Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rome VI: St. Peter's

Today we saw St. Peter’s Basilica and climbed to the top of the dome. The Basilica, like the Vatican Museums, is overwhelming. There’s just too much to see, but I was able to get close the La Pieta, which is worth seeing with your own eyes. Seeing La Pieta almost made up for the disappointment of the Sistine Chapel yesterday. We breezed through a quick line for tickets to the top of the dome. You can take an elevator halfway up or you can climb the whole thing. We chose the climb. The portion of the walk up that’s covered by the elevator is a gentle slope, anyway and takes you to the roof of the Basilica, where the stair-phobic can stop and admire the view from there. Next, you walk out onto a narrow gallery inside the Basilica, at the base of the dome. This is really something to see. For one thing, you are smack against mosaics you can barely see from floor level, and, naturally, the view down into the Basilica from that height is extraordinary, although we somehow neglected to take a picture of it.

I peered up the sloping walls of the dome, to the cupola at the stop. There is no sign of a staircase and I wondered how we would get up there. You exit the gallery and begin a long climb up a tightly wound spiral staircase. The stairs themselves are none too big because you are squeezed between the outer and inner walls of the dome. I had imagined that the climb would be like the scene in La Dolce Vita where whats-her-name climbs the dome on a grand staircase with beautiful round windows every few feet where she can pause and spin about. Since 1960, they’ve built walls of yellow brick that block the windows to mere slits.

I did not like that climb, and experienced an uncomfortable combination of vertigo and claustrophobia. The spiral ends eventually, but you are not at the top yet. For a while, the stairs are a straight, though narrow ascent, through walls that curve to the right, as you follow the curve near the top of the dome. Then you come to a second, even smaller spiral staircase. Each step is barely big enough for your feet, and a stout rope hangs down into the abyss, which you are supposed to hold onto for support. At last you emerge onto a gallery at the top of the dome, where you can walk a full circuit to see the view from all angles. It is worth the scary climb. But then, I am easily frightened. I was amused to see that I could see the spot in Giancolo where we got so horribly lost.

There is a separate stair system for the climb back down, equally narrow and tightly spiraled, although somewhat less scary for me. The first, tiniest staircase has no rope, so you hold onto its central pole and hope nobody above you steps on your hand.

Altogether, St. Peter’s is not as taxing as the Vatican Museums, and in the afternoon, the girls and I revisited the shops near Piazza Navona. We still have not seen the Spanish Steps. The plan for tomorrow is a day trip out of Rome.

The ascent

A Barbie palace!


  1. Whenever we climb steep stairs in a cathedral or castle, I have the same concerns as you as we're ascending. But then we step out and see the view and it's worth it.

    Your 5th grader and mine will surely have a class together this year (at the least, the after school art), so I'll have to tell her to ask him what he thought about Rome. She's eager to go at some point and as already talking about doing a semester abroad when she's in college.

  2. Jen, I'm sure they'll see eachother at artquest. We'll have to introduce them. I think Seamus' favorite aspect of Rome was his ability to find his way around and the freedom we were able to give him in roaming our neighborhood.

  3. I'm just catching up--what fun! I know the dizzy feeling of those staircases, but worth the view--and perspective!
    Barbie Palace. Heh.

  4. I'm with you on not loving the steep, enclosed places, but if I were to go I would want to go up to the top.
    It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.