The Eternal City


by Phyllis E. Weston


Rome has long been known as the Eternal City. However, to different people the word "eternal" has different meanings. To me it means that the variety and appeal of Rome are inexhaustible.

My sister, Stella, and I proved this once more on a midsummer day when we went by caleche to the Piazza Navona to see Bernini's fountain, The Four Rivers, which occupies the centre of the largest square in Rome. In ancient Rome it was the site of a stadium. As one writer said, the fountain just missed being stupendous because Innocent X who commissioned it, cut down the plans to save money.

As part of the fountain, sculptures of river gods represent four great rivers: the Danube, the Nile, the Rio de la Plata, and the Ganges. The centre of attention is an Egyptian obelisk incorporated so cunningly into the fountain that the great column appears to be almost unsupported and weightless. In the ancient world these obelisks were associated with the sun. In Christian times the obelisk came to symbolize divine power. So we have the river gods which represent continents and their people straining to see and reach the spirit of God. You can imagine how much there was to reflect on in such a fountain.

So we found a sidewalk cafe from which we could continue to enjoy the fountain and ordered large cups of cappuccino which proved to be giant snifters for which we paid a shocking price, a sort of slaughter of the innocents, modern style. It's true the goodness of the coffee softened the blow.

While we were here I had one other mission to accomplish. Along the outer edge of one side of the Piazza was the home of the Dutch nuns. I wondered at the informality of their name but never heard them called anything else. It was to their house that I went to book a conducted tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel for the following Saturday.

The next day Stella and I parted company, she to join her family in Russia, I to spend another week in Rome and then to wander in Spain until we should meet in Madrid. First of all I moved to a cheaper hotel near the Railway Station.

On the Sunday morning 22 people assembled in the home of the Dutch nuns. First we went to a lecture room where we met our guide, a Dutch nun I presume. You can hardly imagine anyone less nunlike as she wore slacks and a bright red T-shirt. However, she lectured us knowledgeably, chiefly about the Sistine Chapel, illustrating her talk with slides. She then conducted us to the chapel on foot and by bus, the red shirt like a banner leading the way.

Soon we were in the Sistine Chapel enjoying its wonders all the more because of what we had learned. On its walls we saw tapestries made from Raphael's drawings and frescoes representing the life of Christ and the life of Moses. But what riveted our attention was the wonderful ceiling painted by Michelangelo telling the story of the Creation. There was God in majesty sublime dividing night from day which marked the beginning of order in the Universe. Then came the sun and moon, earth and water, each in its appointed place. We saw Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the scene alive with a sense of joy. The contrast was startling as we saw them fleeing before the Archangel with the flaming sword.

And there was still more to see. After the sack of Rome in 1527 and the chaos created by the barbarians, as a reminder of the ordeal, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on one wall of the Chapel, the only time this subject has been depicted in a church.

In her lecture, our guide had added those tidbits of gossip which keeps history from being dull. And so we observed, as Michelangelo was a sculptor, his clouds had a tendency to look like rocks, his angels were fearsome muscular creatures, and his cherubs a far cry from Raphael's sugar babies. Continuing in the same vein, as the Pope's Master of Ceremonies had criticized the painting for its nude figures, the artist had retaliated by including the critic in the picture, adorned with ass's ears and being ushered into the fires of Hell. After this there was time for only a brief visit to the Art Gallery and Museum. In the latter is the oldest and yet the newest exhibit: three small stones from the moon presented by three of the astronauts, to each of whom the Pope gave a figure of the Three Wise Men, drawing a parallel between the two groups: both were seeking enlightenment.

I am ashamed to say that on leaving the Vatican I became hopelessly lost. For a while I just wandered, refreshing myself at a trattoria with a crusty roll, cheese and beer. After that I did find a centre from which many buses departed. I was so relieved to find one going to the Station that I failed to buy a ticket on the platform. This earned me a good drubbing by the driver. I think the outburst did him good, and I soon recovered my good spirits. After all, I was riding home in comfort, the guest of the Roman taxpayer; and I had had a very profitable day.

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Copyright (c) 1996, P. Weston