Rome revisited

On our second stay in Rome, we stayed at an Airbnb near the Vatican. [Our first stay was somewhat near the Colosseum in the southern part of the city.] Vatican City is its own country within Rome and has ancient walls surrounding it.


This picture was taken from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, showing the greenness of Vatican City and the walls keeping the green in from the rest of Rome (about 1/4 down from the top of the picture).

We actually began our second Rome adventure by taking a special tour of the Vatican Museums at 0600 called “Opening up the Vatican”. This group of 18 tourists followed around the “key keepers” of the Vatican Museums as they unlocked doors and gates and turned on the lights. [Steve dropped the ball and didn’t get a picture of me opening one of the doors.]


Just one of the many doors we opened:


When the lights came on in the “Map Room”, it took your breath away (be patient for the first 10 sec of the video).

This room was just amazing, and almost more mesmerizing than the Sistine Chapel.


Speaking of which - we had 20 minutes, just the 18 of us, alone in the Sistine Chapel, and were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted. This is just not granted when the masses come streaming in. You are forbidden to take pictures here, and the staff even have people delete pictures off their phones and cameras, if they catch you doing it (but everyone still does, surreptitiously). This ceiling is so busy that it’s nearly impossible to take in all of what’s going on, in one sitting.

This is “just” the 5 center panels:


You can enlarge the picture to see more details. I was almost more enamored of the Sibyls along the sides because of their vivid colors and flowing robes.


Even though the Creation of Adam is probably the best known panel, I liked the “Downfall of Adam and Eve” better (because of the snake lady around the tree).


Probably the crowning glory is The Last Judgment on the altar wall. We had our guide take our picture in front of it (since everybody else was too).


My favorite part was the side where the damned were being pulled down to Hell. The poor guy with his head in his hand looks to be thinking “why did I …?” The skin hanging near the top left is said to be Michelangelo’s self portrait. The skin is held by St. Bartholomew, who usually is depicted with a knife and a human skin, showing how he was killed.


In reviewing all my pictures, I found that I didn’t get a full picture of this fresco. The best way to see it in all its gory glory and busyness is enlarging the one taken of us by our guide.

It was pretty cool to see the city coming to life as we passed various windows and doors.


After the private tour, we went back through the Vatican Museums with the throngs of tourists (and this was low season) to spend more time trying to take in just a fraction of the collection of paintings, sculptures and artifacts that have been amassed by the Church over the past two millennia.

We were also able to enter St. Peter’s Basilica through a “secret” door, bypassing the lines at security out in the Square. Wow. The sheer size and height of the interior was truly jaw dropping.


The baldachin (66 ft high) over the altar is supposed to mediate between the height of the dome directly over it and the human scale of those saying Mass.


Of course we took the opportunity to climb up the dome. By this point, we had already been on our feet for 6 hours, so we took the elevator part way up, saving about 300 steps, but we came down the entire 551 on the way out. The first picture in this post was taken from the dome. It was too bad that the weather didn’t cooperate, but the views over the city were still pretty awe inspiring.


[We thought it quite ironic (and humorous) that a (pagan) Christmas tree was being erected near the Egyptian obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square.]


The sun finally came back on our last morning in Rome:


I’ll close with one last Michelangelo sculpture, the Pieta. Even though it’s not “of this season”, the quiet beauty is very thought provoking. Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas.


Florence...some more

We hit the ground running, every morning we were in Florence, to make the most of the time we had, as well as to get the most out of our 72 hour museum pass!

Early morning rowers on the Arno

Early morning rowers on the Arno

The Duomo in Florence reminded me of the one in Siena because of the similar white, green and pink stones used to build it, as well as the bell tower, but this one was SO much larger and more ornate.


Duomo in Italian means cathedral. The one in Florence has a very impressive dome and bell tower, as well as a Baptistery. This latter building is famous for a set of bronze doors completed by Ghiberti in 1452 named the “Gates of Paradise”, after Michelangelo apparently stated they were beautiful enough for that. The 3 dimensionality was unique and revolutionized the way Renaissance people saw the world.


I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of a person next to the door, to show how massive they are. Each door has 5 panels in it, and when someone was standing next to the doors, their head only started to come up into the second panel. The panels were made of bronze with a layer of gold on top.

Of course we climbed the bell tower - all 414 steps…


… and got great views of the city.


Next up was the Medici Chapels. It was one enormous building with tombs of the Medici family. The best part was Michelangelo’s New Sacristy which contained 4 of his statues on two tombs. My favorite was “Dawn”:


Our favorite museum was a little known “gem” called Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, or Museum of the Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones. The Opificio Delle Pietre Dure is an Italian government agency devoted to art conservation and is a direct descendant of the workshop established in 1588 by Fernando I de’Medici to create the elaborate, inlaid precious and semi-precious stoneworks. (Pietre dure is the art of cutting and fitting highly polished colored stones to create mosaic images.) We wandered awestruck through the little museum with our mouths agape at the artistry, contemplating the time necessary to create such beauty.


I’m sorry for the lighting, but it was lit from above, and I couldn’t get any better angle. This is not a painting. Expand the picture so you can see the intricacy of the cut pieces of marble and stones and how closely they fit. I loved the use of the dark stones to create shadows and give a look of depth.

The Ponte Vecchio at dusk:


So, the place where Michelangelo’s David lives is the Accademia. He had stood for over 350 years outside of the Palazzo Vecchio when it was decided to move him inside in 1874. The building was essentially built for him, and it’s a marvelous showcase. Lining the hall leading up to David are 4 more Michelangelo sculptures, The Prisoners, that are all unfinished. It was really cool to see the chisel marks and the suggestion of shapes coming out of the marble blocks.


I was dreading the crowds, but they really ebbed and flowed, so that I was able to wander all around him and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the work.


Different angles of viewing brought out seemingly different looks to his expression -


(it’s hard to believe that sling is made of marble, like the rest of him)


When Michelangelo died (at age 89!), he was working on the Pieta for his own tomb (the hooded man holding Jesus is a self portrait of the artist). Again, the unfinished state was fascinating to see how he worked with the marble.


Closing the door on this chapter of Florence, leads us back to Rome…


Scenes from Tuscany, then on to Florence

I still had some neat pictures from the towns in Tuscany that we visited, that I wanted to share, but didn’t fit my story line in the previous post.

Several days in the villa near Cortona were very foggy. We went ahead and hiked up into the town of Cortona, and literally on the top of the hill that the town is built on, we got above the clouds and fog, and had some really neat views.


Once the fog lifted we could see the views we had been missing:


In Siena (and most other Tuscan towns) they have gorgeous painted ceramics -


… as well as interesting door decorations:


Even the smallest towns will have a church, with some having three (or 5 or 10!).


Also, I thought it was interesting that so many towns are walled, and the walls are still intact.



We have loved the first hand education on Italian wine, being able to taste ones from different locations, and having a mental image of the town or the area they come from. Also tasting the different levels of quality, and being able to put names to the tastes we prefer (will be very helpful in the future in restaurants!).

grapevines in the foreground and olive trees behind

grapevines in the foreground and olive trees behind

Florence is a much bigger city than any we visited in Tuscany. It too has a wall:


We went to so many museums that our heads and eyes were spinning trying to take in all the beauty around. Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, and completed this Bacchus when he was only 22! (1497)


This “Holy Family” is his only completed easel painting:


The Uffizi Gallery (where we saw so many famous paintings by Botticelli, Lippi, Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian) has the largest collection of Italian art in the world. It was huge, and we almost literally ran through it, just to make it to all the main pieces. Steve was disappointed at all the art (and plaques to read) that we had to miss. We need to go back to Florence, just to spend another 2 days at the Uffizi alone! I was truly surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing all these Old Masters’ works of art (such gorgeous colors and neat perspectives up close) and being educated on the progression of painting technique through the Renaissance.

Caravaggio painted this head of Medusa on a shield:


Enough paintings already! As we advanced through the museums, I kept wanting to take pictures of all the masterpieces, then rightly concluded that I’d probably never look at them again. Sculptures on the other hand, were mesmerizing, and I usually took multiple pictures of a piece from all angles. In Rome, we had our breath taken away by the entire first floor of sculptures in the Borghese Museum, and the Bargello in Florence did likewise. (hint: these are strong recommendations for sculpture museums in these cities). Even though this post is on Florence, I wanted to include a favorite from the Borghese:


This is a sculpture by Bernini of “Apollo and Daphne” as she is being turned into a tree. Check out the fineness of the carving of the leaves between the two figures. This is marble!

Now back to Florence - here’s an interesting version of David in bronze by Donatello (over 50 years before Michelangelo’s David):


Enough art (for now)! We got a great view of the Ponte Vecchio (literal translation is “old bridge”) from the Uffizi Gallery:


The current version of this bridge was built in 1345, and it’s the only one of the many bridges over the Arno River to have shops actually built on it. The Vasari Corridor runs along above the shops and was a secret passage for the Medici to pass unseen from Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery over to the Pitti Palace (4 blocks from the bridge!).

I’ve just looked ahead and found that I have WAY too many more pictures from Florence to include (bore you with) in a single post, so I’ll end this one with a sneak peek at what’s to come:


Tuscany and a wedding

We fell in love with small Tuscan towns such as Cortona, Siena, and Montepulciano. First, seeing them up on the hills from afar…


…and then exploring their narrow, curving streets.


We went truffle hunting -


We tramped up and down hills and through woods after the hunter and his dogs for about an hour or two, and he had a very successful day.


That’s 335 grams of both black and white truffles. The white ones are much more valuable, as they are much less common and usually grow deeper than the black ones. At a restaurant, we were able to add very thinly shaved truffles to a dish for 9 euros a gram! (there are 28 grams to an ounce)


We then learned how to make homemade pasta…


… and got to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

shaved truffles on our hand made noodles

shaved truffles on our hand made noodles

We visited Siena where there was a beautiful cathedral and bell tower.


We got to climb up into the dome and had fabulous views of the town -


and surrounding countryside.


We spent a week in a villa near Cortona, where our son got married, and had a marvelous time with family and friends, eating, drinking, and again making hand made pasta - this time, spaghetti:


During this trip we also learned the “correct” way to make tiramisu and biscotti…


…as well as saltimbocca (thin steak wrapped around a sage leaf and prosciutto).


The wedding was fun, festive, fancy and enjoyed by all!

(bride and groom in the middle on the right)

(bride and groom in the middle on the right)


Our Italian vacation started with three days in Rome. Amazingly, jet lag didn’t hit us too bad, and after a nice dinner of fresh pasta at a local trattoria with a bottle of wine, we crashed deeply. Our first full day started with a guided tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.


You can tell where a later restoration was added to the right, to help stabilize it. Apparently, half of the Colosseum collapsed during an earthquake, as it was built on sand, while the half that remains was built on stone. The multiple pock marks or holes are where bronze bolts were holding the stones together, and were dug out by later rulers to melt down for munitions.


Our modern day stadiums resemble this lay out. There were three levels of seating for 60,000+ spectators. The pit in the center was where the gladiators waited and where the animals were kept. They have partially covered the far end, to recreate the look of the floor that spectators would have seen.

A small section of seating for nobles

A small section of seating for nobles

It took only 8 years for construction of the outer structure (and 100,000 Jewish slaves). It was just amazing that something of that size and complexity is still standing 2000 years later!


Two other sites that were included in our tour with the Colosseum were Palatine Hill and the Forum. Both weren’t very exciting or photogenic, and the Forum seemed to be random ruins scattered over an area in the center of the city, surrounded by newer buildings.


Moving on to the Pantheon was a Wow! for us. This building is about the same age as the Colosseum and is beautifully preserved.


It has the largest non-reinforced brick dome in the world. In the center of the dome is the oculus, which is open to the sky, allowing the only light into the building. The rain that falls in, drains through holes drilled in the marble floors into the still functioning Roman pipes underneath.


The Trevi Fountain was one of those “must see” things while in Rome, and we were going to be walking right near it on our way back to our apartment…so, why not? I was only expecting big crowds taking selfies and throwing coins, so I was really surprised by how beautiful it was. It is an enormous facade on a building that is carved in travertine.


The coolest part was that the edges were left rough and unfinished, making it look like the statues were rising up out of the stone.


And it’s pretty at night too!


It was fun wandering the streets, people watching, and eating gelato, of course! My favorite square was Piazza del Popolo (“People’s Square”) because it was so open and had neat terracing on one end leading several stories up to a garden area.


Like this young one, we’re now off to Tuscany to catch some dreams.