Of many places in the world, I always find myself returning to the view that the city of Rome is amongst the most fascinating. My first real-life views of the Colosseum, of the Dome of St Peter’s, to this day remain amongst the most memorable: places only ever read about, now there before me! A real buzz.
It’s the one place where you can be pretty honest and say history oozes out of the ground beneath your feet – over 2000 years of man’s existence in the one city, layer upon layer and a sense that, as you explore, you are merely and insignificantly the latest to be captivated by this city, its fountain-filled piazzas, its monuments. There is so much beneath your feet that after the umpteenth lump of marble it’s tempting to become blasé about its antiquity.
It’s also a place that can leave you bemused (or in wonder) as to how it manages to work! Stand beside the via dei Fori Imperiali near the ‘wedding cake’ or the Colosseum, watching the traffic feverishly buzzing around (it brings to mind that the vespa scooter is so aptly named – ‘wasp’) and it can so often appear a metaphor for a picture of the Italian nation: unruly; rules and regulations there but simply ignored – seemingly you just do your own thing; at times utter mayhem; a screeching of tyres on cobbles, the wail of the Carabinieri sirens; pedestrians taking their lives in their hands as they set foot onto a pedestrian crossing, the traffic continuing on regardless, coming close to collision but, somehow, always missing; moments of order as traffic lights bring everything to a halt…before mayhem reigns once more. It all seems to work..somehow, no matter how chaotically. (Is there Salvation out of chaos? Oh yes: It has the world’s best ice cream!).
City With a Pedigree!
And what history this city has witnessed. From legendary beginnings on the Palatine Hill, one of the city’s famed seven, with tales of Romulus and Remus and a suckling wolf, to its position as ‘Caput Mundi’ – Head of the World – beating heart of the mighty Roman Empire. Centuries of power, intrigue, politicking, murder and plenty more, all centred on the area of the Forum and the nearby still mighty Colosseum.
And yet, across the Tiber on Vatican Hill the other rich vein of the city’s history is centered. As one temporal empire fell, another both temporal and spiritual was to grow, Rome becoming the Eternal City of the Popes. Yes, power and intrigue at times to match that of the Roman Empire; the great riches of artistic legacy with which the city was clothed courtesy of Papal (and other) patronage but also the focal point, spiritually, for Christianity and Catholicism across two millennia.
All in all, that’s quite a handful for a city!
A View to the Vatican
To stand beside the Tiber and gaze up the via della Conciliazione to the monumental Basilica church that is St. Peter’s, whether in the clear air of a sunny morning or floodlit at night, remains a view to take your breath away.
To visit the Vatican can have you walking through the one-time corridors of medieval Papal power as you tour the astounding Vatican Museums; experience a touch of Raphael along the way (just a bit of interior decorating for a one-time Papal apartment) and gaze at Michaelangelo’s famed paint job in the Sistine Chapel. To enter into the might of St Peter’s Basilica can astound, can overpower.
A Pope, an Announcement and a Sharp Intake of Breath: A Moment of Great History
The Papacy is a position, an institution, that whether or not you are of religious persuasion (and whichever religious persuasion) has the capacity to make the world pause for a moment at times. With the Pope being the leader of a religious denomination of some 750 million people, the magnetism of St. Peter’s, the Vatican and the holder of the office of the Papacy is understandable. Maybe also, it’s all those centuries of history – a history that stretches back across the centuries to the first century AD and has pretty much seen it all! With a simple statement made by the Pope this week and which, within moments was reverberating around the globe headlining rolling news broadcasts, we have been witness to one of these moments.
To be visiting Rome at any time in the next few weeks will, as a result, be to be present at a moment of history: the change from one Pope to the next. However, what makes the current times the more historic is the fact that Benedict XVI, current Pope, has chosen to do something no Pope has done for something like 600 years: resign. The Papacy becomes vacant not by the death of a Pope but by the Pope himself stating he is too frail to continue. Pretty momentous: a sort of’Pope in Rome shocker!’ moment. In so doing, he has answered the question asked many times, and as a Tour Manager one that often gets asked as we stand in St Peter’s Square after a visit to the Vatican Museums and Basilica: can a Pope resign? Up to now the answer has always been, ‘as good as not: the last to do so was Gregory XII in 1415; before that Celestine V in 1294’. Need we say more!
I guess we now have to change our script.
From Cardinals and Conclave to a Smoke Signal in White
So, from February 28th (8pm) the Papacy becomes vacant and to follow, the mystery of the Conclave! – the leading Bishops of the Church, the Cardinals, (some 117 from around the World) notable for their crimson red cassocks, will shortly thereafter be locked into the famed Sistine Chapel to reflect and choose a successor Pope. No exit until a candidate is selected! (Tradition of centuries abounds in these matters.) There’s no knowing how long it will take – it could take 2 or 3 days; it might take much longer. It will be as long as the Cardinals need to select by two-thirds plus one votes, one from amongst themselves who they feel is the best man for the job.
No one other than those who take part ever know what takes place. Not even Facebook can reach inside! The outside world is left to follow proceedings via the colour of smoke sent up the Sistine Chapel chimney after each round of voting: black signifying no result; white, a new Pope has been elected (you have to hope, of course, that they have the correct additives for the burning of the ballot papers to give the correct colour of smoke, otherwise everyone gets confused – it’s happened in the past!). Throughout this time, St Peter’s Square will undoubtedly be filled with the curious, the eager, the faithful and the tourist.
With the ringing of the bells from St Peter’s Basilica and the proclamation from the central balcony ‘Habemus Papem’, the new Pope will be presented to the World, giving his first blessing ‘to the City and the World’: Urbi et Orbi (yep, all in latin!). Always, and by its nature, an historic moment.
Papabile, Guesswork and Intrigue: But Above All, A Moment of History!
Of course, the media commentators and speculators are already pouring over these events and are on to who might be the next Pope (the ‘Papabile’ – a local term for those considered to be possible candidates). It is, of course, one of those few moments in our modern world where to speculate is likely futile: no one knows until that white smoke rises!
What is unavoidable and makes any forthcoming visit such a unique one is the pretty unprecedented nature of the events: whether or not you are of a religious persuasion, history is being written as we speak. You may be in Rome as the new Pope is announced or even as he is enthroned as the new ‘Bishop of Rome’. If so, it will be one of those moments of travel that you cannot plan for and puts you there ‘as it happens’: not often you get the chance for that! You may be mid-ice cream in a piazza at the time but you will be on the spot witnessing a city’s reaction, a nation’s reaction and World reaction. That’s what you can call unique.
That’s part of the magic of travel! You’ll have to tell us what it was like!
[Picture Above: Momentous events in Rome: Papal resignation; lightening strikes St Peter’s. Enjoy being there on the spot for more to come]
Chris Relton is an ACIS tour manager from the UK. His passion for travel has taken him through Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand, the Far East, North America and Africa. In 2012, Chris was chosen to work as a volunteer at the Olympic Stadium during the London Summer Olympics Games and the Paralympic Games.