An Excessive City

Rome (9 – 14 June 2013)

I paid more for a faster train just to get to Rome sooner. I knew that even a week was not enough to see all the sights that Rome had to offer and I was determined to make my limited time there count.

This trip to Rome filled me with quite a bit of excitement and yet anxiety as well. Everyone I spoke to about Rome would regale me with tales of people getting robbed. Every time I read about Rome online, I would come across too many warnings of crime. Rome simply seemed like a city of thieves. But at the same time, I knew that I needed to see Rome.

It felt somewhat daunting to walk the 2 km or so to get to my accommodation from the train station. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and areas outside European train stations are frequently unsafe. But I made it without mishap.

It also felt a bit lonely since E had gone home and I had become used to having her around for about 2.5 weeks. But it was for the best since travelling alone gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted without having to worry about what someone else thought about my plans. I thought I would need that freedom travelling in a place like Rome with so many sights to confuse me and make me change any itinerary that I might have had on a whim.

The good thing about where I stayed, which was at Cavour, was that it put me within walking distance from the Palatine Hill. That area was to me the most important part of my trip to Rome. It was the centre of a civilisation that left very visible relics all around the Mediterranean and as far north as northern England. I had seen a number of important Roman centres before but it was on this journey that I finally got to see the centre of those centres.

Roman Forum

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda formerly the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

General view of the Forum


The Colosseum is now one of the new seven wonders of the world. I am still not entirely clear what the definition of a wonder is in this selection exercise. Is it just all about national fervour? I had read about the mass voting campaigns in especially the Latin American countries. Really? Christ the Redeemer over Angkor Wat? And after having seen the final nomination list, I was quite convinced that “wonder” in this case actually meant “wtf”.

But whatever it is, the Colosseum is an important landmark in Rome and was definitely the most significant Roman amphitheatre that I had had the chance to see. It was quite a sight to behold particularly from the inside. All the others that I had seen so far were mere relics in comparison. This one is a monument.

Inside the Colosseum

Arch of Constantine

I was quite eager to see what the Circus Maximus looked like after all these years. When I watched that chariot race in Ben Hur, I made a note to myself that I would definitely go see the real deal if I ever made it to Rome. I was glad that I could get a very good view of it from the Roman Forum. It is now a public park although it looked more like a very long construction site when I was there.

About a third of the Circus Maximus

The archaeological remains of ancient Rome however are not confined to just the Palatine Hill area. Thus it is not difficult to encounter one on a walk through central Rome. What is more amazing however is that I have actually heard of some of the monuments and it felt surreal able to actually see them in the flesh.

Trajan’s Market

Trajan’s Column

Part of the Baths of Trajan

Random archaeological site


The Pantheon was much more than a collective noun in Rome. It was a real monument. It was built by Marcus Agrippa during Augustus’ reign between 27 BC to 14 AD and then rebuilt by Hadrian in around 126 AD. During pagan Rome, this was a temple dedicated to all the gods. It was a simple building but undeniably fascinating.

Inside the Pantheon

Pantheon’s oculus

Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been a Catholic church dedicated to Mary and the martyrs. I really like the idea of reusing ancient structures for new purposes, up to a certain extent. I thought that the existing Pantheon worked and in any case the restructuring seemed minimal. I am however not sure that I can accept putting together two entire structures from different eras together although not all of these look awful. Diocletian’s Palace in Split has been put to good use and it is an interesting place. In Rome, the upper portion of the Theatre of Marcellus is used for apartments today and it does not look awful, although I would have much preferred the theatre remaining just a theatre.

Theatre of Marcellus

Another ‘recycled’ monument is the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was first constructed by Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The popes began turning the mausoleum into a castle starting from the 14th century. The building is now a museum.

Castel Sant’Angelo

Going up the Castel

Inner courtyard in Castel

Somehow the whole concept of popes having castles is quite peculiar to me. I can understand that popes frequently face threats to their lives. Pope John Paul II himself was shot. But to actually own and live in a fortified residence like a castle is something altogether different. The Castel Sant’Angelo reminded me of the fact that the Pope is both a religious and political leader. Even today the Pope is the head of the Holy See. In the old days, the Pope ruled over vast swaths of land on the Italian peninsula, including all of Rome, and had a say in even who got to become kings in other countries. No wonder then that so many people wanted to kill the Pope. There is an elevated passage called the Passetto di Borgo, which still stands today, that allowed the Pope safe passage from the Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The Passetto di Borgo on the lower right leading to the Vatican City

The Vatican City is an independent nation right smack in the middle of Rome. It is a country within a city within a country. How special is that? And as if that is not special enough, the Vatican City also happens to be Catholic central. I felt some sort of electric charge in the air when I first stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square. Though thousands of kilometres away from home, decisions are made in this place that can have an effect on my life.

But the Vatican City is not merely a religious centre. It is a repository of Western art as well. I thought I should get a good head start at the Vatican Museums that morning having experienced Florence. Entering these museums was also an exercise in patience. But it was worse than queueing up to get inside the Uffizi as the queue here was longer. I started at least 200 m away from the entrance along the Vatican wall at about 9 on a Thursday morning and got in only after 10. I was feeling thanking my lucky stars the whole time that I did not have to use the bathroom while I was queueing!

Busker trying to earn a few tips from us poor visitors at the queue to enter the Vatican Museums

I cannot remember being in a place as full of magnificent art as this one place. I was then most recently impressed in Florence but just a few hours in the Vatican Museums made me feel like nowhere else in the Western world could compare. It suddenly dawned on me that the power of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was nowhere near that of the papacy. That must be why the Medicis even bothered planting their own on the papal throne when they could.

“Resurrection of Christ” by Pieter van Aelst in the Gallery of Tapestries

“Laocoön and His Sons” probably by 3 Rhodes sculptors in the Museo Pio-Clementino

The Hall of the Chariot in the Museo Pio-Clementino

In the Room of the Immaculate Conception decorated by Francesco Podesti

“The Fire in the Borgo” by Giulio Romano, Raphael’s assistant, in the Stanza dell’incendio del Borgo, one of the Raphael Rooms

Corridor in the Vatican Museums

The spiral staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo

And then of course there is the Sistine Chapel at the end of the visitor route through the Vatican Museums. Everyone wants to have a look at Michelangelo’s works in the chapel. However I wonder how many of them genuinely appreciate the true value of these masterpieces. I do not deny the beauty of the art. However, to my untrained eye, they were not any better than anything else that I had seen in the museums. But of course the chapel is the most popular room and seemingly the most heavily protected. Photography and loud noise are both not allowed in there but that of course did not stop anyone from snapping pictures secretly or talking loudly. I decided that it was not worth the effort to try to snap any pictures in there especially since the finger touching scene, which was the most famous anyway, was really quite miniscule. I got a postcard of that instead.

The Sistine Chapel however was also significant to me because this is the place where papal conclaves are held. Decisions that at the same time have both religious and political impact are made there. The thought of that did make the room appear much more impressive to me.

Besides the Vatican Museums, the other tourist attraction in the smallest nation in the world is the St Peter’s Basilica. I am not sure if there is a church more famous than this one in the present era. Standing on St Peter’s Square and looking at all the people milling around in front of it, I could not help but feel awed. It was just so big and so well-constructed. This is the face of the Vatican to the rest of the world and what a wonderful symbol of Catholicism it makes!

St Peter’s Basilica

Inside St Peter’s Basilica

Small dome of St Peter’s Basilica

Monument to Pope Gregory XIII

The Pietà

Apse of St Peter’s Basilica

I took the opportunity to go for confession at St Peter’s. I think the whole atmosphere in there was what inspired me to do it. It was a gigantic work of art and yet it was also a very spiritual place. A large part of the north aisle was closed off to allow quiet prayer and confession and was out of bounds to mere tourists. The guard looked surprised when I told him that I wanted to go in for confession. Ah the privilege of being Catholic. I did confess all of my sins to a priest whom I thought was from Hong Kong but could not help but take the opportunity to marvel at the beauty, and serenity, of the section. For some reason, saying my penance became quite an agreeable activity that day.

I was rewarded for my confession with a choral rendition of part of the hymn “Sancta Maria, mater Dei”. The choir was rehearsing in one of the chapels along the south aisle. They did not do the whole hymn but the short part they rehearsed definitely brought back sweet memories of my days in junior college and put a smile on my face. What a pleasant surprise it was!

Sancta Maria, mater Dei

Another sight that put a smile on my face was the Swiss Guards. Their uniforms were really quite extraordinary.

Swiss Guards

I wish I were allowed to see more of the Vatican City than the museums and the basilica. I really do wonder what goes on behind those walls and beyond the places where tourists are normally allowed. I had a peek of a garden behind the Vatican Museums while I was exploring inside the museums and then one of the guards started closing all the windows. It felt as if he wanted to stop everyone from peeking.

St Peter’s Square colonnade

Saints on colonnade

Vatican walls

Secured entrance into the Vatican City

I often hear people saying that Rome is the holy city of Roman Catholicism much like Mecca is the holy city of Islam. I have never been taught that about Rome in church. Much like how people tell me Catholics need Mary like a telephone operator to reach Jesus, I never fail to discover things about the religion I was brought up in from people who know nothing about it. Only God knows why people are allowed to teach things that they know nothing about. It makes one wonder if they are teaching anything right at all.

Nonetheless, Rome is a city hosting very important Catholic sites. Not only is the Vatican in the city, the only four Catholic major basilicas in the world are all there. St Peter’s Basilica is one of them. All four are also called Papal Basilicas and enjoy extraterritorial status as properties of the Holy See.

The very first place I visited in Rome was the fourth most important church in Catholicdom, the Basilica of St Mary Major, which is just a few minutes away on foot from my accommodations. It was good to be able to start my visit to the city in a prayerful and godly way, even if I would be cursing at all the stupid tourists getting in my way in the following days.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Inside the Basilica of Saint Mary Major

The Sistine Chapel of Basilica of Saint Mary Major

The Holy Crib

Baptistery of Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Baptistery ceiling

Apse of Basilica of Saint Mary Major

The second major basilica that I visited was the Archbasilica of St John Lateran. Everyone I have spoken to about Rome and its basilicas assumed that St Peter’s Basilica was the most important church in Catholicdom. They were all surprised when I told them that St Peter’s was only number 2. St John Lateran’s is number 1. How can that super famous church in the Vatican City itself be less important than the lesser known one outside it?

I myself was surprised when I found that out. Somehow it does not make sense to me since St Peter’s Basilica is dedicated to Peter after all and the Pope claims succession from him. Nevertheless, the Lateran Palace, in its various forms through the years, was the original residence of the Bishop of Rome from the 4th to the 14th centuries and so it made sense that the Lateran Basilica should be his cathedral.

I always consider the Vatican City to be Catholic central. However the papal throne is nowhere near there but in the Archbasilica. Should Catholic central be considered to be here instead then?

Archbasilica of St John Lateran

Inside the Archbasilica of St John Lateran

Frescoes in Archbasilica of St John Lateran

Gothic baldacchino in Archbasilica of St John Lateran

James the Greater by Camillo Rusconi

The Papal cathedra in the apse

The Loggia delle Benedizioni with the Lateran Palace and Lateran Obelisk

The number 3 church in Catholicdom is the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. This was built over Paul’s burial place and is located outside the Aurelian Walls, therefore “St Paul Outside the Walls”.

Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls

Inside the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls

Portraits of the Popes starting from Peter

Triumphal arch of Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls

Gothic baldacchino in Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls

Apse of Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls

The monumental candelabrum for the paschal candle

I did not quite make it to any mass in any of the major basilicas. I was hoping to attend a mass in English but attended one in Italian instead by chance. I was walking by the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli and thought I should drop by since Italian churches were usually so beautifully decorated. Minutes into my visit the bell for mass rang. I was prepared to leave but something told me to join the small scattered group of middle to old aged ladies at mass. I could not understand a word of course but knew what was going on. That is the advantage of having a prescribed rite of worship followed by everyone regardless of language. Now if only I knew what the readings and sermon were about.

Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli

Inside the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli

One very big reason people visit the major basilicas is because indulgences can be obtained by their visit if certain conditions were met. The time of my visit to Rome was in the middle of the Year of Faith as declared by the previous Pope Benedict XVI. He had declared that indulgences can be obtained by spending time praying in a major basilica and then going for confession and receiving communion. I had done the first two and was wondering if I could fulfil the last condition until I came upon Santa Maria in Campitelli. I am not sure that I had bought an irrevocable ticket to heaven when I die, and indeed I did not feel any different about myself after mass. But all the same it was quite an experience attending a mass in Italian.

After having spent a little more than 4 whole days seeing Rome, I am not quite sure whether I have done Rome justice. It did seem like I had seen the major sights, and I am sure that I had done more than those tourists on their whirlwind European encounter packages that so many Singaporean travel agencies love to offer and so many Singaporeans love to take up. I left the city feeling somewhat dizzy from all the excessive sensory stimulation. There was excessive history, excessive art and excessive religion. I had probably seen enough. However Rome is one of those places that give me the feeling that there is probably something else I really want to see there but I will only learn about it after I have left. Does that mean that I have to go back?

The Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain

Apartment building in Rome

National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II

Piazza del Popolo

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Tiber Island

Amazing fakir on the streets of Rome