Monday, September 8, 2008

Signing off

After a long stay in Singapore of 12 hours, I have finally arrived home, tired and jetlagged. The whole experience has been stunning and thought-provoking. We'll all meet soon, and let's talk about what it all means for our little group and its future.

Meanwhile, this will be my final post on this blog. I hope we'll have a more permanent web presence soon!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday: leaving Milan

Friday: leaving Milan

Breakfast with the Mazzeos was good this morning (lots of food) and I spoke briefly to Raffy by Skype.  Later Raffy's dad took me to Malpensa airport (in his black BMW convertible!), and we had a talk about Italian finance and politics while we waited for the check-in desk to open. I thanked him as he left, and I'll be seeing them both again in mid-December.

Now I'm waiting to board the first leg to Singapore. Home soon.

Dinner with the Mazzeos

After meeting at the the platform at Milano Centrale Raffy's dad drove me their apartment, which is close to the city centre. After a brief rest they took me to see a few sights which I missed in my first quick visit.

The Victor Emanuel Plaza is amazing. Imagine the Block Arcade, but ten times wider and taller, ten times richer, and full of famous fashion stores. We also got to see La Scala and the old part of town where the medieval marketplace is preserved.

I also got another look (from the outside - they were closed) of the Duomo and San Ambrogio. This gave me the chance to get some external shots of San Ambrogio which I forgot to do last time.

After that it was back home for a beautiful dinner. Raffy's parent's English is pretty good, and we had no trouble making conversation. We had some fun looking at Raffy's baby photos (she looked just like Alessia does) and a picture of Matteo's magnificent hair before he became respectable and cut it.

They'll visit us again in Melbourne in mid-December, and Antonella will be staying through January and February. I have asked them to bring the photo of Matteo.

At about 10:30 I went to bed, having discovered I have a 13 hour stopover in Singapore on the way back. Yikes, I'd forgetten that! Better get as much sleep as I can before the big trek.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thursday: back to Milan

Thursday: back to Milan

After fitting in a couple of morning sessions at the conference, I got ready to leave Rome. Cardinal Scola sent a prerecorded speech which was shown this morning, but I had to skip this. After some final farewells, I headed to Roma Termini to get the train back to Milan. Rome was well worth the few extra days it took. The city itself is amazing, and I made many study contacts that I will develop over the next few years.

I'll spend the night with Raffy's parents, who have kindly agreed to host me for the night. After that, the long flight home.

More Vatican

More Vatican

Since, I'm leaving Rome tomorrow, I decided to wag the conference and spend time looking at the Vatican some more.

First, I visited the Vatican Museum. It's a great barn of a place, over multiple levels and with long, elaborately decorated corridors. The museum is itself a major work of art, and incorporates many rooms of Raphael's frescoes as well as the Sistine Chapel, site of Michelangelo's greatest paintings. I didn't have time to pay too much attention to the exhibits themselves, and decided to concentrate on these frescoes.

The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus (hence the name). In the 1980s the frescoes in the Chapel, including the famous Creation and Last Judgement by Michelangelo and Raphael's lives of Moses and Christ, were cleaned and made visible again for the first time in centuries. A few areas have been left uncleaned and you can see that they were almost black with soot. Now they are full of colour and very impressive. The Chapel itself has flat walls and a curved ceiling - nothing special. It's the frescoes that make it.

After my visit to the Sistine, I wanted to visit St Peter's again to visit the tombs of the Popes and climb the dome.

The tombs in the crypt of the Basilica. You go down a passage on the northern side of the outside Basilica. I saw JP2's tomb, which is very popular and had a small crowd praying around it. People leave small papers with prayers intentions there. I said a prayer there to JP2 and Mary for our little group in Melbourne.

In one area you can see a mosaic wall that covers the tomb of Peter. If you book in advance, you can visit the excavations behind this wall, and even see the tomb marked, in Latin, 'Here is Peter'. No such luck for me, but I've come pretty close to a Pope today anyway.

When you climb up the stairs to leave the crypt, you emerge close the the Papal altar which is directly over Peter's tomb.

I then climb the dome. I have to leave the
Basilica to do this because the entrance is very close to the crypt entrance outside. The lift takes you up about 100 metres and then you've got a few hundred steps to get to the top. The passages are narrow and stuffy in summer. The first stage takes you inside the dome, at its base, so you can look really closely at the mosaics on the inside of the dome. I love mosaics, so I enjoy this. It's amazing how the colours are graded to produce beautiful effects from a distance.

The passage to the top of the dome runs between the inner and outer domes. The higher you go, the more the walls tip inwards, until you are climbing with one hand leaning on the inside dome! But it's worth it when you get there - a cool breeze and unbroken views of Rome and the Vatican itself.

The walk down is a little more spacious and much easier. This time I emerge inside again, but at the rear of the Basilica.

This is my third visit to the Basilica. I've decided I like it a lot.

Back to the conference for dinner, and now I'm off to bed. Train to Milan at 12:30 tomorrow and then home to see you all.



After waiting about 30 minutes, activity began on the stage. A trickle of visiting bishops and Vatican dignitaries made their way gradually to the rows of seating on the stage. This was to the right of a single chair in the middle which was obviously reserved for the Pope.

At the same time, a few serious-looking gentlemen in dark suits began to take up position, while five colourfully uniformed Swiss guards ringed the stage. Anticipation grew, then the side door opened and Pope Benedict the Sixteenth shuffled onto the stage with his slight stoop, shy smile and red Prada shoes. The audience erupted with cheering and got to its feet, which was perfect since the first thing he did was lead us in a prayer.

The business of the audience then began. First, we got a reading about St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus - in Italian, French, English, Spanish and Polish in succession. Then the Pope read out a roughly 8 minute reflection on the reading - all in Italian!

All was not lost however. A French prelate came to the microphone to acknowledge all of the pilgrimage groups from France, each cheering in turn, and getting a wave and a smile from the Pope. He then handed a summary of the reflection in French to the Pope, who read it out. Next came the turn of the English-speakers. The conference I am attending was called out, and we responded with an anaemic academic wave and a pigeon-chested cheer. No bellows of 'Benedetto' or 'viva I'll Papa' unfortunately.

We went through all of the languages this way. Two nationalities stood out: the Germans and the Poles. I recently read that church music is better in Germany than anywhere else, and it shows. Most German groups struck up a choir performance of a couple of verses when their name was called, and they were all excellent. One group even managed to bring in two trombones for accompaniment (I have no idea how). On the other hand the Polish groups were just incredibly noisy, yelling their heads off in approval when they were called out. The occasional singing wasn't bad, but not as good as the Germans.

The whole atmosphere was festive and good-natured, but serious where appropriate.

Once this phase was over, the Pope led us in a Latin recitation of the Our Father, followed by a Papal blessing which he assured us extended to our families as well.

The final act was his official welcome of the prelates and the blessing of the disabled and sick, who crossed the stage one after another in a convoy of wheelchairs. After this, he moved down towards the crowd and shook hands with a lot of people, including our conference organiser.

At this stage the Pope was being mobbed, and all I could see was a little white hat bobbing up and down in a sea of people. So I decided I was finished, and walked out to St Peter's Square again.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Waiting for Benedetto

Waiting for Benedetto

This morning we gathered at the hotel to headv down to the Vatican for the Pope's Wednesday public audience. We've been told there are a limited number of seats available. I got one of the green tickets for entry to the hall, but it's pot luck really. If you don't fit, you end up watching on a screen outside.

It's a complicated trip down there (Roman buses!) Around 9am we joined a queue of about 100,000 people (exaggerating slightly) at the southern edge of St Peter's square. The hall we're all haeding for is a standalone building to the south of the Basilica.

It's slow and hot progress, but I managed to creep forward in the crowd and be one of the first few of our group to get past security. Our group was now strung out like the proverbial Brown's cows, so I made my own dash for the hall.

The hall seats about 3000 people, and it is filling up rapidly. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed. A few groups are singing here and there, and people chat excitedly. I'm sitting amongst a group of African nuns, waiting for the Pope to arrive.

Three words: Second. Row. Seat.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Grandeur of Reason

The Grandeur of Reason

On Sunday night a bunch of people who had arrived early for the Grandeur of Reason conference decided to go out for dinner. At about 8pm we set off to cross the river in search of good Italian restaurants. We found plenty, but they were filling up. After a bit of wandering about a group of 6 of us peeled off and I found myself having dinner with John and Alison Milbank (ask Rick) and a couple of other people. I havev graduated from grappa to something very nice called lemoncilla.

The conference the next day was a bit challenging. There were paper sessions which I was able to keep up with, offered by students and academics, and I was able to ask some intelligent questions. But the joint plenary sessions are way over my head. I'm told this is normal for a first theology conference. I plan to have lunch with Tracey Rowland today or tomorrow (Wednesday) to talk about my thesis topic - not too soon, because she's pretty jetlagged.

This morning I took the metro to Roma Termini to get my ticket to Milan, and dropped into St Mary Major. Another beautiful Baroque church, but I am still suffering from St Peter's overload. I recommend that anyone visiting Rome sees St Peter's last.

On Wednesday morning we'll have a Vatican tour and attend the Pope's weekly audience. I'll report again then.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sunday: St. Peter’s again

After a long night’s sleep (11 hours!) I feel I am recovering from the last two weeks. At breakfast, I discovered that there are several other Australians in the hotel who are here for the conference I will be attending. One New Zealander is a student of Tracey Rowland’s, who will be supervising my degree next year. I immediately started to feel more at home.

Fortified by breakfast I decide to set off for St. Peter’s again. It’s cooler this morning, so the walk is more pleasant. I enter the Square again, this time taking my time. I took a panoramic shot of the Square from the right of the entrance:
The columns of the square are three deep, supporting a massive roof topped by terracotta tiles. In the center of the Square is mounted an obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula and used as the finishing line of the Roman race track which once existed near here. The re-use of the obelisk expresses the triumph of the Church over pagan Rome.

Entering the basilica again, I got one of the audio devices to explain the various works of art and the building. But before using it, I moved directly to the front of the church, where a crowd was gathering for the celebration of the 10:30am Mass. The mass area, which had been open on Saturday, was closed to tourists on Sunday. “Attending Mass only!”

Well, what’s the point of being a member of a club if you don’t use the privileges once in a while? In I went, behind the High Altar and canopy, and below of the stained glass picture of the descent of the Holy Spirit. Directly beneath the glass is a sculpture of the Chair of Peter, indicated by the surmounted Papal crown. The sculpture contains a relic, an old wooden chair that is, by tradition, the original chair of Peter. Testing has shown it dates back to the early Church. Sorry about the quality of the photos; it's very hard to get good shots in the dark! I'll get a book with some better ones later.

The procession included two cardinals, about ten bishops and eighteen priests, and eleven altar servers. Only the second reading was in English, and the first reading and sermon were in Italian. Everything else was in Latin. They handed out Mass books that covered Italian, Spanish and English, but they weren’t much use for a Latin Mass (though they would have been really useful in the past two weeks). Once you realise you aren’t going to understand a word, you just have to enjoy the service and go along for the ride, looking at the altar and the amazing decorations.

After an hour and a half of chant, Latin and incense, the Mass finished. I turned to the American next to me and said: “That was intense”.

After Mass I took the guided audio tour of the basilica. It makes much more sense when explained. The most famous Popes of the twentieth century lie in state, including John XXIII and Benedict XV. There are many areas devoted to major events in the life of Christ and the life of the Church. Here is a shot of a list of all the Popes starting from St Peter himself.
The papal altar is the centre of the whole Basilica. There are two older altars buried underneath this one, and under that, the tomb of Peter himself.
Something important also occurred to me as I walked around the basilica. Your first impression is of power. The basilica was designed to emphasise Papal authority, and it achieves that. But another element starts to emerge: the element of play. For example, I’m not sure what these ladies are doing, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

I visited another couple of Baroque churches nearby, just to see how they look, but it’s impossible to top St. Peter’s. The Vatican Museum’s are closed this afternoon (Sunday), so I head back to the hotel for dinner.

A cloud of witnesses

I took a taxi from Roma Termini to the hotel. Have you heard all of those tired clichés about Roman taxi drivers? Every one of them is true. It’s best to just close your eyes until you get to your destination.

After checking in at my Rome hotel, I decided to head for Saint Peter’s Basilica. Although the hotel blurb said it was only “minutes” away, this turned out to mean about 30 minutes. It is hot in Rome, much hotter than northern Italy, so I was sweating when I approached Saint Peter’s Square. Here is my first glimpse.
I entered the Square. Of course, it isn’t square at all, and is surrounded by a circle of massive pillars, three deep, with Saint Peter’s Basilica at its head. The colonnade is surmounted by the statues of hundreds of saints, and the eye follows them to the church itself. The effect is of being embraced. You are literally surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

After going through security, I entered the Basilica itself. The effect of the inside is hard to describe. At a first viewing, it is too much to take in. It seems that every surface and corner is a piece of art. The focus of the church is the High Altar underneath its Baroque canopy, and behind this is the stained glass window of the Holy Spirit, beneath which is the Chair of Peter.

After spending an hour exploring the Basilica, decided not to take any photos today. Not because there is nothing to photograph, but because everything seems worth photographing. I need to think about this. Time to go back to the hotel for a Spartan meal and an early night.