Tag Archives: Rome

The Sanctuary (Italy Pt IV) 

With a loud crack of thunder, the heavens opened. The ferocity of the deluge sent victims scattering for shelter. The morning’s blazing sunshine had lulled us into a false sense of security. As such, it was thin tops and carrier bags hurriedly commandeered as hoods and umbrellas. The high, stone walls provided little cover, so we skittishly hopped from one closed doorway to the next, exchanging a few inches of shelter for another. Criss-crossing the courtyard in this manner, I eventually reached the bowels of the ancient building.

We weren’t the first to use this aged structure for sanctuary. There exists an underground tunnel connecting it to the Vatican. In 1527 the German Emperor, Charles V, and his forces sacked Rome. You might imagine a faithful pope would stand firm in Christendom’s holiest site. Trusting his fate to God. Instead, Pope Clement VII hitched up his robes and scurried down the tunnel to safety. Three-quarters of his elite Swiss Guards died defending his escape. Clearly Clement wasn’t a strong believer in Jesus’ proclamation ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…’

Rain. The tourist’s bane. Now safely sheltered, I stood at the mouth of a stone corridor eyeing the dismal drizzle’s dogged descent. Fellow tourists would periodically rush down the metal steps in search of sanctuary. The corridor led from an open courtyard deep into the bowels of the ancient fortress. We gathered at the entrance, eyes to the skies, waiting for a break in the bleak blanket.

There’s another famous pope-related story associated with this place. This pope wasn’t escaping an attack; he was initiating one. In 590 St. Gregory the Great had a vision of an angel unsheathing a sword atop the building. He interpreted it as a sign of an end to the plague which had gripped the city. The vision inspired him to lead a procession to the church of Santa Agata in Surburra. Upon arrival a sudden clap of thunder supposedly caused an idol to miraculously fall apart.

Upon his return, Gregory the Great saw another vision of the angel wiping blood from his sword before sheathing it. The pope interpreted this as a sign that God was appeased, although, that didn’t stop him destroying numerous other sites around the city. A more prosaic explanation for his actions was told by a 15th-century traveller. He claimed that, in response to the ongoing plague, Rome’s populace had begun worshipping pagan idols in desperation. So Gregory destroyed them. Either way, it was this purported event that gave the building its current name: Castel Sant’Angelo – literally translated as ‘Saint Angel Castle’ – in honour of the angel.

Time wore on and the rain poured down. It was the type of downpour where thirty seconds exposure meant soaked to the bone. The rain’s solemn drumbeat marked the frustrating passing of wasted time. For the moment, my busy itinerary had to be put on hold. But I wasn’t the only one. Quite a gathering had amassed at the courtyard entrance. Our glum looks and impatient eyes fixed upon the unleashed heavens. Bored children began playing in the growing puddle that slowly oozed and slithered its way across the uneven granite floor.

I first spotted the castle as I crossed Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge. To be fair, it was hard not to. Positioned directly in front of the bridge and measuring sixty-four metres in diameter, you’d be hard pressed to miss it. It looked like a giant, stone snare drum had fallen from the sky.

By the 2nd century the Roman’s Imperial tomb was almost full with emperors and their families. Emperor Hadrian concluded a new grand tomb was required. Hadrian, and all subsequent emperors, were interred there. It was later realised that the massive construction formed an ideal base for a fortification, so by the Middle Ages the tomb had been modified into Rome’s greatest castle. The modifications were significant enough that the original Roman structure is largely unrecognisable today. It was later acquired by the papacy and used as a refuge from danger, as Pope Clement had done, but was later used as a residence. In the early 20th century it was converted into a museum, it’s purpose today. It features various exhibits of paintings, pottery and antique weaponry. Sadly, much of the tomb’s urns and ashes were trashed and scattered during a Visigoth attack in 410AD. And a later goth siege in 537AD resulted in much of the decorative bronze being looted and lost.

The rain didn’t appear to be in any rush to depart. The humidity had turned the cold, roughhewn stones clammy to the touch. I began deliberating over whether to accept my fate and brave the downpour. Typically, it was the one day I’d forgotten to take my umbrella. Numerous street sellers sold them. But the rain’s ferocity would have soaked me by the time I reached them, rendering the purchase somewhat redundant. That’s something I have to complement Italy on: The street sellers are flawlessly efficient. When the sun was shining they were loaded with selfie sticks. The moment rain struck, the sticks immediately disappeared to be replaced by umbrellas. I couldn’t understand how they managed this so swiftly. On occasions it felt like I shifted my gaze from a selfie-selling street seller to the sky, noted it had begun to rain, gazed back only to find the same street seller was now offering me an umbrella and the selfie-sticks were nowhere in sight. “How did you…do… that!?”

I clearly wasn’t the only one debating whether to accept my fate. Many dispirited eyes, eyed the grim, sodden skies. Occasionally someone would shrug in defeat and head out into the downward drift, leaving others exchanging contemplative glances. The deluge of dank droplets penetrated even the stiffest resolve.

It reminded me of long, childhood Sunday afternoons. Sat by the window waiting for a break in the rain so I could go outside to play. Time was wearing on and the sulky skies looked as tempestuous as ever. My bursting itinerary was bugging me to accept my fate. I couldn’t rely upon the castle’s protection forever.

My time in Rome was fleeting. My plans couldn’t be endlessly postponed awaiting the perfect weather. Sometimes you just have to brave the storms and make the most of it. A bit like life, I suppose. You can’t continually delay until the perfect moment arrives. You’ll never do anything. And, arguably, right now is the perfect moment, as it’s the only one you’ll ever have.

With this in mind I took a look around. The once crowded corridor had thinned considerably. The unremitting rain had eroded much staunch defiance. The wearing time had worn down my resolve too. To quote Tracy Chapman “If not now, then when?” I took a last glance at the sullen skies, shrugged my shoulders and headed out into the rain…


Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. – Susan Ertz



Italy Part III 

Meanwhile in 16th Century Vatican City…

“I don’t see what the problem is,” he shrugged.

“You don’t see what the problem is!” he said in exasperation. “Your holiness, he gave me the ears of a donkey!”

“I think they look rather fetching,” he mused.

“And there’s a serpent eternally biting off my testicles!”

“Well that does sound rather uncomfortable,” he said in sympathy.

“So you’ll order him to paint my face out?”

“Look,” he sighed, “I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power…”

Food rationing in Britain during WWII was so severe that giant, meandering queues became common place. It’s claimed that people would often join queues without knowing what they were for. They just hoped there’d be something worthwhile at the end. Not long after entering Vatican City I did something similar. There was a massive queue snaking its way around St Peter’s Square. I assumed it must be the right queue, so I joined.

Vatican City formed in 1870 when unification of the numerous Italian states resulted in much of the land surrounding the city being claimed. A territorial standoff resulted, lasting almost sixty years until Mussolini signed a 1929 pact rendering the city an independent nation state; the world’s smallest. Amusingly, it has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the world. Many would argue this is owed to the tiny population skewing the crime figures. But perhaps it’s simply evidence for the Bible’s proverb ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ After all, when a reporter asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican he jokingly replied ‘about half of them.’

My intention was to queue for the Sistine Chapel, so I was relieved to discover the massive queue was actually for the basilica. It was ‘about three hours long’ I was told. I happily departed and wandered off to find the chapel’s queue.

I kept being approached by guys promising I could skip the queues. After discovering the chapel queue was 1hr 30mins I became interested. I got chatting to one who explained that for 50E I’d get a guided tour of the museum, chapel and basilica. Entry to the chapel was 20E, so it would be an extra 30E. I said I’d think about it and went to leave. He stopped me and offered student price. My comment about not being a student was greeted with casual insouciance. Student price was 41E. So he was offering 21E to skip the queues, receive a guided tour and see the basilica. Seemed like a sweet deal. Five minutes later I was inside listening to the guide’s explanations.

The guide was a slightly eccentric, middle-aged Italian lady wearing clothes daubed with more splashes of colour than your average painter’s smock. She also seemed extremely preoccupied with the male bodies of the museum’s sculptures, which I found rather amusing.

After the museum we entered the Sistine Chapel. It’s named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned it, and was built between 1473 and 1481. Its dimensions are the same as the Temple of Solomon’s as described in the Old Testament. It wasn’t until my visit that I realised the infamous smoke that the world’s press awaits when a new pope is being selected emanates from the chapel. A chimney is installed in the roof when required.

Although the chapel was completed in 1481, Michelangelo didn’t begin the ceiling until 1508. He was initially vehemently opposed to the commission. This was partly owed to the daunting scale of the work, but also his contempt for the art form. He considered himself a sculptor first and foremost, and distained frescoes. Despite this, he created such an astounding masterpiece that it changed the direction of western art. It takes someone remarkable to create a world-changing piece of art. To do so in a medium you’re contemptuous off…well… I’ve no idea what level of talent that takes.

It seems Michelangelo was also a pretty strong-willed character. You’d imagine most people would humbly abide any request from the pope. Not Michelangelo. He maintained that if he had to accept the commission then he must have a free hand in its design. He then dismissed the requested design completely and embarked upon an epic series of nine scenes from Genesis. Despite his initial reticence, he eventually painted an astounding three hundred figures covering 460m2. He also ignored the pope’s constant complaints about the mushrooming timescale and spent four years on the work.

The pope summoned his principal architect and instructed him to design a scaffold to aid Michelangelo in reaching the ceiling. Michelangelo laughed at the proposed design and opted to design his own. Many mistakenly believe he painted lying on his back, but he was actually standing up.

While in his sixties Michelangelo was called back to paint the altar wall. Once again he protested the commission; once again the pope dismissed his objections. The result was The Last Judgement – the largest fresco painted during the 16th century and an unquestioned masterpiece. It depicts Christ as the judge sending the damned to hell with his left hand and lifting the saved up to heaven with his right. Despite once again having to endure the pope’s constant pestering to hurry up he took his time and completed the work between 1535 and 1541.

The Last Judgment proved controversial through its depiction of naked figures. It ignited a bitter dispute between Michelangelo and the pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who considered it disgraceful for such a sacred place to feature nude figures. In retaliation, Michelangelo incorporated Cesena into the scene as Minos, the judge of the underworld, who has the ears of a jackass and snakes biting his testicles. Cesena complained to the pope who responded with the comment at the start of this post (“I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power” – the rest of the scene was artistic licence on my part.)

It goes without saying that the ceiling is spectacular. Sadly, I can’t share any photos as they’re forbidden. The Swiss guards who patrol the chapel are pretty strict about this. I saw one guy having his cheekily-snapped photos deleted. There’s no talking allowed either. There’s just a lot a shushing.

After the chapel we were guided through to St Peter’s Basilica. The first church on the site was built during the 4th century, but it underwent major rebuilding during the 16th and 17th centuries. This mammoth project took 120 years to complete.


Catholics believe St Peter’s Basilica is built upon the burial site of the first pope and head of Christ’s apostles: St. Peter. Oddly, his name was actually Simon. He helped found the Christian church after Jesus’ crucifixion. He was later crucified for his efforts. The basilica’s altar is claimed to be positioned directly over his tomb.

Michelangelo was in his seventies when the basilica’s principal architect died. The construction had already been going for forty years. I imagine Michelangelo was hoping to put his feet up and relax in his twilight years, but the pope had other ideas. He dragged him from his retirement and appointed him superintendent of the building program – something he once again vehemently opposed.

Once again he also again demanded a free hand in the design. But he didn’t simply dismiss the work of the previous architects. He built upon it. In doing so he progressed the colossal project to a stage where it could be completed after his death. As such, he’s recognised as the principal architect of what stands today. Going for the hat-trick, the result was another undisputed masterpiece. It’s an example of Renaissance architecture considered by many as ‘the greatest of all churches of Christendom.’ It influenced architecture throughout Western Christendom and even features the world’s tallest dome (inspiring Christopher Wren’s dome at St Paul’s in London). Upon completion it gained the title of world’s biggest church. A title it held until 1989 when the church in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire surpassed it.

Despite initially being uninterested in seeing inside the basilica I’m extremely glad I did. It’s astonishing. I’ve seen a fair few churches in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite like entering St Peter’s Basilica and lifting my head.

The immense size and beauty is staggering. I was so overwhelmed by the visual hammer-blow that I stopped dead in humbled awe. I hope Christian readers can forgive me, but upon entering the holiest site in Christendom the words that immediately, accidentally, left my lips were “Holy fuck.”

The thing I took most from my Vatican City trip was respect for Michelangelo. He’s the genius rebel who revolutionised everything he begrudgingly touched. He considered fresco an inferior art form, and yet revolutionised it anyway. It was a rival painter who pushed for him to paint the Sistine Chapel – hoping his dislike of frescoes would result in a humiliating disaster. Instead, he elevated it beyond anything anyone had ever seen before.

He consistently rebelled against the pope’s authority. Whether it was arguing against his commissions, dismissing the intended designs or simply ignoring incessant demands to hurry up. Along the way he mocked a leading architect and humiliated the master of ceremonies. He also took one of the holiest sites in Christendom and filled it with nude images (until they were later covered over). He was clearly an unassailable maverick. You’ve got to admire that.

As I’m not able to show you any photos I thought I’d instead share this classic Monty Python sketch. It fittingly imagines Michelangelo arguing with the pope and explains why he never painted the Last Supper (the chapel’s Last Supper scene was painted by Rosselli).

Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (Italy Part II)

Crushed between the vast colliding ships, the wooden oars erupted in a shower of shards. Running at full speed he leapt, grabbed the rigging and swung out wide over the ship’s side. Releasing his grip, he landed, with a thump, upon the enemy’s deck.  

A pair of boiling eyes fixed upon the invader. Their owner sprinted forwards, menacingly raising his javelin overhead. The invader leapt to his feet while swinging his broadsword up in one well-trained motion. The razor sharp blade slashed through the approaching torso showering the invader in blood. He snatched the javelin from the dying hand and hurled it towards the source of the arrows raining down from the rigging. It plunged deep into the archer’s chest. The subsequent agonising scream ended with a dull thud and crunching bones as he crashed upon the deck.  

A seven foot tall giant waded through the fighting men towards him. He swung his trident down powerfully upon the invader. The broadsword and trident locked. With grimacing faces only inches apart, the two men grappled. Spotting unsteady footing, he kicked. The giant teetered, loosening his grip. He kicked again, toppling him to the ground. He swung his huge sword high above his head and down, deep, into the assailant’s stomach. The blood pouring from his gasping mouth was met with the raucous roars of the eighty thousand strong crowd. 

The Colosseum was completed around AD 80. Some claim the inaugural games even included a sea battle. As I sat in those stands, gazing down upon that arena, I couldn’t help but imagine the astounding sights that must have once been witnessed there.  

Sea battles would, undoubtedly, have been some of the arena’s most spectacular events, but there were many different categories. From the famous gladiatorial contests to the less famous animal hunts. It was also the host of public executions, re-enactments of famous battles and even dramas based on classical mythology. 

The animal hunts were elaborate affairs. The arena would be transformed into various landscapes using moveable rocks and trees. A huge variety of exotic beasts were sacrificed upon the altar of entertainment. Rhinos, hippos, elephants and giraffes, lions, leopards, aurochs, bears, tigers, crocodiles and even ostriches were slaughtered for the pleasure of the braying crowds. The animals were often introduced unexpectedly via ingenious trapdoors and underground pulley systems. It’s even been claimed whales were involved, though I’m not sure how much of a fight they were expected to put up. And I don’t imagine they entered through a trap door either. The contests often occurred on breath-taking scales. At times 10,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators would battle continuously for months on end.  

Not all animals were there to be killed. Some were there to do the killing. Lunchtime sessions often involved executions. The condemned would be thrust, naked and unarmed, into the arena while beasts were released to tear them to pieces. Though, I have to admit, it’s not entertainment I’d choose to accompany my lunch (“Hey, Lance. Do you want some ketchup with your bacon sandwich?” “Umm…you know what? I’ll think I’m fine on that front…”). But there weren’t only gruesome events. I imagine the acrobats and magicians served as a welcome relief from the stomach-churning violence.  

The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre ever built. Its capacity is estimated to have been 80,000. Such huge numbers made it necessary that the arena could be emptied quickly in times of emergency. Despite the numbers, it’s thought it could be emptied within minutes. This swiftness was owed to eighty exits. Sadly, many of them have disappeared due to the perimeter wall collapsing. The exits were serviced by corridors called vomitoria. This ability to conduct such a rapid discharge is the origin of the English word vomit. After all the violence and horror featured at the Colosseum, it’s amusing that it was actually the corridors that gave us the word vomit.  

But it wasn’t just health and safety features that made Roman events similar to modern arenas. The arena operators even used a form of ticketing. Spectators were given numbered shards of pottery to direct them to their seats.  

Interestingly, the Colosseum was the first sports arena with a retractable roof, in the form of a canopy. It provided shade and cover from the rain. It had a hole in the centre angled so as to catch the wind and provide a cooling breeze for the spectators.  

The arena’s wooden floor spread was covered with about 15cm of sand to absorb the blood (in fact, our word ‘arena’ derives from ‘harena’ the Roman word for sand). Something I find amusing is that the sand was sometimes dyed red to disguise blood. If you go to watch such horrific violence, how can you be squeamish about a bit of blood?  

The Colosseum saw around 450 years of service. It was later used for housing, workshops, a quarry and a Christian shrine. This shrine was dedicated to the Christian martyrs thought to have died there. However, there’s no evidence Christians were actually martyred there, and, prior to the 16th century, no one made such a claim. Pope Sixtus V intended to turn it into a wool factory to provide work for Rome’s prostitutes, though his premature death derailed the plans. These various uses, combined with earthquakes, have led to extensive damage over the centuries.  

Despite the damage, much of it remains. I’d been told that it would be smaller than I imagined. Personally, I thought it was massive. I’d also read that there wasn’t much to see and you were unlikely to stay long. I think I read one commentator claiming you’d only spend about half an hour there. I couldn’t understand this. I was enthralled. I was wandering around, star struck, with a childlike grin. Whether staring down at the arena and imagining the scenes, or stopping to study the ancient graffiti etched into the walls, I was fascinated. I must have stayed for over 1hr 30min, and I only left when I did as I had other things to do. 

The ticket for the Colosseum also includes entrance to the Forum and the Palatine Hill. Although the Colosseum queue moved quickly, I took the sage advice of getting my ticket at the Palatine Hill entrance as the queues were much shorter. Afterwards, I went back to take a look. 

The Palatine Hill is the central hill of the Seven Hills of Rome. It’s the most ancient part of the city, and during Rome’s height it became a fashionable place to live. Today it features the ruins of many of the great palaces of the Roman Emperors. It was once covered with imperial palaces. Archaeologists believe they’ve even discovered the remains of the house where Augustus, the first emperor, was born. Today most of the hill is peppered with the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast palace, which was the main imperial palace for three centuries.  

According to legend, the hill was the location of the cave where the she-wolf had suckled Romulus and Remus, the city’s founders. The name palatine is also the source of the English word palace. Amusingly it’s derived from the Latin word ‘palus’ which means marsh or swamp. So people who live in palaces, semantically, actually live in swamps. Not nearly as glamorous.  

The hill is massive, and the ruins sprawl over a vast area. On several occasions I was about to leave when I thought “I’ll just check around this corner…” only to discover a whole new section. If you visit, my advice is to explore far and wide to make sure you don’t miss any.  

As you walk down the Palatine Hill you reach a large ledge that looks down upon the last part of the spectacular attraction: the Forum. 


The Roman Forum is a rectangular plaza that features the ruins of numerous important buildings central to Roman life. It was home to Rome’s religious, legal, political, economic, social and commercial life and played host to speeches processions, trials, trade and commerce. It was once filled with shops, temples, offices and arches. It’s situated in a valley at the foot of the Palatine Hill and was used for 1,400 years.  

Since my trip I’ve read that a guide is recommended. I think this is a good idea as it was difficult to understand what you were looking at. It’s fascinating, but, to the untrained eye, it’s a confusing jumble of random crumbling buildings and public art.  

One particularly notable aspect is the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra was a major road during Roman times. It was along this road that returning armies would march. Today those ancient armies have been replaced by armies of tourists, but it was still incredible to stand on those very same cobbles and imagine, two millennia ago, legions of tired, battle-weary soldiers marching along in a massive unbroken line snaking its way towards the horizon and beyond.  

Since my return I’ve discovered this video which features a 3D virtual reconstruction of the forum helping to explain the site.  

I Name You…Me! 

Legend claims that long ago there lived a princess named Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. But her villainous uncle, Amulius, envied his brother’s great power. He ousted the king, seized the throne, killed his sons and forced Rhea to become a Vestal Virgin – a priestess sworn to chastity and charged with sustaining a sacred eternal flame.  

Contrary to her chaste obligations, Rhea fell pregnant by the god Mars. The betrayal of her vow would ordinarily have resulted in her twin sons being killed. But, upon learning of their father’s identity, King Amulius felt reluctant to risk angering the gods. So, he ordered them to be killed by either live burial, exposure or being thrown into the River Tiber. He reasoned that if they were to die by the elements then he and his city would be spared the god’s wrath. But the servant tasked with completing the order took pity on the twins. Instead, he placed them in a basket which he set adrift upon the Tiber.  

A series of miraculous events conspired to protect the young twins from harm. Firstly, the river god, Tibernus, calmed the river, ensuring their safe passage. Next, he influenced the currents so their basket would become caught amongst the roots of a riverbank fig tree. Afterwards, a lupa (she-wolf) discovered the twins and suckled them in the safety of a cave. Later, a wood-pecker or picus (someone turned into a woodpecker) supplied them with food. Eventually, they were discovered by a shepherd and his wife who took them in and raised them. After surviving their ordeal the boys grew up to become shepherds like their adoptive father, completely unaware of their royal blood. 

One day, while herding their sheep, the brothers encountered some of King Amulius’ shepherds. A fight broke out during which one of the brothers was captured and taken before the king. The other sibling gathered a band of fellow shepherds to free his incarcerated brother. 

The rescue was a success, the brother was freed and the devious king was killed. The city’s citizens offered the brothers the crown, but they declined and restored Numitor to the throne. 

Instead, the brothers decided to found their own city, but quarrelled over the ideal location. They agreed to settle the matter through augury. Augury was a type of prophecy that involved observing birds to determine what actions the gods favoured. One brother claimed to have won the contest having seen twelve birds. The other brother disputed this claim on the grounds that he’d seen his six birds first. They argued until one brother decided to begin building his own walls and trenches. His attempts were derided by his brother, who even jumped over the walls in jest. This mocking resulted in a fight breaking out. The mocking brother, Remus, was killed. The surviving brother, Romulus, founded his new city. Eponymously, Romulus named the new city Rome.  

Roman historians accepted the above story as historical fact. Citing the city’s founding as between 758 and 728BC. The image of the she-wolf suckling the twins even became an iconic representation of the city. Unsurprisingly, modern historians are a little more sceptical of the story’s veracity.  

Modern historians believe the city grew from several settlements situated around seven hills near the River Tiber. The location was advantageous as the river was narrow enough to be bridged. The downside was that the ground between the hills was marshy. Being isolated upon their hills made the settlements vulnerable. For safety, they drained the marsh and united as one easily defendable city.   

Rome’s early inhabitants were from a tribe called Latins, from the Plains of Latium. They were successful farmers and traders. The riches accrued through their success aroused jealousy amongst the surrounding tribes. This rivalry necessitated the need for a skilled army to protect the city. Over time the successful army expanded the territory so that by 300 BC the Romans controlled most of the Italian peninsula.  

A while back I decided to take a trip to Rome and explore its fascinating history. This is the first post in the series about my trip.  



You may notice the similarity between the story of the twins being placed in a basket and the story of Moses from the New Testament. The Roman myth predates the Moses one, but the original myth dates back much further. The story can actually be traced back to at least ancient Mesopotamia and the myth of Sargon (~2,300 BC).