Churches, Catholicism, and Michel Angelo

From pagan temples converted into churches, to small chapels unexpectedly encountered in side streets, and the undeniably awe inspiring St Peters Basilica, the multitude of places of worship in Rome leave one in no doubt that this is the heart of Catholicism, and that the Roman Catholic Church was where the money was for the artistic community. Especially evident in the Vatican Museum. Which is a good thing!

So, I have spent the last two days ambling through narrow cobbled lanes, streets, and alleys, eventually finding most things I was looking for, and stumbling across a few bonus extra’s I wasn’t. On a side note, I was interested to discover the reason the street layout in Rome is so random, when they were so meticulous in planning their camps and settlements in simple grid fashion – it is chaos here in the Caput Mundi (Centre of the World), and that’s because after the Gaul’s sacked Rome around 390BC-ish, pretty much wiping out the city, the Roman’s rebuilt willy nilly, wherever and however they wanted. Hence the manically twisting and narrow streets and death trap cobblestones, excepting, as an example, where Mussolini bulldozed through buildings creating the Via della Conciliazione, a wide boulevard leading from the bank of the Tiber at Castel Sant’Angelo straight as an arrow to St Peters Square. It does give you a lovely prospect, but was contrary to Bernini’s original concept which was for one to be completely surprised by the Square as you emerged from the cramped streets of the Borgo.

Other than sore feet – how anyone manages to get around here in high heels beats me completely, my feet are completely battered and I’ve been in comfortable sneakers the whole time – one also develops the most incredible crick in the neck. The Pantheon is stunning in its simplicity and symmetry, the Sistine Chapel is at the other end of the scale, in fact off the scale completely. Seriously, someone should provide couches, reclining deck-chairs, or even yoga mats in these places.

Back to the Church. As I said, good thing they had the money to fund such wonderful art; the churches are positively seething with mosaic and marble, gilding and sculpture, and paintings, such moving and majestic paintings, so much so that you simply don’t know where to look. And here’s the rub – where did all the money come from? and why. I guess having been reading about the Borgia’s recently, and the general corruption and venality that has been rife in the Church of Rome through the years, I’m a little more biased than I would usually be. Is this what Jesus, or St Peter for that matter, intended? Somehow I don’t think so, the idea of buying your way into Heaven seems implicitly wrong, as does the concept that by wow-ing the masses with said demonstrations of power and riches, the Church brought more contributors on board. Imagine being a medieval traveller and rocking up here! You’d be utterly convinced it was the only way to go, and I have more respect than ever, despite his dodgy reasoning, for good old Henry VIII telling Rome where to go.

I get the impression personally that Jesus was more of a hippy than a Richard Branson. Ah well, as I said, the up side is that I got to spend about an hour in the Sistine Chapel in complete and utter awe at the prodigal genius that was Michel Angelo Buonarotti – and the same amount of time in front of the Pieta in St Peters. Not for the religion, for the art.

After two days of visiting various places of worship plus the Vatican Museum, I’m pretty much convinced (as if I needed doing so) that organised religion and I don’t do well together. I’m going to make a bold statement here – its a service providing business like any other, a highly profitable one at that, and should have the balls to describe itself as such. And pay tax! That would sort the Italian economy out quick sharp.

I did end up accidentally attending a Mass in one church. I found it filled with beautiful organ music shortly after I entered, so I sat down to listen (and take the weight off those poor feet). Blissfully gazing at the fresco-ed ceilings and statuary around me, I failed to notice a congregation gathering… and then a priest started up in Italian. Ooops…. hasty exit stage left, and I was enough of a fraud to obviously check my watch as I did so!

Enough. Thank you, assorted Popes, wealthy Catholic dynastic families, all other contributors, for a magnificent morning in the Vatican Museum, a wonderful array of glorious churches and chapels throughout the city, and most especially for commissioning Michel Angelo and Raphael, Bernini and Borromino, and all the other creative geniuses that built the wonder that is the artistic and architectural glory of Rome. It took my breath away.

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