Romans built the greatest church on earth from marble steeped in the blood of Christian martyrs. St. Peter’s Basilica used stones from the Colosseum, its mammoth sculptures came from bronze melted from the Pantheon.
Before an earthquake crumbled part of the amphitheater and people quarried it for stones, emperors staged gladiator fights, spectacular battles and Christian executions in the Colosseum.
Pope Pius V told pilgrims to gather sand from its arena to serve as relics because the ground was impregnated with the blood of martyrs.
Emperor Nero, who set the Great Fire of 64 AD and fiddled while Rome burned, passed the blame on Christians. He fed them to lions, had them nailed to crosses or burned alive to serve as evening lights.
The first Pope, St. Peter, the Apostle, was crucified upside-down at the Circus of Nero, next to the 4,000 year old Egyptian obelisk now standing in the middle of St. Peter’s Square (Plaza de san Pietro).
Nero’s uncle, the mad Emperor Caligula, brought the obelisk to Rome from Alexandria. However, in the 16th century, architects moved the obelisk from its original location, near the present-day sacristy south of the new St. Peter’s basilica, to the center of the current plaza.
St. Peter’s disciples buried him in a shallow grave close by. Today, his tomb rests under the Baldacchino commissioned by Pope Urban VIII from Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In the 17th century, Urban VIII, who chose his name because of his great love for the city, ordered the 927-ton bronze ceiling of the Pantheon’s portico to be melted down to provide metal for the Baldachin.
It took Bernini 9 years to build the almost one hundred foot-high gilded canopy, the world’s largest bronze sculpture, with its twisted spiraling columns resembling the pillars of Solomon’s Temple.
The world’s second largest bronze piece, also Bernini’s handiwork inside the basilica, is the Altar of the Chair, the oak throne on which St. Peter sat, encased in gilded bronze on the main altar.
Carolingian ruler, Charles the Bald, donated the relic upon his coronation in St. Peter’s in 875 AD.
As for the gold, smiths used nine tons to gilt everything from floor to ceiling.
Stories of the treasures in the Vatican Museum (Museo Vaticani) next door are just as intriguing, if not as bloody, as the piazza and the basilica.
In the octagonal courtyard where ancient statues stand, Renaissance and Baroque masters like Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini used to sit down and sketch.
It houses three masterpieces which transformed the history of art – the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoön.
Julius II brought the marble statue of Apollo Belvedere from his own palace to the courtyard.
The pagan sun god, ranking second only to Zeus, inspired Bernini, who modelled one of his most famous sculptures, “Apollo and Daphne”, after this ancient statue.
Earlier, this embodiment of male beauty so fascinated Michelangelo, he put Apollo’s face on Christ in his “Last Judgment” fresco.
Christ’s muscled figure, he took from the Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a first century BC statue by Greek sculptor, Apollonius, believed to be Hercules sitting on a lion hide.
The tension on the headless limbless body animated the statue so much that Michelangelo replicated it at least 20 times in his nudes (“Ignudi”) in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and altar. He simply painted the torso in different positions with different heads and feet.
It was also Julius II who acquired the “Laocoon” – an evocative rendition of the death of Apollo’s priest who warned fellow Trojans about the wooden horse hiding their Greek enemies while masquerading as a gift.
Laocoon’s warning angered the goddess Athena, who was on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War. She sent down two monster serpents to devour the priest and his sons.
The museum also houses the rarest and most expensive marbles in the world – Imperial Porphyry – mined from a single quarry in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.
One hall displays the monumental red porphyry sarcophagus of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, who built the first St. Peter’s Basilica in the 4th century AD.
During the battle against Emperor Maxentius for the mastery of Rome, Constantine beheld a vision of the cross in the sky with the words, “By this sign you shall conquer”. He had the sign painted on the shields of his army. When he won, he made Christianity a lawful religion.
Then Constantine searched for the True Cross and sent his mother to Jerusalem, where she found it, along with the four nails used to crucify Christ.
Still, scholars question whether the sarcophagus was Helena’s because it was carved with military scenes – Roman soldiers on horseback, riding above their barbarian captives.
They suspect it was meant for a male member of the imperial family, probably Helena’s husband, Constantius Chlorus, or even Constantine himself. Later, a Pope re-used the sarcophagus for his own tomb.
The most spectacular piece in the same hall is Emperor Nero’s giant porphyry bath tub, 25 feet across, weighing thousands of pounds and costing over two billion dollars.
Nero installed it in his golden house in the middle of the city, on 81-hectares of land which the great fire burned. After he killed himself, his successors tore down the house and built the Colosseum over it.
While the Emperor’s wife could have used the colossal tub for her donkey’s milk baths, others claimed Nero used it for mutilating victims and raping women.
Yet another famous statue of Hercules resides in the same hall, one of very few original ancient bronzes.
This statue only survived because it was struck by lightning, prompting superstitious Romans to bury it in haste. Lightning symbolizes Zeus, their most important god, whom they thought Hercules displeased.
Hidden from an angry god and saved from being melted, Hercules didn’t escape the Vatican’s Fig Leaf campaign, nonetheless. He had his genitalia lopped off between the 17th and 18th centuries when reigning Popes thought it’s too indecent to show statues naked.
Other galleries in the museum intrigued me – one held maps; the other, tapestries.
In the 16th century, when Popes seldom ventured out of Rome, Gregory XIII commissioned giant maps depicting all of Italy so he could explore his territory, from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea.
The resulting gallery housed forty frescoes stretching from floor to ceiling, across the length of a football field, the largest collection of geographical paintings ever created.
Interestingly, map makers plotted locations quite accurately, without satellites or sophisticated technology. They didn’t bluff. If they’re unsure of features, they omitted it. If they have details, they draw it to the minutiae.
Today, one can still make out the arcades of St. Mark’s Square in Venice on those maps, along with street names in Bologna that existed in the Middle Ages.
The details include major ports, snow-capped mountains, white crested waves, mythical sea creatures, even the sea god Neptune, battle scenes, Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, Hannibal with his war elephants fighting the Roman legions and St. Leo I, who persuaded Attila the Hun not to sack Rome.
Unfortunately, when Urban VIII restored the gallery, details like a hamlet on a lake became blurred. And because he came from the Barberini family, whose coat of arms consisted of three bees, the Pontiff had the map of the papal territories revised so it was swarmed with bees.
He also placed bees above the golden dragon symbolizing the family of Gregory XIII. And the bees have stayed for 400 years.
Then there’s the Gallery of Tapestries. Designed by the school of Raphael and woven in Flanders (present-day Belgium), each tapestry took at least 9 years to finish. Clement VII commissioned them in the 1500s.
One portrays the birth of the Savior and the next shows a Pope circumcising baby Jesus – bizarre because no Pope existed at the time of Christ’s birth.
The most famous tapestry is the Resurrection of Christ, with its omnipresent eyes.
I stared at the eyes of Christ as I walked past and He stared back. There’s no getting away from Him. His gaze followed me wherever I went. It felt so eerie.
And there’s His knee in an odd angle which seems to come out of the tapestry.
To create this illusion of a moving perspective, an all-seeing Christ, weavers used the same technique Leonardo da Vinci employed in his “Mona Lisa” – a complex system of cross-stitching.
At the end of the hall is a fitting finale – a tapestry of sixty senators stabbing Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC.
The senators murdered the dictator for fear he’ll be a tyrant king. Rome was a Republic at the time and they wanted it to remain as one.
Conversely, Caesar’s death killed the Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. His adopted son, Octavian, won the civil war, took the name Augustus and became Rome’s first Emperor.
(To be continued.)