Back in Rome to see the ruins of the old Roman Empire, and a troubled press secretary of the gaff-prone, current one.
Italy has been trading on its past for quite a while now - centuries, even. And it’s all here in Rome: the emperors, the popes, the Renaissance, the food…the Fiat 500. I was so busy the first time I was in Rome - in October last year - I didn’t have much of a chance to see it in all it’s crumbling, fading, graffiti covered glory.
First stop was down to see the Coliseum, the Forum, the sites of glorious and/or dodgy Caesars and Senators.
The old ruins are magnificent, of course, though Italians have a talent for turning the profound into tacky tourist traps, complete with ‘gladiators’ arguing about whatever Italians are constantly arguing about; those annoying ‘living statues’ you see everywhere these days at these sorts of places, who stand still for a living for hours on end and expect people to drop money into little plates at their motionless feet; and, of course, the ubiquitous Peruvian pan-pipe players.
Moving swiftly on, down the Spanish Steps, which overlook Via dei Gucci Victims, where women with more euros than brain cells try to buy themselves an outrageously over-priced personality, with brand name attached. Tutti belli!
The centre of town is a little disappointing, but delights can be found, over the river where the old, medieval Rome can still be glimpsed - the perfect place to indulge in pasta and lamb, washed down with the Frescati from the hills of nearby Lazio. Balissimo!
We wanted to see the Vatican art museum - I had heard it was rather good - but didn’t want to queue for a couple of hours for the privilege. So time for a little favour. And a chance to see a couple of very nice people who work in the Holy See press office and let them know how Cardinal Dziwisz‘s film, Testimony - which they worked tirelessly on when we were there last October - did in Poland. Maybe they could get us in quickly? They did. Bless them!
It was a Saturday but the Vatican’s chief press officer was at his desk, with a copy of the Lancet opened in front of him. Pope Benedict was in Africa and had made an “unguarded remark”, said press officer, about how condoms were worse than useless as protection against HIV/AIDS - in fact they made things worse - and abstinence was the only real protection from getting sick. The esteemed medical journal is not pleased:
“When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.”
It’s the Vatican line, as we know, but apparently this was not on the list of things that Pope Benny was on the continent to preach about. This was meant to be a happy, controversy free trip to solidify the presence of Rome in one of the only parts of the globe where church congregations are growing - and not shrinking, like back home in Italy.
Signor Press Officer said the whole situation was rather “worrying.” And I got the impression - and it is only my impression - that the current pontiff is not seen as the safe pair of hands in front of the media that his predecessor, Pope John II, was. Pope Benny has a habit of putting his foot in it, unlike Karol Wojtyla, who played the media events like a church organ.
After the AIDS remark cue the outrage. Pope encourages ‘skin-skin’ in Africa! The Roman Catholic church is responsible for the spread of HIV!
I have argued here, as others have elsewhere, that the link between Catholic teaching and HIV rates is spurious - mainly because the nations with the highest HIV rates are not particularly Catholic. The spread of AIDS there is, at root, to do with poverty and underdevelopment. But you feel for the current Pope’s communicators. He doesn’t make their jobs any easier.
The Vatican art museum - no queue, in through the exit door - is better than I expected, by the way. Seemingly kilometers of corridors, lined with fantastic paintings, tell the story of Christian art, from the very old to the modern. It’s all there: Matejko’s rather gruesome depiction of Polish King Sobieski’s smashing of the Turks in Vienna - and they were worried about Danish cartoons! - right up to Munch, Chagall, Francis Bacon, even a Dali.
But it all just softens you up for the finale - the Sistine Chapel! It’s awesome. And while staring at one of Michelangelo’s many paintings that cover the ceiling I had a flash of inspiration - a revelation - about the origin of the term “mooning” - of showing one’s botty cheeks in public as a leisure activity. I had always assumed it was named after Wildman Drummer of the Who, Keith Moon, who liked to display his buttocks regularly. But, well, maybe not. See Michelangelo’s The Creation of Sun and Moon.