short this scooter has all the facilities you expect from a regular scooter, freeway speeds, gas economy, storage with the benefit of amazing stability. However at a price well above the regular GTS price of six thousand dollars or more why would one pay for this ride which has extra brake wear, more tire wear, lower speed and acceleration and a stability advantage of little use in the US? Because if you need three wheels to corner safely in the land of no tram lines or cobblestones I suggest you stick to cars and get a nice economical Yaris instead. Of course if you lived in Italy, land of ten dollar gas (and free universal health care) you would have access to astonishing gas mileage in a dizzying array of small cars. Gas may be expensive but people are driving- witness all the traffic jams! They are smart enough not to buy large trucks. And I'm glad I was smart enough to try out this machine on it's high speed home turf, and now I've got to go ride before I return it to an uncaring rental company, poor thing. I am quite fond of the MP3, it turns out.

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July Seventh #1

A picture or three every day until August, thanks to GarytheTourist. Believe me, I'm grateful to Gary for the pictures as I really need the time away from my favorite city. Riding a motorcycle, even if it is a BMW in the mountains of Umbria doesn't look like this:Cheers, Conchscooter.