Pilgrims from the world's farthest reaches come to Vatican City, ground zero for much of christianity. But at the start of the first millennium, Rome was a little different for followers of Christ.
As we stand in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica on a warm Roman morning, let’s consider some facts. In the first century after Jesus’ death, this place, Rome, belonged not to Christ’s followers but to the Empire. Now, no matter how we feel about Christianity, we should be agreed: Caligula was a bad guy; Nero was a bad guy. They were among those in charge as the disciples Paul and Peter were traveling about, preaching Christ’s word, building a church. When Caligula ascended to the Roman throne in A.D. 37, it was mortally perilous to be a publicly avowed Christian. When Nero succeeded Claudius in A.D. 54, things went from bad to worse for Christians.
On the hillside here, Caligula built a "circus"—an oval amphitheater, a forerunner of the Colosseum—where the psychopath greatly enjoyed watching competitions, tortures, and executions. Nero had his fun at the circus as well. The centerpiece of the circus was a 135-foot-high obelisk that had been brought from Egypt.
Those are facts. Now we start dealing in tradition, which is important, though rarely as important as either fact or faith.
Did Peter preach in Rome? He may have. He may then have fled Nero’s persecutions, may have encountered Jesus on the road, may have asked, Domine, quo vadis? ("Lord, where are you going?"), may have heard in reply, "I am coming to be crucified again," may have returned to Rome to face his own martyrdom. Peter may have been crucified in the circus, near the obelisk, and may have eventually been buried nearby, as many Christians believe.
Peter’s real name was Simon, though Jesus called him "Cephas," the Aramaic equivalent of "Peter," from petra, or "rock." Christ once said to his fisherman friend, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."
Is this, metaphorically, the rock? I am standing beside a plaque in the shadow of the southern shoulder of the basilica. Here is where they placed the Egyptian obelisk in Caligula’s circus. Here, perhaps, is where they nailed Peter to the cross. I can see the obelisk from where I stand; it is now the centerpiece of the splendid piazza that fronts the basilica, and is now topped by a cross made of iron in which, it is said, resides a relic of the true cross. That pillar crystallizes the history of Christianity in this place. The Church seems to be saying: This once was theirs, now it is ours. Or, rather, God’s.
In Peter and Paul’s wake rose Christianity and, later, Roman Catholicism, a faith that is a billion members strong at the end of the second millennium. Today, pilgrims from the world’s far reaches come here—to Rome generally and specifically to the Vatican. This day, I am among them.
What is the Vatican, anyway? A building? A suburb?
Actually, it is a nation, and has been since 1929 when Benito Mussolini, of all people, signed the Lateran Treaty creating a separate city-state adjacent to Rome and finally stabilizing Catholicism’s base of operations. In the first centuries after Jesus, Christianity was a scuffling movement of no fixed address, pushed along in some neighborhoods, fed to lions in others. But Christ’s philosophy had undeniable appeal, and his crusade persevered until, with circumstances altered, it prospered. Early in the 4th century, on the very spot where previous emperors had ordered Christians put to death, Constantine I, swayed by prevailing winds, allowed the building of a great church. The 4th-century St. Peter’s Basilica would last more than a thousand years, and would be replaced in the 16th century by an even grander cathedral, also named for Peter, designed in part by a local artisan of some small repute—a fellow named Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The basilica’s dome represents Michelangelo’s second most famous space at the Vatican. The first is, in the modern era, part of "the museums."
The Vatican Museums are a series of galleries, apartments, and chapels interlinked. Room after room of marvels rolls out as you walk this symphony of buildings. The sublime sculpture in the Gallery of the Candelabra, the vivid cloths in the Gallery of Tapestries, the exquisite vases in the Etruscan Museum, the brilliantly colored ancient maps in the Gallery of Maps, and all the paintings, paintings, paintings: Caravaggio, Leonardo, Van Dyck; a host of crucifixions, resurrections, last suppers, and glorious battle scenes. A tour of these museums would prove moving to anyone, but I think it’s tough on a Catholic. During a sotto voce movement in the museum symphony, I find myself thinking, Who paid for all this stuff? What are we celebrating in these war pictures? Hasn’t John Paul II stressed that Catholicism "cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors"?
My troubled mind is calmed as I come upon the Raphaels. They arrive late in the symphony, as the music is soaring to a climax. School of Athens,larger than I’d expected, is vibrant—and fun: Raphael himself peeking out, stage right, by way of signature; Michelangelo pondering, left forefront, in what was intended as a tribute. When Raphael was working in this room, he would saunter to the Sistine Chapel to see what his senior colleague was up to. So impressed was he that he placed Michelangelo prominently in Athens.
I saunter to the chapel myself. I enter the Sistine, and the miraculous colors come into focus from the far end, 40 yards away. My gaze sweeps left, right, and then up to God’s finger touching man’s. Stunning. I walk the chapel slowly; I spend an hour in it. Then I turn and confront, on the altar wall, The Last Judgment.Extraordinary. Its narrative power is trumped only by its majesty. There have been comments about the latest cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes, with some experts saying too much was removed, others insisting that the colors aren’t precisely true. I don’t have so refined an eye that I could presume to know. I can say this: The art is overwhelming.
The Vatican Museums close at 3:45 and St. Peter’s not until 7, so I return there. Entering, I barely glance at the Pietà—I’m Michelangelo’ed out for today—but move past the grand papal altar to the inner chapels. The museums have put me in a penitent frame of mind. I enter the austere confessional, where I get off lightly with an admonition to confess more frequently than "once every four years." I am told that at my next confession, I will receive the indulgence for having visited St. Peter’s on the eve of the Jubilee.
To initiate a Catholic Holy Year, such as 2000, the pope ceremoniously opens St. Peter’s Porta Sancta, a towering, gilded door that has been sealed since the last Holy Year. (Holy Years are usually celebrated every quarter century for reconciliation and renewal, though John Paul II has declared them more often, most recently in 1983.) During the Jubilee year, pilgrims pass through the door and, according to church doctrine, gain a plenary indulgence—remission from the penalties of sin, a high grade of absolution. Twenty-nine million people are expected to visit the Vatican during Jubilee 2000, which will be ushered in by the pope on Christmas Eve 1999 and will extend until Easter 2001.
Next morning, my guide on a walking tour of the Vatican Gardens is Gabriela, a marvelous woman, funny, flamboyant, a little irreverent. "The Vatican has its own coinage, its own shopping where only the 400 Vatican citizens can shop. It used to have its own jail. The Vatican had the death penalty, too—they would hang the bodies in the square. Today, no jail. Troublemakers are handed over to Italy.
"Michelangelo built this old wall around Vatican City. And see the Swiss Guards there, in the funny uniforms. Not Versace, but Michelangelo! He was a fashion designer too. Ha! The guards came in 1506 to be the pope’s army. They’re still here!
"This heliport is how the pope gets to the airport. He goes in the Holycopter.
"Those towers were the original site of Vatican Radio, which now is down in Rome. Marconi himself designed it in 1931. Pius XII said, ‘This is a miracle!’
"That there is Gregory XII’s astronomical observatory. He was scientific; he came up with the Gregorian calendar that tells us the millennium is coming.
"These fountains were built by Pope Paul V. He obsessed about fountains and art. They called him ‘Fountainmaker Maximus.’
Gabriela’s is a lively tour and leaves me winded. I venture into town for sustenance: pizza, gelato. This does the trick, and I head back to St. Peter’s, where a Roman friend has arranged a private tour of the necropolis.
Beneath the basilica are crypts excavated earlier this century. This once was a steeper hill, and on the slope adjacent to Caligula’s circus was a series of tombs. Citizens would come here on nice days and picnic on the roofs of their forebears’ resting places, enjoying the festivities. With the rise of Christianity, a Christian cemetery was established next door. From the first it was said that Peter’s bones were among those laid in the graves. It may be so. I am looking, now, into a crypt that once contained the remains of a 60- to 70-year-old man of strong constitution who died circa the 1st century A.D. Does it matter whether these remains, still on the premises, are Peter’s? Does it matter, to return to an earlier question, if this is the rock? Not really. What matters is where Catholicism—and, indeed, all of Christianity—has come from, what it has wrought, where it is going,
I walk up, back into the basilica proper. I slowly stroll the several chapels, some designed by Michelangelo. I pause, finally, before the painter/mason/fashion designer/poet/architect/sculptor’s Pietà.He crafted this when he was a young man, and it made his reputation—a reputation he carried for seven decades before he died in 1564, at age 89. Davidmay be the epitome of art, as has been said, but the Pietà—Italian for pity—seems more sublime, more emotionally resonant. The Virgin’s pain is palpable. The sculpture stirred a madman to attack it with a hammer in 1972, but it has been meticulously restored.
I climb the hundreds of stairs into the basilica’s cupola. As I look out over the city, what the millennium is really about hits home. Not champagne and Y2K, but 2,000 years in a world forced to confront the wisdom and impact of a singular, charismatic prophet named Jesus.
The bells toll and I make my way into a pew facing the 21-ton bronze altar, Throne of Saint Peter in Glory,designed by Bernini. A choir sings during the 5 o’clock Mass, its chant echoing, drifting into the naves, floating into the dome.
I am back home, trying to conjure Rome. I look through my Art of the Vaticanbook. I put on Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome,then try choral music. I am able to recall that transporting moment in the basilica, human voices raised to God.
But it’s only recall. The emotional component is lacking; the intensity’s not nearly the same. There is no sensing the sheer immensity of the Vatican unless you are in the Vatican. Pilgrims always promise, and I do: I will go back.
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
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