If an elephant trod on your foot you would probably be impressed with its power and size, but you wouldn’t necessarily wish to develop a long term relationship. Visiting Rome can be very similar. The architecture is essentially bullying, bearing down on you with a decayed swagger, and the scowly old placemen whose statues survive, scaled up and heavy looking with muscly calves and thick necks, would, if invited to tea, wave an imperious arm and break the china before enslaving your daughter and kicking the cat. You find yourself resisting them in retrospect.
The Vatican Museum is like a scaled up box of overwrought chocolates. You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it. So much, so rich, and more and more and more, until you need another word for cloying that is less begrudging and mean-spirited but also protective from an exposure to what will ruin your appetite for the rest of the week. The crowds surge forwards, many so busy filming everything in sight they haven’t got time to look at it, so they will only ever see it on their screens and might as well stay at home and get the video in the first place. Guides lead their exhausted flocks further into the lair, drowning them in facts that only a guide could care about, and they all rush past the off-centre Etruscan rooms which, in consequence, and cool and quite. These contain some of the most refined, delicate, miniature jewellery. Alone, in a small relaxed corner, you can appreciate what is positive about so much wealth, or at least the workmanship of those it will buy for you. But then back into the fray until we all file in the Sistine which, according to notices, is a place of worship where you have to show respect by covering your wicked flesh – especially the bits invented by Eve and not God, like navels and shoulders – and remain silent. The covering up was more or less achieved but the excited hubbub was entirely unaffected by guards who insistently cried “Silencio” like ineffectual schoolmasters until, at last, someone tried to take a picture and they could exercise real authority by bundling him outside to make an example of him. Quiet contemplation, reverence, aesthetic appreciation, spiritual influence? No chance. But the trompe l’oeil effects on the painted drapery were very impressive and Michael paints a mean buttock. Or should that be a ‘generous buttock’?
Possibly because of health and safety, or maybe just from sheer exhaustion, the pilgrims’ candles have been replaced in most churches by electric light. Whereas before you paid your lire and lit your votive offering as a prayer for your sick mother, now you put €2 in the slot, flick a switch and a small bulb comes on above one of the plastic stems. I suppose in the end it has the same effect, but a definite reduction in majesty is achieved by playing muzak over church speakers, so the voices of monks and young choirboys, raised in ancient chant, are accompanied by a whine caused by a loose connection, or maybe interference from all the gadgets below, being used to record for posterity so much gold leaf and so many pictures of old Jerome (again).
But the beggars, at least, keep the old traditions alive. Taking off their shoes, or in one case their material wraps, to show misshapen or missing feet to the passing pilgrims, they hold their coloured cards of The Virgin above a paper cup and silently try to persuade you she would like you to worship her by feeding them. Most, of course, don’t. A few scrawny old women manage to abase themselves so completely they kneel or even lay before the crowds, hands together in what looks like prayer, a dog-eared religious picture above the soiled paper cup. The crowds surge past, photograph the interiors and surge out again. Tradition is alive and well. The acquisitive brutality of the Imperial Legions has been replaced by the indifferent carapace of the modern barbarian tourist and the wizened, deformed and poor still need to get out of the way.
Unlike the hawkers. Within seconds of the first rain drop there are immigrants on each street corner, waving umbrellas at you to try to scratch a living. On alternate pavements are orange clad fakirs. One sits cross-legged and holds a thick pole about a foot off the ground. His eyes are closed and he tells his beads as he concentrates on his feat. On the top of his pole sits another, cross-legged and orange clad, eyes closed in contemplation. How does a small orang clad immigrant hold this heavy pole with a man atop? What concentration! Crowds gather, admire, wonder and occasionally chuck a few cents before them. Then you walk on a few streets and see it again. And again. Whatever ingenious bracing structure allows them to pull off this trick it must be mass-produced in an industrial park at the far end of the metro, like the umbrellas, or the electric candle machines. Or maybe it is made in some far corner of the old empire and travels, like amber and lions, slowly to the heart of the world, to help keep up the illusion that there are powers above you to whom you might as well defer. Or else.