Saturday, 10 August 2019

Peak Rome

or why you should have to write an essay explaining why you need to visit the Sistine Chapel.

I'm not sure I was taken to Rome as a child. I might have been. But in any event, here I am queueing outside the Vatican Museum on a rainy May Saturday with all the other visitors from all over the world, all 30,000 of them who will enter the building today and every other day, all year long. My neighbours in the queue are good natured: the Poles who explained that they are used to Communism and know how to queue; the Brits like me who will join a queue even if they are not quite sure what it is for; and all the other patient souls. Two hours of slow shuffling and wave after wave of torrential rain for which my umbrella is totally unsuitable and my leather jacket is soaked right through and the ends of my hair are wet. My only entertainment is say 'no thanks' to all the touts tempting me to cut the line and buy an exorbitant tour of the museum.

Finally I am through the security checks and in. Now for the next hour or so of pain. There is a one way system through the museum, no backtracking, no chance to take a photo without it being bombed, no information on all the wondrous art works on display, in fact no chance to enjoy it unless you like being swept along by literally hoards of chattering people who show precious little interest in the place or its contents, and don't get me started on the tour guides with their bloody umbrellas. It's worse than the Louvre on the busiest busy day. Don't say you haven't been warned. You will suffer to see this art.
Eventually I make it to the Chapel where there are three options: stand in the middle and look up and around, wait for a seat at the side and grab it pronto; or walk on through. You can guess which I chose. I sat for an hour and more taking in every single part of Michael Angelo's wonderful ceiling, the altar piece and the amazing murals. Oh look, there's a Boticelli. It is a wonder of the world. Truly. And I was actually moved to tears. A very rare thing for me. Very rare indeed. But...

Why, oh why, do people come here if they just want to tick it off a list of sights? The number of people who spend no more than three minutes walking through the Chapel following an umbrella or, and this is worse, not even looking at it in preference to their phones is astonishing. Talk about pearls before swine. It is totally wasted on them. In fact they shouldn't be allowed. And more - why do people feel it necessary to talk so loudly? The guards have to shout out 'Silencio' every few minutes, which is pretty shocking - one is in church after all.

I tired not to let any of this poor behaviour bother me - no photos and you get shouted at if you take one (hence these are all from elsewhere in the museum) - , but in the end it was too much and I could feel my gore rising. I turned to the nice Indian couple next to me and asked them what they thought. They were in agreement: crazy people. They explained that they trying to follow the story depicted on the ceiling; their phone being used to this effect. Not having any Biblical knowledge from their Hindu upbringing, they were struggling a bit. I tired to help, but I'm not sure I was that useful to them. 

Yes, I know I should not be too snooty about this, and that everyone has the right to be here, but honestly, I do think you ought to have to explain why, and if you cannot come up with a good reason, beyond it being on your tour list, then perhaps you should leave it to those who really want to savour this treasure in all its quiet and magnificent glory.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Keats Part Two

Back in May I spent a week in the Italian capital. I wanted to sit in the sun and enjoy a glass of chilled wine, but it rained. A lot. The climate is so worryingly unpredictable these days. Actually the real reason for my trip was one of pilgrimage; not with the obvious destination of St. Peter's, which I did visit, even climbing to the top of the huge dome, no I was on Keats part two. Having laid a wreath at his memorial in Westminster Abbey back in the autumn, I thought it was about time I visited his actual grave. The bonus was the rest of Rome thrown in for free.

Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, but before visiting that, there was another place I just had to go At the bottom of the Spanish Steps, on the right as you look up at them,  there is a tall town house - now the Keats-Shelley House museum - , one apartment in which Keats lived during his last desperate sojourn in Rome. He had been sent to Italy for the sake of his health. He was dying from tuberculosis. No amount of clean, fresh, dry air was going to cure that, but there we are. A disease that consumed so many, it is/was the nastiest of ways to go; coughing up blood and not been able to breathe. I know some of that. We think it is largely cured in the West, and so it is, but not so in other parts of the world. I had to have a chest Xray for my South African work visa, for example.

So it was here in a now buzzing location that lovely Johnny Keats at just twenty five years old breathed his last on 23 February 1821. His bedroom is kitted out with period furniture, and has its original painted ceiling; the one he stared up at. On the day I visited the museum, there were so few people there I had this special place to myself for almost half an hour. We had nice chat about poetry and finding the perfect image, while the crowds swarmed the Steps outside. I wandered the rest of the museum pleased to see treasures like an all too familiar painting of Shelley, and Oscar Wilde's manuscript of his sonnet on visiting Keats' grave. It's a quiet treasure trove for the literary-minded. Linger over the death mask and first editions of Keats' and Shelley's work.

Too far away to go the same day on foot, I waited until the next morning to find the cemetery. Just behind the Pyramid of Cestius at Porta San Paolo is the green oasis, more garden than cemetery really. Keats' grave is easy to find, there being a helpful sign and charming guardiennes of welcome. Famously un-named - here lies one whose name is writ on water - , it is only clear that it is his because his friend, the artist, Joseph Severn is buried beside him and his grave notes the friendship and Keats' name. Later an appalling poem was put on a plaque on a nearby wall.

I sat for a while on a convenient bench and we had another early morning discussion about poetry and London. Or rather I talked and Johnny listened again.

I left him to find Shelley. Drowned in the Gulf of Spezia the following summer and cremated on the nearest beach, as witnessed by Bryon, Shelley's ashes are buried here. The spot is marked by a large horizontal stone near the far wall of the cemetery. Not exactly easy to find and not as beautiful a memorial as he deserves. He clearly needs more friends.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Review of The Filthy Quiet

Delighted to have a review from DA Prince at London Grip