Wednesday, March 31:  St. Peter’s Basilica

We ventured out on the Metro this morning, along with several warnings about pickpockets. Bought our tickets from the newsagent in Plaza Republica, a few blocks from our hotel, and descended down to the subway. Transit police were doing random checks at the base of the escalator, and declared our tickets properly validated after a brief hesitation. It was the tail end of the commute, so we had to push a bit to get onto our car. We managed the trip pretty well, though Pat almost ended up in some laps during a violent lurch. Rome has only two subway lines, and they intersect one stop away, so near our hotel they are pretty full. As we exited the subway, Robert declared proudly, “I still have everything!” (He’d not fallen victim to any pickpockets.)

A 10 minute walk took us to the walls of the Vatican and Bernini’s colonnade around St. Peter’s Square. There was an abundance of metal detectors and scanners, and sure enough, they located Pat’s Swiss Army knife. Into the box it went, with an apology and a promise we could try to retrieve it afterwards. There were already two others of the same design in the box. The square was laid out with seating for 10,000 and we took places bordering an aisle in hopes of getting a good glimpse of the Pope as he toured the area in his truck. We had some time to kill, and while speaking with the boys, the fellow in front of me corrected me when I mistakenly mentioned Ireland as being part of the UK. There had been sprinkles all morning, and they began again. Briefly we feared the papal audience would be moved indoors, where there was only seating for 8,000. But the clouds dissipated, and soon we had sunglasses on. The Pope arrived in his truck (not the PopeMobile with the glass enclosure, but an open Jeep-like affair), and toured around some of the aisles bordering portions of the crowd. He passed through an intersection about fifty feet from us, but never went down the aisle that was five feet away.

The program consisted of some music, priests recognizing certain groups in their native language, and the Pope repeating those greetings, each language in turn. From my seat, I could see the Pope’s bedroom window and the famous smokestack along the roofline of the Sistine Chapel. Then there was a blessing of all in attendance, any religious items (the boys bought rosaries out on the walk in), and by proxy our relatives and those mentioned in our intentions (The Crankers?). Then various groups were allowed to meet the Pope individually on the stage and have their photograph taken.

St. Peter’s Square has colonnades on each side, each an arc of perhaps 120 degrees. Each column is in a set of four, each set occupying a single radial line from the center of the arc. The 80 or so columns of each colonnade support a roof perhaps 100 feet or more in the air, surmounted with statues of the Saints. In the plaza itself, there is a marker for the center of this circular arc. (Photo 5) So from this point, as one looks at each set of four columns, the first obscures the view of the three behind it on the same radial line. The boys and I then traced out an arc of much smaller radius (15 feet versus 250 feet), but with the same center as for the colonnade. As we crossed each imaginary radial line, a single set of columns would line up, but the other 19 would not. That was today’s mathematics lesson. But maybe you had to be there. The boys seemed to understand what was happening, and maybe the subsequent diagram made sense.

By this point, it had begun to rain. Not drizzle, but rain. Fortunately, we all had our very portable umbrellas along. Lunch or the Vatican Museum? We walked through a gate of the old wall, and noticed the very long line for the museum. Lunch it was. We consulted Rick, and located a “Pizza Rustica,” part of a chain of cheap self-service restaurants, where we had a very satisfying meal.

The line had not abated and the rain continued. We decided to make St. Peter’s Basilica our afternoon destination (it had been closed during, and for a time afterward, the papal audience). The Holy Door (opened once every 25 years), Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s seven story golden canopy over the main altar, the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion, and St. Peter’s Tomb were among the highlights. Rob took delight in having his picture taken on the spot were Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in 800 AD. Pat and the boys went down the stairs to see St. Peter’s beneath the altar, only to discover that they had to exit the building when done.

To finish our visit, we paid to ride an elevator to the base of the dome. From there we went inside, and walked around the interior, looking down 250 feet on Bernini’s canopy. Finally, we walked 300+ steps upwards, generally spiraling around the dome, sometimes in long ramps, sometimes in very tight spirals, sometimes very tilted into the slope of the dome, always a bit claustrophobic in between the inner and outer shells of the dome itself. The view on top was pretty good, but the rainstorm limited the view and the desirability of staying too long. On the way out, Robert added to his collection of religious medals on his bracelet, with a dual purpose St. Peter/St. Paul medal bought from the souvenir shop at the base of the dome (on top of the roof!).

On the way out, we had to walk past the Vatican Post Office. Time for a civics lesson. Having just bought stamps this morning at the tabacchi shop for postcard to the boys’ classrooms, there was some confusion about just which postcards we were now going to mail, and just whose postage we were going to use. Finally, the point was made -- postcards of the Vatican and the Pope, with postage from the independent state that is Vatican City, gaining a postmark from the same small country. Two went to home for the boys to claim later, two to their classrooms.

We got wetter and wetter on the way home, but our quick-drying clothes, carefully chosen shoes, and umbrellas kept us from misery.

Dinner wasn’t worth discussing.