Vatican City

If Rome's like Mumbai commuter traffic on a weekday morning, Vatican City's the Kumbh mela. The sheer magnitude of people made me long for the relative calm of Tirupati. I first went by at about 8am on a weekday, just to grab V.C. stamps from the post office as a souvenir (they have a different postal system from Rome), and there was already an hour's wait to get into St Peter's. 

I planned to visit the Vatican on Sunday, which coincidentally, was the day two popes were being canonized by Pope Francis, and also the day that the Vatican Museum (housing the Sistine Chapel) would have free entry. Obviously I expected it to be crowded, so I woke up at my usual god-forsaken hour and headed to the train station. There were police holding back crowds at the stairs, and staggering people's entry onto the platforms so that we didn't all push each other onto the tracks, which tells you all you need to know. The displays at the stations rarely make sense. They show different times between platforms; they'll indicate a train's arriving in 1 minuto, and even that it's arrived, all with no train in sight. This becomes a lot less amusing when there are 500 people on the platform. The train itself was like a session of hot yoga. And all of that was still the relaxed part compared to actually getting off at the Vatican stop. All of Rome, and most of the neighbouring cities' populations seemed to have descended on the place! 

So many things didn't make any sense to me. There were a few guards around, but no one was frisked, not even by a metal detector. Some of us got within touching distance of the Pope. And forget him, there were so many people around that anyone could have shot/bombed/done damage to anyone. I counted four people being shoved through the crowd on stretchers and into waiting ambulances in ten minutes. Then I stopped counting. I'm not sure why everyone gathered around there for five-six hours, during which St Peter's, and the museum, and everything else was closed; all for a potential glimpse of the Pope. Personally, I was there because I had a book, and a sandwich, and a comfortable doorstep on which to sit and observe the madness. I should have left, but I was riveted by the show. There were fist fights and tears (not all from children), a dog was trampled underfoot, and I watched some people fall over like dominoes. 

The piece of trivia that kept running through my head was that St Peter's was originally the site of Nero's circus, a chariot racing track where Christians were hurt and killed as half-time entertainment. 

It was religion at its most frustrating - you have all this blind faith and mass adulation in the face of ritualistic traditions that could clearly use some practical tweaks to be more compassionate and meaningful (surely the purpose of any God?). Look at the population of the Vatican today + the population of Rome + the number of tourists, and obviously having an open invitation to saunter into the square during these ceremonies is a recipe for disaster. Limit the audience. Project everything onto several screens in several different locations. Have the ceremonies happen earlier in the morning. Do something, just not necessarily the same thing you did five hundred years ago. It's not merely ineffecient but also, evidently, damaging. 

Through some hefty shoving, not all my own, I found myself in the second row of people, and the Pope waved at us. I was also the fifth in line to get into St. Peter's, so I saved myself a couple of hours' wait there, at least. The church is huge, and, I heard, was funded by 'indulgences' from wealthy repentants (this inspired the Protestant reformation). There are adult-sized marble babies, markings on the floor where other big churches would have ended (St. Paul's in London, the Duomo in Florence), and golden grates galore. After the madness of the morning, it all felt a bit surreal, and I stared around shell-shocked before shuffling out again. To be fair, I can't think of anything that would have made all that worth it. 

I was mostly there to see Michaelangelo's Pieta ('pity'). He was 24 when he completed this, his first major commission from the French ambassador; a statue of Mary with the body of Christ. It's a pity that the piece is kept behind glass - a madman walked in and started hacking away at it in 1972, so it's been safely imprisoned since. It's so fluid though, the glass just barely contains it.

So, in conclusion, I don't regret going. I think I even got to see the essence of Vatican City. But I doubt I'll be persuaded to go back, not even for Pieta. 

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