Last Day of Rome

Jonathan Bain recounts his recent trip to the Eternal City, where he discovered that the ‘second-tier’ attractions are actually first prize.

In the Vatican: an epiphany. But not of the religious kind. Instead, after an hour of being winnowed through labyrinthine corridors showcasing thousands (surely?) of relics – from goblets and robes to rosaries and tapestries – I realised that Pope Francis is very much like a spinster aunt. Eccentric, cleaved to a set of fixed beliefs, and, it turns out, a bit of a hoarder. Does the seat of the Catholic faith really need so much stuff ? It is a shockingly consumerist presentation of the divine. ‘More gold! We must have more gold! Put it in this big glass case with all the other gold!’ As a first-time visitor on his final day in town, I found it quite overwhelming. And it’s not just the surfeit of shiny things that strains the senses, but also the surging throngs stuffed into long, windowless spaces, pressing against you at all times. Sweating, frenzied… but quite the opposite of ecstatic.

Spilling, eventually, into the relative calm of the Sistine Chapel was a relief. Tour guides abandoned their charges at the door for some reason, so there was less chatter. A guard dramatically clapped his hands over his head, indicating to an iPhone-wielding tourist that photographs were not permitted. (He obviously liked his job, this guard, as his elaborate manouvres continued throughout my visit; like a bean-goose flapping around before take-off.) But can anyone really find any solace or comfort or numinous here anymore? It seemed more like God’s Disneyland. (Godland?) We might as well have had giant fluffy mascots milling around with us… a lamb perhaps, or a donkey. I imagined a candyfloss stand in the corner; spinning gold.

(A note on candyfloss. It has some interesting diversity around the world with respect to its naming. The Italians have opted for zucchero filato, which sounds slightly obscene but just means ‘sugar thread’. The Americans, of course, use cotton candy. Australians apparently say fairy floss. But for the French – maqnifique! – it’s barbe à papa, or ‘dad’s beard’. I am also particularly fond of the Afrikaans effort: spookasem, or ‘ghost’s breath’. The Anglosphere should try to do better here.)

The Sistine Chapel was a ‘must-do’. It is a meme. Its image must be transferred from phone to Instagram by millions of people. My eyes must see it because my eyes have already seen it so many thousands of times. I grew up with the sight of God’s finger about to touch Adam’s. It was presented at school of course, but then on fridge magnets and aprons (now for sale at the Vatican City itself), in twee religious pamphlets, in ads for penis enlargement. Michelangelo’s triumph is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness. It has become Something Else… I am not sure exactly what, but it is not a chapel. It certainly feels less about communion, and more about that candyfloss.

I would probably lump Trevi Fountain into the same category. It is a construct/hashtag awash with self-absorbed selfie-stickers, who pointlessly fling euros into the tepid water. What are they wishing for? More likes? There can be a definite sense of mania in these hot, confined Roman spaces, and I soon moved away – entering the first restaurant that didn’t show pictures of its food outside the entrance. Always a clue, I find, to better quality fare.

So much for the ‘must-dos’. May I make a brief case for the ‘possibly-dos’? I stumbled on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) in the Piazza Navona. I had studied this fountain in matric art class – black and white photostats! – so was enthralled by its suddenly-encountered scale. Surrounding an obelisk sit four figures – each representing the river of a continent on which the Catholic faith had increasing influence at the time: the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile and the Rio del Plata. The figures are massive, but Bernini has sculpted them all in a state of athletic dynamism. Thighs strain, arms reach, toes splay. Captivating; I went back for a second look the next day. Is it the poor man’s Tivoli? Not in my opinion. Despite the absence of euros in the pools, this is certainly a richer offering. In fact, far from the madding Tiktokkers, in the relative calm of an open, oblong piazza, it was utter luxury.  

The nearby San Luigi dei Francesi – the Church of Louis of the French – has a similar sensibility. When I arrived at 1 pm, I was waved – or rather shrugged – away. ‘We open again at 2:30,’ said the man outside the door, with an apologetic smile. They were closed for lunch: how civilized. Just a handful of visitors were inside on my return (no fee requested). The vaulted ceiling is beautifully lofted, while the Caravaggios can be inspected up close and at leisure. It was quiet in there. The light was mostly natural. I stayed for as long as I needed to. On my way out, this old non-believer even lit a candle in a church for the first time… I didn’t offer any prayers, but a humble nod to the ingenuity, perseverance and creativity of our ancestors.

Later, over a coffee at the Hassler hotel, I perused the international edition of the New York Times. ‘Trump!’ blared one headline. ‘Shutdown!’ cried another. In the magazine, an article on queer cowboy paintings was followed by one on New Wave Fashion – ‘billowing, high-waisted trousers’. After my time in Rome, it all seemed, well, so thoroughly foreign. I put the newspaper aside, sipped my coffee, and thought instead of San Luigi.

Words: Jonathan Bain
Production: J-P de la Chaumette
Images: As credited with hero image of The Vatican by Egor Myznik from Unsplash.