What a traveler’s treasure! It is almost impossible not to find someplace to fall in love with in Italy. Even if you arrive in a grumpy mood, swearing to yourself that you
are going to have a lousy time, you will fail, because Italy just creeps into your mind, and you are soon overtaken by the “wonderfulness” of the place, the people, the culture, and the food.
We had been exploring and sightseeing in Rome for nearly a week. It was the last Sunday of the month, time for us to depart and go north. I had purchased train tickets leaving the station around mid-afternoon, going north to Milan for a performance at the famous La Scala Theater and to see the mostly restored work, The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci's Masterpiece. A few days later we would be in Venice. For now, however, we had a few hours to spare, and decided to visit the Vatican.
Leaving our luggage at the hotel, we went outside and hailed a cab, instructing him to take us to the Sistine Chapel.
“On the last Sunday of the month! Are you crazy”, the cab driver blurted out? “On the last Sunday of the month the Vatican is ‘No Charge’. Everyone comes in free. You are insane to go there on the last Sunday of the month”.
He must have grumbled that phrase, “last Sunday of the month”, at least a half dozen more times under his breath as we drove on. He did make it a point to say this in English,
so there was no chance we would misunderstand his disapproval of what we were doing.
Approaching the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, we passed probably several thousand people already lined up waiting to enter. Fortunately, there
was a ramp and special access for the disabled, so we went right in.
Just inside was a foyer with a small room off to the side. In this room one could hire an official guide for a tour, and we were fortunate that there was a guide available. He was an
older gentleman, with a cane, sitting alone, reading the Sunday papers. He was so absorbed in the paper it was almost a shame to interrupt him.
I asked, and he replied he was available for hire. He told us his hourly rate, and we agreed to engage him for the next few hours.
Leaving his paper on the table, he walked in front of us, leading the way through the throng of people crowded into the narrow passageways. When the crush of people became too great,
he would reach out with his cane and literally beat on the backs or heads of people in front of us, shouting, “Prego, PREGO! Let us pass”.
He took a series of shortcuts and switches, up and down elevators clearly marked, “Not for Public Use”, arriving finally at the Sistine Chapel. He led us in, still beating
on heads, until we were in the middle of the room. Then he stopped. "Look up to the ceiling", he commanded, “and see the work of the master”. And he proceeded to give us nothing
short of a doctoral dissertation explaining everything about the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
We learned so much and enjoyed being with him so much that we stayed longer and missed our train! He was utterly fantastic, and he left a deep impression on us. We sent him Christmas cards for a number of years until one year, his daughter wrote back and told us her father had passed
Rome, itself, contains treasures you must see in person- so magnificent are the buildings, the fountains, the sculpture, that you simply cannot get it into your head otherwise.
We went to the Coliseum, built in 80 AD. The photo does not do it justice, so a little information is needed:
It took 10 years to build this magnificent arena, the largest building of its type in the World. Anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 spectators, each with a numbered ticket, could come in, climb the sloping ramps up to their seats. It was not then, nor is it particularly now- wheelchair accessible. Seating was by class and gender, and the emperor had his own private box, a forerunner of the executive suites found in modern day arenas.
Women and the poor stood or sat on wooden benches in the fourth (highest tier).
Originally, a wooden floor covered the subterranean chambers you see here. Gladiators, animals, (Christians?) were kept in these chambers prior to show time, and were raised by human- powered elevators through trap doors in the flooring, suddenly appearing to face whatever fate was in store for them. Thousands and thousands of Jewish slaves were used in the construction of the coliseum.
Most shows lasted all day, with "comedy" acts and exotic animals shown in the morning; gladiator events were in the afternoon. Occasionally, free Romans and women could enter the games- earning a few moments of glory- if they survived.
In rainy or unusually hot weather, an enormous colored awning could be stretched overhead, making the Coliseum the world's first covered arena (nothing new under the sun?)
Contrary to movies and popular notion, there is apparently no documentation to back up the story of Christians being fed to lions. Gladiator fights to the death were outlawed in 404 AD.
With the the Coliseum as a backdrop, you are looking at the Roman Forum, an expansive "work in progress", beginning about 600BC.