531 steps and views that no postcard can adequately show. This is what I experienced yesterday when I climbed to the highest possible height in Rome: the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. I had been wanting to climb to the top since I first found out that you could do so when I arrived in Rome back in January. It has always been the highest building in Rome and most likely always will be. There is an unofficial agreement between the Italian State and the Church that St. Peter’s Basilica always remain the tallest building in Rome, so that Italy does not construct a taller, more grandiose building that might upstage the Church. Even in the 21st century, it is no surprise that the Church still has more control than meets the eye in Italy, and maintaining its grandeur is one of its last ways to do that.
Normally, the line to climb to the top of the cupola, or the top of the dome, is extremely long and many wait several hours just to buy a ticket. I had expected to wait in long lines yesterday since tourism season is in full swing, but was shocked when I entered the line in front of the basilica and found that I was at the front. I quickly sailed to the ticket window and saw the sign that said 5 euro on foot, 7 euro to take an elevator halfway and then the rest on foot. I opted for the 5 euro path in order to get the full experience of feeling your heart race and adrenaline rushing through your body once you reach the top of the spiral journey.
Then the climb began. I maintained a slower pace at first and then gradually picked up pace once I realized that the steps were not too steep. The climb initially seemed much less intense than that of the Duomo in Florence, which is actually fewer steps (about 460). After a few minutes of walking up on this ramp-like path, always circling the elevator, I arrived on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica. I was completely unaware that I would actually be walking on the roof of the largest church in the world; I assumed that the staircase led directly to the top of the dome.
But then I saw something that I had never before seen so up close: The Sistine Chapel. It was less than half a football field away from me as I marveled at what I had just discovered through the iron fence that I wish did not exist for the sake of better pictures. Even though it seems obvious in hindsight that from the top of the dome I would have seen the entirety of the Sistine Chapel’s exterior, it never dawned on me that I would ever get to experience the building in this way. I found myself scrutinizing every detail of what I could see from this distance. The arches that come off the side; the drainage system for the roof, the slits of windows that number about three from what I could see, and a symbol that looked as if it could be a cross or perhaps a symbol of the pope. I began to wonder if the architects for the Sistine Chapel could have possibly had any idea that one day this building would become the bedrock of Christianity.
Consecrated in 1483, it is not difficult to believe that the Sistine Chapel is over 500 years old. The slightly tinted crimson bricks that have been drenched by the sun for centuries along with its slanted roof that resembles many other roofs of older buildings in Rome, it is not the outside of the Sistine Chapel that necessarily makes it unique. The interior masterpieces of Michelangelo are what make you appreciate being able to see this chapel from such a close distance. I must have stood there for 15 to 20 minutes simply taking in the reality that I was staring at a building that has been involved in so much history and houses some of humanity’s most treasured works of art. Before I turned away, I remembered that it was just over a month and a half ago that the Church would become forever changed right in this very building.
It was up a few more stairs before I arrived inside St. Peter’s Basilica at the top of the dome’s interior within the church. There was a mass going on behind the altar of St. Peter, under which the remains of St. Peter himself are said to lie. I had been in the basilica plenty of times before but had never seen it in this way. The people at the mass and the tourists staring up at me seemed like ants. The height of the dome’s interior is 136 feet, and I was so high up that I could barely hear any sounds from the mass below. After I made my way around the crescent path, I started the second half of the climb up to the cupola which was the more grueling half. The spiral staircase was narrow and definitely any claustrophobia subscriber’s worst nightmare. Every so often there would be a small opening that would offer a tease of the views that awaited me and a gentle breeze that was barely enough to dissipate the sweat that was beginning to form on my forehead.
Finally I was at the top. The highest, probably best, view of Rome. I had saved the best view of Rome for last. There are many other scenic views of the city, but none as high up as this one. I could see the entirely of Vatican City and virtually Rome also. With only two days left of study abroad, it brought my four-month adventure full circle. I was able to see most of the places that I had visited in my host city over the past four months. The Colosseum, Castel St. Angelo, and Villa Borghese were all in plain sight. Since the Vatican Gardens have been closed since the pope resigned in February, I wasn’t able to take a tour of what some call the most beautiful gardens in the world. But the aerial view of the gardens almost offered me the same if not a better experience. There really is no way to describe how I felt while looking out upon the city that has become my home over the past four months and to see it yet again from a completely different view-point.
Making my way down the cupola I again came out onto the roof of the basilica and noticed a souvenir shop and post office on the roof! An elevator took me down into the heart of the basilica, and I explored the church for one last time. I passed by Michelangelo’s “Pieta” which he sculpted in his early 20s and it is considered to be his greatest masterpiece. I reflected at the tomb of Pope John Paul II. Having reigned for 26 years, he is one of the longest-serving popes and was beatified in 2011, one of the steps to becoming a saint. The Vatican has recently been able to confirm a second miracle that John Paul II performed, which is one of the final requirements to becoming a saint, which he could become as early as later this year. It is unusual for someone to become a saint so quickly after their death (he passed away in 2005) but then it is not surprising since during his funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square people were cheering “santo subito!” (“saint now!”).
The basilica is considered to be one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture. Construction began in 1506 and the church was not completed and consecrated until 1626 (120 years later!). It is important to note that this is the new St. Peter’s Basilica, the old one dated back to the time of Constantine, a Roman emperor, in the fourth century AD and was razed in order for a new, more elaborate church to be built. St. Peter’s is neither the mother church nor the seat of the Bishop of Rome (the pope). The pope’s seat as Bishop of Rome is at the Archbasilica of St. John of Latheran, another very beautiful and impressive church in Rome that is worth a visit. However, St. Peter’s is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Christianity because it is the sight of St. Peter’s tomb, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and one of his most trusted friends who was also the first Bishop of Rome (St. Peter founded the Catholic Church after the death of Jesus).
Check out these images from my climb yesterday: