Roman Adventures (Part 2): on the roof of St. Peter’s

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Let’s recap: I had travelled to Rome in late January 2014 in order to deliver the Annual Society of Renaissance Studies Partnership lecture, hosted by the British School in Rome. The journey from Nottingham had meant a 3am start and a gruelling 5-hour coach trip to Rome, but Rome is worth a few discomforts any time! On my first day in Rome, with rain lashing down on and off most day, I had planned to climb the dome of St. Peter’s, but due to a Papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, access to the basilica and its cupola was not allowed that day. So, I went and explored a few other things, and recounted my adventures from my first day in Rome here.

On my final morning in Rome, the morning after the lecture the night before, I had 3 hours free time before it was time to make my way to Fiumicino Airport, and after my failure on the previous day, undertaking the ascent of the dome was my one sightseeing priority for the day. I like climbing on things, and I have a particular interest in climbing on early modern  buildings.

Roof spaces are, in my opinion, not researched enough, and where roof spaces are being considered, there is comparatively more literature on secular spaces, such as the leads of Elizabethan prodigy houses, than on ecclesiastical spaces. Yet access to the roof, both for practical reasons of repair and maintenance, but, more importantly, for reasons of performance and spectacle (think deus ex machina, or the great spectacles of Baroque Rome) was required and indeed desirable for major churches. In the case of St. Peter’s, we know of doves being released into the cathedral, and then there is of course access to interior galleries etc for musical reasons. Early modern roof spaces, both external and internal, are therefore a key part of these buildings, and being able to gain access to them allows a visitor quite a different perspective on the building. Getting up and close with these privileged spaces, only ever intended for the use of the few, and normally as part of particular rituals and within the parameters of distinctive occasions, makes prowling about these spaces even more intriguing to me as somebody who studies self fashioning and the way in which early modern identities, both personal and collective, are performed and constructed, but I am digressing….

In St. Peter’s, much is made of the possibility to use a lift; what the sign at the bottom of the ascent does not tell the visit is that the lift only travels for 200 of the 500+ steps, and, on top, those first 200 steps are the easy ones. Really, climb the steps and savour the ascent; given the opportunity, I will always climb the stairs.

First stage of ascent to Michelangelo's Lantern

First stage of ascent to Michelangelo’s Lantern

The elevator, in any way, only travels to the roof of the nave; the real ascent, into Michelangelo’s dome, then commences, and there is no lift from the roof to the top much to the consternation of some other visitors that morning). The roof of St. Peter’s is certainly unlike any other roof I have ever stood on: where else would you find not only a bathroom, but also a gift shop (staffed by very friendly nuns), a bar and a post office? Anyway, most visitors resist the temptations of the gift shop at this point, and press on, with over 300 steps still waiting. Where the first stage of the climb is a simple matter of ascending to the roof, the next stage takes the visitor inside the dome, in order to emerge, eventually, at the bottom of Michelangelo’s lantern.

The climb inside is an exhilarating mix of vertigo and claustrophobia; the walk wraps itself around between the outer and inner skins of the dome, with each turn getting tighter, and the walls bending inwards to create the shape of the great dome. Of course, it is perfectly logical to expect that at some point during this ascent, there would be access to the inside cupola of St. Peter’s, but while I might have known and expected this, when it happened, that moment still took my breath away.

Inside the dome of St. Peter's

Inside the dome of St. Peter’s

Just imagine the moment when you step into the space above Bernini’s Baldacchino: there is simply nothing quite like it. I am not normally one to get scared at heights, but there was a moment when I needed to take a DEEP breath, and where raw emotions of fear needed to be dealt with by cool, calm reasoning about the safety of the space inside the dome. After all, just opposite me, sat a Vatican security guard on a little wooden chair, thermos flask of coffee at his feet and newspaper in his hand! What a job….

close up of the mosaics in the dome of St. Peter's

close up of the mosaics in the dome of St. Peter’s

The best bit? The ability to see the mosaic decoration close up. Where from the ground, the tesserae are invisible, inside the dome the effect is like looking at a grand pointillist masterpiece.

But, the only way is literally up, with the climb getting steeper and increasingly more tilted and leaning inwards, until the visitor finally steps outside again. And this time, the view is breath taking!

St. Peter's Square and Via della Conciliazione

St. Peter’s Square and Via della Conciliazione

Stepping out again after the long climb was a truly exhilarating moment, and it does truly afford simply the best conceivable aerial view of the Vatican and its surrounding areas. From above, the spatial topography of the area around St. Peter’s suddenly makes sense: there, in plain view, is the walkway between the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo that saved the pope’s life in 1527, and that snakes through the remainders of the medieval borgo. Also, there are the gardens of Vatican City, and from the dome of St. Peter’s, the view gives you just a little glimpse into this really rather unique state, complete with enormous radio transmitters and wonderful palaces. I was especially interested in the spatial relations between the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s; the modern visitor, alas, no longer gets a sense of how the space works organically because the only way to get to the Sistine Chapel is through the Vatican Museums, and that is really like entering through the backdoor! Most immediately impressive though was the view of St. Peter’s Square itself, with Mussolini’s preposterous but strangely evocative Via della Conciliazione bursting into the square and busting its entrance wide open. Really, if you want to see a place properly, there is nothing like climbing above it.

shops on the roof of St. Peter's

shops on the roof of St. Peter’s

I did, though, have a plane to catch, so down I climbed, back 300 steps and on to the roof, past the bathroom, shop and bar again, and down the steps, only to emerge not where the ascent started but right in the nave of St. Peter’s itself! And this is when finally, all the morning’s impressions started to make sense and come together in one glorious celebration of nothing more or less than the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. For a church that was reasserting its dominance in 17th century Rome, only the biggest, the most colourful, the most wonderful church would do, and St. Peter delivers all of that, without any question or doubt. One thing St. Peter does not lack is impact and oomph, and yet it still manages to be more than just an enormous, cavernous space. There is a lot of atmosphere to a church that is essentially designed to impress, and as usual, I started to wander…

Nave of St. Peter's

Nave of St. Peter’s

Alas, at this point I REALLY had to get a move on, and it was time to swap he wonderful architectural extravaganza of St. Peter’s for the more modest and slightly less exalted surroundings of Fiumicino Airport. I definitely left on a high after finally climbing all the way to the top of a true architectural gem.

For more pictures from my frantic but fabulous 48 hours in Rome, look on my flickr photo stream here.

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