It’s been a month now since Teri and I went on a vacation to Rome and Florence, Italy and I am just now getting around to writing about it. We had such a fantastic time. Florence has always been at the top of my list of places to travel since the days of my art history classes when I was in art school. Renaissance art has always had a special place in my heart. At first the trip seemed to be a fantastic walk through my textbook, but in the end was much more.
We arrived in Rome on a Saturday so we went to St. Peter’s Square the following morning to hear the Pope deliver his Sunday address. We arrived at the sprawling, cobblestone square and stood dumbfounded looking the beautiful arcing colonnades and the enormous basilica. The church is designed with such incredible proportions that it looks smaller than it really is which created an unusual effect as I walked closer. As I approached the church I began to realize just how big it is and was filled with more and more awe with each step.
Teri and I milled about the square looking at the statues that are spaced at even intervals across the tops of “Bernini’s Arms,” the beautiful double colonnade of gigantic columns that surround St. Peter’s Square. In the center of the square is an obelisk that came from the Egyptian town of Heliopolis, which is about a fifteen-minute drive from where I live in Ghamra.
In short order, despite the cold weather, the square began to fill with people from all over the world. People came as far away as South America to hear the Pope speak that day. A commotion of drums and horns began from behind the walls of Vatican City, and a few moments later the Swiss Guard came streaming out into the center of the square. They were dressed in baggy, colorfully striped uniforms that instantly made me think of a jester’s costume. Their uniforms were topped off with a conquistador-style helmet. Each member of the guard held either a pike or a sword in his hand. They paraded in and stood in a block formation.
Then high above the square, from the Pope’s office, a carpet rolled out of a window and hung on the ledge. A podium appeared and a few moments later the Pope arrived. People cheered and chanted sayings as if they were at a football game. The Pope began to speak in Italian and then later repeated his message in English, his native German, French, Polish, and Spanish. I honestly can’t even remember what he said. Perhaps I was simply caught up in the experience of being in St. Peter’s Square with all those people with St. Peter’s Basilica as a backdrop. It was an amazing time.
Teri and I spent our afternoon touring what felt like the Italian countryside as we walked down the Appian Way, which at one time was the longest straight road in the world. The Appian Way is shut down to auto traffic on Sundays so we could walk along in peace to see the ancient buildings and catacombs of the early Christians in Italy. A guide took us deep into a subterranean maze with human-sized nooks in the walls. Our guide told us in that one catacomb there are over 500,000 tombs. Many of them were children because of the high mortality rate of infants at that time. She also said that Christians used the catacombs as worship spaces when Christianity was forbidden by the Roman Empire and there was evidence of altars in some of the family crypts. Christians adopted a lot of Roman symbolism and then attached their own meaning to the symbols. That way Romans were less likely to identify Christians and persecute them. Some of these symbols are still used in Christian churches to this day.
The next morning Teri and I returned to St. Peter’s and entered Vatican City because we had an appointment to go on the SCAVI tour, which was perhaps my favorite part of our trip. Long before we left Egypt for Rome, Teri visited a web site about the SCAVI tour, which takes you deep below St. Peter’s Basilica into the Necropolis, to the actual tomb of St. Peter. It’s very hard to get permission to go on the SCAVI tour because they only take about 130 people into the Necropolis per day. The Vatican maintains strict measures to preserve the ancient artifacts under the church. The only way to apply to go on the tour is to email the Vatican and inform them of your interest, the language you speak, and what days you are available. Well, Teri and I were both ecstatic about the possibility of going on the tour so Teri applied. Perhaps it was just because January is “down season” in Rome, but Teri and I were accepted to go on the tour for Monday.
So we showed up at the Vatican early on Monday morning, got our reserved tickets at the SCAVI office, and then we met our guide. She introduced herself and then led us through the grottoes, where all of the previous popes were buried to a glass door. Her following actions made me certain I was about to see something truly special. Our guide punched in some numbers on a keypad and the airtight glass door slowly slid to the side and we entered a sort of airlock. Our group of ten shuffled down some steps into the small stone room, which was just large enough to hold us all, before the glass door slowly slid back into place. Then our guide punched numbers in on another keypad and a second glass door moved to the side. We stooped through the small opening and as I entered the next room I could instantly feel the warm damp air on my face. I never asked but I suppose the purpose of the airlock is to keep a certain level of humidity in the Necropolis.
We entered the first crypt, which was protected by thick glass and was lit by dim spotlights. Our guide began talking about the room but I instantly recognized ancient Egyptian symbols, which included the image of Horus. Our guide explained to us that the Necropolis was a burial place for “pagans” of ancient times, so many of the tombs we would see were for people from distant lands. Who would have thought I would be looking at a grave of an ancient Egyptian in Rome? Necropolis means “City of the Dead” and was an accurate description according to the beliefs of the “pagan” religions. This was a place of dead people.
I thought back to our trip to the early Christian catacombs where our guide there told us that Christians called their burial chambers cemeteries which comes from a Greek word that means “sleeping place.” Since Christians believe that they will rise from the dead on Judgment Day, they just considered their dead to be in a state of rest. Hence the phrase, “rest in peace.”
Now, back to the Necropolis. Our guide led us from one room to another showing us ancient Roman tombs through thick panes of glass. There were faint paintings on the walls that were reminiscent of Roman gods and goddesses.
Then we came to a section of the Necropolis that was cavernous and seemed like it was densely packed with small, brick houses. Small, dim spotlights shone through the darkness on the doorways of the small houses where we could look inside so see the tombs of entire Roman families.
Our guide called our attention to the ground where she told us that the narrow, paved street we were standing on was from the first century. We were standing at the level of Vatican Hill (from which the Vatican took its name) at the time the Romans were burying their dead. The little town of crypts once stood in the open air with the sky above. But above our heads was a dark cave-like ceiling, which was the floor of the grottoes above. Our guide explained that in order to build St. Peter’s Basilica, the architects had to backfill Vatican Hill to make it level enough to build on, so they simply buried the ancient Roman crypts to level out the land. In some cases the crypts stuck up out of the leveled area, so the architects just “chopped” off the top of the crypts. Our guide pointed out several cases where the crypts had no roofs because of this.
We continued along the first century road, which began to incline towards the top of what was Vatican Hill, in the direction where St. Peter was buried. We went through another glass airlock door to a small stone room. The guide told us to look through a hole in the wall to a small chamber where we would see a roughly built rock wall about six feet wide and three feet tall.
Our guide explained to us that when excavations began under St. Peter’s Basilica it was rumored that St. Peter was buried directly under the altar. So the excavators began digging straight down, just to the side of the altar. They dug straight down for some time before cutting under the altar. Their thought was they would come up under St. Peter’s tomb. What they eventually found were two rock walls. From the “oral history” the excavators knew that shortly after St. Peter was buried in an unmarked grave, his followers (who knew where the grave was) built subterranean rock walls on either side of Peter’s grave. Our guide told us that the rock wall we were looking at was the left wall of Peter’s grave. We were in the area the excavators had dug out. We were below the first century ground level, just even with the subterranean tomb of St. Peter. Unfortunately the excavators didn’t find any remains between the two rock walls.
From that chamber we climbed a tightly winding staircase to another stone chamber directly above where we had been standing. We were then on the same level as the grottoes where the popes are buried. Again there was a hole in the wall that revealed an excavated shrine that was built directly on top of Peter’s grave. We were looking at the left side of the shrine. The shrine was built in the first century by some of Peter’s followers who knew where his grave was located. In the fourth century, when Constantine came to power and declared Christianity legal, he built an altar over the shrine and a large basilica over the altar. (Side note: the basilica Constantine built was later razed and rebuilt because it was falling apart. The current basilica was begun in 1509.) Our guide took us through a series of doors, showing us the different sides of the altar. We came to the right side of the altar and our guide told us about the graffiti written on the side that translates to “Peter is here.” It turned out there was a secret alcove just behind the graffiti that contained the bones of Saint Peter. Somewhere along the way, someone had moved the bones from the actual tomb to the secret alcove in order to protect them.
Our tour guide presented us with a great deal of evidence that the Roman Catholic Church claims as proof that the bones are those of Saint Peter. The bones were studied extensively and were found to be the bones of a male in his seventies, which wasn’t an age many people reached during those times. It is believed that Peter was in his seventies when Emperor Nero had him crucified. The skeleton is also missing its feet. The RCC claims that this is because Peter was crucified upside down and the Roman guards just chopped his feet off to remove him from the cross instead of going to the trouble of untying him. I was rather convinced.
As it turns out, there is yet another opening to peer through. This time it is in the right wall of the altar. I looked closely and saw a clear Plexiglas container designed by NASA sitting in the alcove. It contains the actual bones of Peter. What just astounds me is that in one month I went from Peter’s house on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum to St. Peter’s Basilica where I saw the bones of Peter himself. What an incredible journey this has been!
There’s much more to our trip to Rome and Florence. Tune in again later and there will be more to read.