By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 10/29/97 in The Madera Tribune
"If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart
To find the better way!"
— Alexander Pope, "Universal Prayer"
ROME, Italy — Just beyond the walls of the Vatican, this Maderan discovered himself in rough-and-tumble company at the restaurant Giardinaccio, a name which our guide Sylvia Puppio explained meant "ugly garden." In truth, the fine establishment didn’t live up to its name, and the hardy company I just referred to were really 11 westerners that the Catholic actor John Wayne would have been proud to call pilgrims.
We pilgrims had scarcely adjusted to the fact that all beverages, even water, cost in Italy, when the head waiter miscalculated our tabs. Mild chaos erupted among the pilgrims, one of whom quickly drew her trusty six-gun ... er ... six-digit calculator. I hid behind my beard as my tougher brethren worked out the correct totals.
While leaving I was touched, emotionally and literally, by an older Italian man who upon seeing my old-fashioned, silver crucifix said something to Sylvia and kissed the corpus on the cross. His symbolic gesture of love didn't move young Sylvia, who firmly refused to do the same despite the man’s urgings.
"A marble poem; an aesthetic dream
Of sculptured beauty, fit to be the theme
Of angel fancies; a Madonna-prayer
Uttered in stone. Round columns light as air..."
— Eleanor C. Donnelly, "Ladye Chapel at Eden Hall"
Enter the Vatican Museums and you’ll officiate at the marriage of beauty to history. A friendly coup d'etat by my fellow pilgrims had changed our afternoon itinerary from a tour of the Roman Forum and Colosseum to a more fitting tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. Ever so grateful will I be for their action, which cost us little.
Never have I walked through such lovely museums where the very walls and ceiling, adorned with frescoes and such, were historic works of art. A witty, middle-aged woman was the captain on our three-hour tour of beauty.
The overwhelming pinnacle of our abridged museum tour was the Sistine Chapel, the groundplan of which measures 40.23 by 13.41 meters — the same dimensions as Solomon's Temple. Most of the chapel's famous frescoes had been cleaned with funding from Japan's Nippon Television Network Corporation.
In the bottom right corner of the "Last Judgment" fresco, the fiery mouth of hell could now be brightly seen where before only murk lay. Frowning there stands a white-haired man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him biting the man's own nether world. The man represents the mythological, damned King Minos, but the face belongs to a Vatican cardinal who had often criticized Michelangelo's fresco.
Upon seeing his likeness, the cardinal complained to the pope that Michelangelo had shown him in Hell. The pope responded that hell was out of his papal jurisdiction (Mat. 16:18-19; Isa. 22:19-22), so he couldn’t help the cardinal if he was there. The image remained.
Beyond the chapel stood the largest church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica, which dwarfs the imagination as well as the body with giant celestial statues and more.
Inside sits the Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of Mary cradling the slain Jesus like a child. Admirers kept attributing the statue to other better known artists, so in anger young Michelangelo stole into the basilica by night with chisel and hammer to sign his name — the only time he signed one of his works.
I can't do justice to the basilica’s breathtaking beauty with my feeble words or borrowed eloquence ...
“Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.”
— Thomas Moore, “Oft in the Stilly Night”
Early that Wednesday evening we returned to the Hotel Sirenetta, and I rushed to the nearby church in hopes of ending the day with a mass. I caught only the tail end, and soon roamed the streets of Ostia in search of dinner.
I had exchanged some dollars for lira near the Vatican Museums, but my ignorance of Italian remained a dining obstacle. I resisted the urge to eat at a classy McDonald's restaurant, and I somewhat accidentally bought a sausage pita from a street vendor by a pier in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I learned not to ask what something is if the vendor doesn't speak much English.
All through that evening I kept running into young, amorous couples exchanging long embraces and kisses. The memories and frustration which a young man alone tends to struggle with in such times led me to retire to my hotel room, where I found peace in prayer and in writing postcards to friends and family.
"Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity."
— Lionel Johnson, "The Dark Angel"