Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rome: The Vatican, Art and Antinous

Yes, I took the lead photo for this post near the steps of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome of a young Swiss Guard. It serves as a fitting lead-in to the story of our visit to the Vatican yesterday morning.

I am a gay man. There have been gay men (and women) that have existed since time immemorial. Their history, however, has been consigned, generally speaking, to the dust bin of history. Hidden. Unspoken. Just as most gay men's lives have been up until fairly recently.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. One of them is the tale of Antinous and the Emperor Hadrian.

I wouldn't have thought of this but for a casual mention yesterday by our guide, Fabio, an art-historian-turned-guide, who unfolded for us the back stories of the Vatican, the popes and ancient Rome and Greece.

Mark and Fabio.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of my story. 

I had booked a tour with Fabio through "Tours by Locals." I would highly recommend this site / service that we first used during our trip to Japan a year ago. Fabio is an art historian with degrees in art history from universities here in Rome. He speaks perfect English and was able to flawlessly describe for us the historical and artistic background of what we saw at the Vatican yesterday morning. He also appeared to be well-known to the personnel at the Vatican Museum. We were escorted past lines of waiting patrons right into the museum by a uniformed gentleman whose name was probably "Rocky." He kinda looked a little like Sylvester Stallone. And there were other times when fleeting looks of recognition seemed to pass between museum personnel and Fabio.

I found it interesting to watch the various tour groups that were everywhere. Groups of people with identical headsets following their guide who carried a stick with a flag on the end. Obviously, I much preferred our arrangement. We asked Fabio at one point if he found it difficult working with all kinds of people on an almost daily basis. "Sometimes," he frankly replied, "it is difficult. For example, I recently worked with a couple from New York who were like characters out of a Woody Allen movie." We later found out that they had arranged to take a *private* tour of the Vatican Archives. Not only did they have their own guide, but they had paid 2000 Euros to the Vatican for the privilege of taking a tour of the entire museum after hours.

But, again, I get ahead of my story.

We left our inn (marked above at Via Urbana 156) at 8:00 yesterday morning for (what I thought was) the 45-minute walk across Rome to the Cafe Vaticano where we were to meet Fabio at 8:50. It was a beautiful morning. A cloudless, blue sky. Brilliant. On the way, we passed by ruins near the Forum and by the Victor Emmanuel II monument, a tribute to the man who united the Italian states in the 19th century.

We quickened our pace as I kept an eye on my watch. We walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II toward a tiny street, Borgo San Spirito, that would lead us across the Pont San Angelo to the other side of the Tiber, in the face of the Castel Sant' Angelo, stronghold of popes.

Castel Sant' Angelo

St. Peter's, looking up the Via della Conciliazione

Somewhere along the Via della Conciliazione, it became apparent that we were likely going to be late. We quickened our pace even more and arrived at the Cafe Vaticano just at 9:00, where we met Fabio. Then across the street to the entrance of the Vatican Museum, being whisked through the entrance by "Sylvester" (described above) and on into the museum.

The "pigna" (pinecone) in the Belvedere Courtyard that dates to the first century. It used to be a fountain and stood near the Pantheon until moved.

The best investment we made in the Rome leg of our trip was hiring Fabio. Neither Mark nor I are "museum people" in that we can quickly tire of the museum experience. This didn't happen yesterday. We were held captivated as Fabio explained the history and context of various works of art, the popes who commissioned them and little background details that he wove into a larger story. He knew - as did we - that we couldn't hope to take in every single work during the 3-1/2 hours that we spent with him. Thus, he guided us through, stopping to answer our questions, pacing the tour.

He also told us things about Vatican City that we wouldn't have known as well as confirmed a rumor that is only known in the United States in a few circles. It was an open secret in Rome, Fabio said, that Pope Benedict is gay and that his German-Archbishop Secretary, Georg Gänswein, who lives with Benedict in his retirement, is his boyfriend.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein 

But I digress ... sort of.

I was grateful for the reading I had done in the past six months that helped give context and texture to what we were seeing. I got about two-thirds of the way through The Agony and the Ecstasy last spring and recently completed Basilica (by R.A. Scotti), a book I recommend about the saga of the building of St. Peter's. This reading, along with watching some episodes of The Borgias (the Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons - which Fabio mentioned during our tour, saying he considered it an accurate portrayal of that period), prepared me well for what I saw and heard yesterday morning.

I had learned, for example, a fair bit about Giuliano della Rovere who became Pope Julius II, the man who began the construction of St. Peter's Basilica and commissioned (ordered) Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was a collector of ancient Roman statues, and it was he who brought his collection to the Villa Belvedere, including: the Apollo of Belvedere, pictured above, which was rediscovered in central Italy in the late 15th century; the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, pictured below, which was rediscovered underneath a vineyard outside of Rome in 1506; and the "Belvedere Torso," which is pictured below the Laocoön detail.

Detail of a floor mosaic that had been moved from a Roman bath to what is now the Vatican Museum. Note the three-dimensional perspective of the meander. The ability to create perspective in art was lost until rediscovered in the Renaissance.

Eventually we moved into the Raphael Rooms, two adjoining rooms that feature frescos painted by the Renaissance wonder child, Raphael. I remember visiting these rooms in 1982 with my friend, Joe. He was an architecture student and knew a lot about what we were looking at, and I benefitted from that. Similarly, we benefitted yesterday from Fabio's knowledge.

Of all the frescos, I was most struck by the "Mass at Bolsena," pictured above (Internet photo). From Wikipedia, we learn that the following:
"The Mass at Bolsena depicts the story of a Bohemian priest who in 1263 ceased to doubt the doctrine of Transubstantiation when he saw the bread [host] begin to bleed during its consecration at Mass. The cloth that was stained by the blood was held as a relic at the nearby town of Orvieto; Julius II had visited Orvieto and prayed over the relic in 1506.[3] The Pope is portrayed as a participant in the Mass and a witness to the miracle; he kneels to the right of the altar, with members of the Curia (also portraits) standing behind him. Raphael distinguishes the "real" thirteenth-century witnesses from those who are contemporaries of the pope by their degree of engagement in the event; the latter concentrate calmly on Julius kneeling at his devotions rather than responding to the miracle."
What I found striking about this fresco is that all of the faces are looking at the altar except one, that of a Swiss guard in the lower right-hand corner. Here are a couple of detail photos that I took:

The proportions are a bit off because I was standing on the floor and the fresco is higher up on the wall. Below is a photo I found on the Internet that depicts the scene in better proportion. (Note as well the striking difference in the colors between the pictures I took and the ones from the Internet. I can only assume that the frescos have been restored in the relatively recent past.)

The young Swiss guard, who bears a striking resemblance to the one pictured in the lead photo, seems to be looking directly at the artist or at the viewer. I can only wonder what the story behind that might be ...

It then became time to go to the Sistine Chapel. Before entering (where talking is, strictly speaking, forbidden), Fabio took us aside and explained some things about both the ceiling and the "Last Judgment," each painted by Michelangelo but approximately three decades apart from one another. I had visited the Chapel in 1982, but that was before the frescos were restored. Yesterday, I was able to see them in all their original vivid colors. Of course, the place was crammed with tourists, but just being in that room, where so much history has taken place, was special.

Thence on to the Basilica. Again, my reading stood me in good stead, as it had in the Sistine Chapel. We could have been easily swamped, overwhelmed by all the art and history in the church; but as with the rest of our tour, we took it all in generally, not particularly. When I was here in 1982, my friend Joe had gone into great detail about the building of the dome, what a feat it was, and other aspects of the church's architecture. 

One interesting factoid from yesterday was that only popes who have achieved sainthood are allowed to be buried on the main floor of the basilica. When John Paul II was made a saint, his body was moved up to a side chapel from the crypt below the church. Another factoid was that is believed (by some, apparently) that the body of John XXIII (who called the Second Vatican Council and died in 1963) has remained uncorrupted. It is on display much as an embalmed person might be (e.g., Lenin; see picture from Internet below), but the claim is that no chemicals have been used to preserve the body. 

Now, back to the opening paragraphs of this post and to the subject of gay history.  One of the statues we saw in the same room as the Belvedere Apollo was that of Antinous, pictured below.

Antinous was a youth from Turkey who became the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (think Hadrian's Wall in Britain and the Pantheon in Rome). I had run across this story before, but seeing his statue reminded me of the intensity of the love between Hadrian and Antinous and the deification that evolved after Antinous' untimely drowning in the River Nile. Ancient contemporary sources make it quite clear what kind of relationship they had. Hadrian mourned Antinous' death bitterly and founded a city in Egypt to honor his memory.

The only surviving painted image of Antinous. It is interesting to note the resemblance to the Swiss Guard in Raphael's fresco (discussed above) and - though admittedly a bit of a stretch, to the Swiss Guard whose picture I took outside St. Peter's Basilica.

The story of Hadrian and Antinous is just one of many stories of same-sex love that is little-known in the world today. What we now call homosexuality (a term invented in the 19th century) has always been present in recorded history, but it has rarely been recorded.

Today, it's off to the Forum and Colosseum this afternoon after a lazy morning. Tomorrow, we head for Athens.

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