Finding What You Are Looking For:  My Grand Tour – Rome Day Five. Part 3 of 5

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of St.Peter’s and the Piazza ,(1775) Princeton University Art Museum

Day Five is going to be the busiest day of all  – also one of the most memorable and monumental. Some of the group want to take time out in the morning, so only five of us decide to walk to the Vatican Museum and take in a view of St. Peter’s Basilica on the way. We anticipate crowds and though it is early morning already the day is very warm.

There are a few things I want specifically to see and they are , not surprisingly, The Sistine Chapel; The Laocoön, The Apollo Belvedere, works by Leonardo da Vinci, the Raphael Rooms (School of Athens) … I could go on.

But first as we walk we come to the Vatican. In my mind the image I have of the building is the opening one by the famous Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1770-1778). The other image I had in my mind is this one below by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), both of whom I mentioned in my  my earlier blogs in this series and both we studied in class.

Giovanni Paolo Panini , St Peter’s Basilica, (interior)  1730s . Ca’ Rezzonico , Venice

As most of you will already know Vatican City, officially the Vatican City State is an independent city – state and enclave surrounded by Rome.. The Vatican City State, also known simply as the Vatican, became independent from Italy with the Lateran Treaty (1929), and it is a distinct territory under “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” of the Holy See. What is the Holy See ? It is the Jurisdiction of the Pope in his role as Bishop of Rome. The etymology of the word ‘See’ comes from the Latin ‘sedes’, meaning ‘a seat’ , as in a Bishop’s throne. So the Vatican state is a sovereign state which maintains the city’s  temporal , diplomatic, and spiritual independence . It is the smallest state in the world with an area of forty nine hectares (121 acres) and a population of about 825 people.  The Holy See dates back to Early Christianity  and is the principal authority of the Catholic Church which has approximately 1.329 billion baptised Catholic Christians in the world ( from the 2018 statistics) in the Latin Church and 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. 

Approaching St. Peter’s for the First time . Image: Denise Meagher


Our Professor is eager to get us to the Vatican museum before the crowds become unmanageable and fortunately, because of her skill in dealing with the bureaucracy of these places and because we are students of art history , we are able to navigate our way through the queues relatively quickly and pay , in my opinion, the reasonable sum of €17 each , to gain access.

The Apollo Belvedere is important to mention. I did not get a chance to stop and study it, only glanced, as I was anxious not to lose track of where my colleagues were, as the museum was crowded.

Apollo Belvedere (120-140 AD). Image : Helen Bannon


The Apollo is considered to be an original Roman re-creation from Hadrain’s period as Emperor and  the distinctively Roman footwear is one reason scholars believe it is not a copy of an original Greek statue. It was rediscovered in central Italy in the late 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and was placed on semi-public display in the Vatican Palace in 1511, where it remains. It is now in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Pio-Clementine Museum of the Vatican Museums complex. From the mid-18th century, it was considered the greatest ancient sculpture by neoclassical scholars, and for centuries it epitomized the ideals of aesthetic perfection for Europeans and westernized parts of the world. Neo classical is, to describe it very briefly, a movement in the decorative and visual arts, theatre , music and architecture that drew its inspiration from classical antiquity. The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum were important factors in its gaining momentum, and of course the writings of key people interested in the Arts, history and philosophy at the time. It coincided with the emergence of the Enlightenment. Its popularity also spread because of the Grand Tour, which, as explained in my first blog in this series, was when young aristocrats travelled in Europe, in particular in Italy, to discover more about the ancient world.

The Greek god Apollo is depicted as a standing archer having just shot an arrow. Although there is no agreement as to the precise narrative detail being depicted, the conventional view has been that he has just slain the serpent Python  , the chthonic serpent guarding Delphi—making the sculpture a ‘Pythian Apollo’. Alternatively, it may be the slaying of the giant Tityos, who threatened Apollo’s mother Leto. And there are more possible interpretations. The lower part of the right arm and the left hand were missing when discovered and were restored by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507–1563), a sculptor and pupil of Michelangelo.

I mentioned  Neoclassical scholars who studied this work. One of them is very important and his writings have shaped art historical approaches to this day and that is the German art historian Johan Winkelmann (1717-1768). He helped make the Apollo become one of the world’s most celebrated art works when in 1755 he championed it as the best example of the perfection of the Greek aesthetic ideal. He was fascinated by its ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. These would have been considered important attributes in the Neoclassical period when Enlightenment values were beginning to emerge. Several other important writers and philosophers also endorsed it such as Goethe and Byron. Amanda Claridge writes that ‘Napoleon ordered the removal of many works of art and in 1798 famous pieces such as Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön were paraded through the streets of Paris in triumph ‘ (pp, 470). It was another Pope, Pope Pius V11 (1800s – 23) who appointed Antonio Canova (whom I mentioned in my first blog in this series and will again in blog 5) as the Inspector General of Fine Art in 1802 and after 1815 these pieces were returned to the Vatican where they have remained ever since.

Raphael Sanzio da Urbino , Pope Julius II (1511–12). London National Gallery

Of course, we have another key person to mention in the context of the Vatican Museum and that is Pope Julius II (1443 – 1513), also mentioned before . He was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 1503 to his death in 1513. Nicknamed the Warrior Pope or the Fearsome Pope, he chose his papal name not in honour of Pope Julius 1 but in honour of Julius Caesar. One of the most powerful and influential popes, Julius II was a central figure of the ‘High Renaissance’  and left a significant cultural and political legacy. As a result of his policies the Papal States remained independent and centralized, and the office of the papacy continued to be crucial, diplomatically and politically during the entirety of the 16th century in Italy and Europe.

In 1506, Julius II established the Vatican Museums and initiated the rebuilding of the St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1508, he commissioned the Raphael Rooms and the Michelangelo painting  of the Sistine Chapel. Julius II was described by Machiavelli in his works as an ‘ideal prince’. Nicholas Machiavel (1469-1527) was an Italian diplomat, philosopher and historian best known perhaps for his political treatise The Prince (1513, published 1532).

I stop quickly to look at a painting that jumps out at me , for some reason. Maybe it is because it is unfinished and therefore caught my eye .

 Leonardo da Vinci  , St.  Jerome in the Wilderness (1480). Image: Denise Meagher

It is the image above by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) of St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Jerome was a brilliant Christian scholar and translated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into quality Latin from their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. He was also a teacher of Christianity. Interestingly he was particularly concerned for women’s Christian education and taught them how to lead their lives, in a way that could help them in the society of the time, by being devotees of Christ. It sounds very condescending, but in the context of the time, it was incredibly supportive. In this painting he is in the Syrian desert having withdrawn from society. I have looked at the quick image I took (above) very often, of the painting in the museum since I came home and it still captivates me.

Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction – a genius of the High Renaissance he was a draughtsman, painter, engineer, scientist , sculptor, architect whose works and notebooks epitomise many things including the Renaissance ‘Humanist’ ideal. To explain this very simply it involved , like Neoclassicism , a deep study of the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. It was not necessarily a Godless philosophy in the way people use the word ‘humanism’ today. He had an enormous influence on many artists who came after him, but was matched perhaps by no one other than  Michelangelo (1475-1564).

I will discuss Michelangelo shortly but first , another piece I really wanted to see.

Laocoön Group , Image : Denise Meagher

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, also called the Laocoön Group  has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican  Museums, where it remains. It is very likely the same statue that was praised in the highest terms by the main Roman writer on art of the time , Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79). He was a Roman author, naturalist, and Natural philosopher. He also had friends in high places such as Emperor Vespasian  who reigned from AD 69 to 79. Vespasian, also a Senior general in the Roman army  founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire for 27 years. His reforms and consolidation of the empire generated political stability and a vast Roman building program. More on this when we reach the Colosseum .

With regards The Laocoön Group , Pliny attributes the work, then in the palace of  Emperor Titus , Vesperian’s eldest son (the other son being Domitian, later Emperor ) to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoras and Poludorus , but does not give a date or patron. In style it is considered “one of the finest examples of the Hellenistic  Baroque’. Greek Baroque as opposed to Roman? Much to think on there. While this would therefore be in the Greek tradition it is not definitely known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze, or made for a Greek or Roman commission. But it was most likely commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly an earlier Emperor.

It recounts an episode in the epic story of Virgil’s Aeneid, of the priest of Apollo , Laocoön, who offends the Goddess Minerva , a Greek partisan, when he warns the Trojans against a giant wooden horse which she has consecrated , when it sets sails, filled when Greek warriors. It is also a story Sophocles wrote about that has a less patriotic interpretation. Laocoön throws a large spear at the belly of the wooden horse and those inside groan either from injury or fright. Minerva, enraged, sends serpents to punish Laocoön and his sons. The story still fascinates to this day. Camille Paglia , the American feminist and art critic , has an interesting chapter in her publication’’ Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to ‘Star Wars‘ (2012) about it, which I read last year. She sees this story as ultimately one of theodicy, divine provenance in the face of ‘evil’ – a word I hate because of how loaded it can be with religious fundamentalist thought. However Paglia writes that ‘Laocoön blank , tormented face seems to ask whether an ethical standard exists in the universe or whether the Gods too are subject to impulse and caprice. It prefigures the agonised expression of the crucified Christ, in Medieval art, when he askes why God had forsaken him’. (pp 30) Fascinating similar themes that link huge periods of history and very different religious ideologies, one consisting of numerous Gods, the other of one.

But just as we moved on quickly through the museum in Rome, so we could see the various sites on our schedule for the day , I move on quickly now – even if my mind still lingers on these connections.

We walk through rooms filled with the most amazing art, trying desperately not to stop and stare, in an effort to reach the Sistine Chapel, as we then have a journey and metro trip to get back to our next stop of the day: The Colosseum.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Fresco Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508 to 1512)

I do not intend to go into great detail here about the significance of this chapel nor indeed  explain the meaning of this incredible piece of work by Michelangelo  (1475-1564). The complex and unusual iconography of the Sistine ceiling has been explained by some art historians as a ‘Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible’, representing the essential phases of the spiritual development of humankind seen through a very dramatic relationship between humans and God. One would need to stand alone underneath it, possibly with a small telescope, to study and form an opinion of one’s own. Sadly, that luxury is not available for the majority. What I can say is that it was not what I expected, neither in terms of scale, color, atmosphere or design. I like how Georgina Masson puts it, so I will leave it to an expert on Roman art and architecture to summarise. She writes that originally ‘the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was simply painted blue and covered with gold stars. The story of its transformation into one of the most artistic creations of all time is largely that of the personal relationship between two titanic figures of the Renaissance – Michelangelo and Julius II, whom two great historians Gregorovius and Burckhardt , described as ‘the greatest pope since Innocent III’ and the ’saviour of the papacy’. (pp 608). She continues:  ‘For months Michelangelo lay on his back on the scaffolding, with paint dripping onto his face and into his eyes. The strain on his physique was such that for long he could not read a letter unless he held it above him, tilting his head backwards. Still this extraordinary man could laugh, somewhat bitterly, at his hardships, writing satirical verses describing the effects of the appalling discomfort upon himself and his art’.  (pp, 610)

I mentioned we visited numerous churches during our trip so just to mention here in the context of Michelangelo  that we also saw his statue of Moses in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli part of Pope Julius 11 tomb. This gives some idea of the man’s versatility and sheer genius in different mediums, despite his hardships. This Basilica was consecrated in 439 by Sixtus 111. Cardinal Della Rovere, when he became Pope Julius 11 was central to some of the rebuilding between 1471 and 1503. This famous statue is pictured below. Moses is the bearded figure, below, centre.

Michelangelo , Moses  (detail) San Pietro in Vincoli. Image: Denise Meagher

Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Michelangelo captures this well : ‘Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tablets, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush’. I do not think I could put it better than that.

Returning to our itinerary , we leave the Vatican Museum, as we approach lunch time and I try to take in all we just saw, a little overwhelmed, perhaps, by it all.

As we sit on the metro my mind wanders to a painting that upset me deeply when I first saw it.


Jean-Léon Gérôme , The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (Between1863 and 1883). The Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland USA


Gérôme identified the setting as ancient Rome’s racecourse, the Circus Maximus . However the seating, it has been argued, more closely resembles that of the Colosseum. It is also said about the work that the hill in the background surmounted by a colossal statue and a temple is nearer in appearance to the Athenian Acropolis than it is to Rome’s Palatine Hill.  The Artist had the right to improvise, I guess. But I think there is no doubt it captures what happened in many places including the  Colosseum. I imagine the sheer terror the victims who were about to suffer martyrdom either by being devoured by the wild beasts or by being smeared with pitch and set ablaze must be feeling. It still upsets me to think about such barbarity.   

If the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel  had overwhelmed me, I can only say that  the sight of the Colosseum  was equally monumental.

The Colosseum 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


An oval amphitheatre  in the centre of Rome, it can be found just east of the Roman Forum discussed in my earlier blog. It is the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built, and is still the largest standing amphitheatre in the world today. Construction began under the Emperor  Vespasian ( 69–79 AD) mentioned earlier in 72 and was completed in 80 AD under his successor and heir, Titus ( 79–81), his son. Further modifications were made during the reign of  his other son Domitian ( 81–96). These three Emperors who were patrons of the work and are known as the  Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheatre was named the ‘ Flavin  Amphitheatre’, by later Classicists and archaeologists, because of its association with their family name .

The Colosseum is built of travertine limestone, tuffa which is a volcanic rock, and brick-faced concrete. It could hold an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators at various points in its history. Think about this.  It was used for gladiator contests and public spectacles including animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Roman mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval  era.

The Colosseum from Inside 2022 . Image: Denise Meagher

Later the theatre was used for other purposes like  a quarry and a Christian shrine. Despite earthquakes and being used as a quarry the Colosseum is still an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome.

As it nears 4pm Italian time we stop for a quick expresso at a café bar as we head towards our last two site visits of the day :-  Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio was built in the 5th century, possibly (although this cannot be proved) on the site of the original Titulus Sabinae, an original Parish of Rome. This makes it the oldest extant ecclesiastical basilica in Rome that preserves its original format , something I now understand is a colonnaded rectangular plan with the apse. The etymology of the word apse is from Latin absis ‘arch, vault’ from Ancient Greek ἀψίς apsis ‘arch’.

The tituli were the first parish churches in Rome, and most of them were originally private residences or commercial meeting-halls in which Christian congregations met (the so-called house-churches). We were not the only culture who improvised with such things as mass rocks during times of persecution.  St Sabina is now considered as the original founder of the church. Think of her courage. She was beheaded by Emperor Hadrain (who could be ruthless) because she had converted to Christianity. She was later declared a saint.

Interior , Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio. Image: Denise Meagher

Santa Sabina was later built by Peter of Illyria , a Dalmatian priest, ( Croatia) between 422 and 432, dates mentioned above, and near a  Temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill. Hence the longer name of the Basilica. The interior follows a basilical form, with a central nave divided from the side aisle by two rows of columns, on which rests an arcade. My picture shows this and the beautiful simplicity of the interior.  Above the arcade you can see a row of large clerestory windows i.e. above the arches. The twenty four columns of marble from Turkey with perfectly matched Corinthian capitals and bases, were, archaeologists have argued, reused from the Temple of Juno. Remnants from this Temple have been found on the site so some think  that the Temple may have been demolished in order to erect the Basilica.

Another very important aspect to this Basilica relates to Christian iconography. The doors on the exterior of Santa Sabina are made of cypress wood, and originally had a layout of twenty-eight panels. Out of these panels, ten of the original have been lost. Seventeen out of the original remaining eighteen panels depict a scene from the Old Testament and New Testament leaving one panel that does not directly relates to a Biblical story . One of the smaller top panels depicts the crucifixion of Jesus . This panel is the first known publicly displayed image of the crucifixion of Christ. I was fascinated by that.                                 

Information Board showing one of the first known depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ. Image: Denise Meagher

The door is huge and the panel depicting this scene is at the top, hence I am using the image from the information board above to illustrate. It might be a slight stretch to connect this back to Ireland but I was reminded some weeks after my Italian field trip, on a visit to Lorrha, Co. Tipperary , to celebrate the designs of Imogen Stuart , (1927 – ) when I looked at the Tabernacle in Lorrha Church . The design for the tabernacle was created by Niall O’Neill and inspired by the ‘The Stowe Missal’ also known as the ‘Lorrha Missal’, dating back to circa 792 AD (image below). This would have been a couple of hundred years later than when the door panels at St. Sabina where made, showing, perhaps, how Christian iconography was interpreted in different cultural contexts at the time. The images were reinterpreted over the centuries, as Niall would have studied in creating his work, but none the less, I was immediately reminded on seeing the tabernacle, of my visit to St. Sabina .

Tabernacle in Lorrha Church, from the brochure celebrating Heritage week, Sunday Aug 14th 2022. Image: Denise Meagher

I found the simplicity of Santa Sabina very beautiful and peaceful and very much in contrast to the next basilica we visit, our final stop on this day – Santa Maria Maggiore.   

I refer back to Georgina Masson here and her book The Companion Guide to Rome I have mentioned before in this series. Her comments will remind readers of my earlier blog about Venice when I wrote about  the significance of Classical columns in Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. She writes that ‘the famous Roman scholar Silvio Negro once put it ‘ St Mari Maggiore confuses the ordinary traveller ‘by the contrast between what they see outside and what they find within. As a matter of fact this could be applied to many other Italian churches, but in the reverse order: very often their exteriors  may be medieval or Renaissance while inside they are baroque . S. Maria Maggiore is almost completely eightieth century outside (it was encased in a shell , as it were by Ferdinando Fuga in 1746- 50) while the interior is the only example of a basilica built in the classical style to have survived in its integrity among the great patriarchal ones of Rome…..On entering S. Maria Maggiore we are struck at once by this fact: the superb Renaissance ceiling (said to have been gilded with the first gold brought from the New World) and the beautiful cosmatesque pavement appear as mere incidents in the dominating classical harmony of the whole building.’ (pp , 404) Here we see therefore, the ‘original of the species’ in a basilica context , if I can use such a term, as these are original Classical not neoclassical columns.

Santa Maria Maggiore Renaissance Ceiling and Classical Columns. Image : Denise Meagher

Masson continues: ‘The impression is chiefly due to the rows of magnificent classical columns lining the nave : their proportion and spacing accord exactly with  the canons of Vitruvius , as do the proportions of the nave itself’ ( pp 404-405) . My image , taken on entering the basilica, gives, I hope, some idea of what she is referring to.

The image of the High Altar (below) is another example of the astonishing beauty of this Basilica. My photograph is a mosaic from a later period , 1295, by Jacopo Torriti of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. However most of the mosaics as mentioned are from the 5th century and feature some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in the world.

Jacopo Torriti ,    The Coronation of the Virgin Mary , mosaic (detail) 1295, Apse of Santa Maria Maggiore Image: Denise Meagher

Inevitably these iconographic depictions of Mary would have had the function of supporting a new type of understanding of how different religious cultures could co exist – the Hebrew bible and that which came after it, Christianity, are closer connected than most think. The early mosaics from Late Antiquity would have been influenced by similar  ones from villas in Syria,  Sicily and Africa during the 5th century. We tend to forget the cultural and historical connections that appear to come together so seamlessly in the magnificent designs of these buildings.

In all some of us have walked over 16 km on this day so by the time I sit down to eat I am feeling very tired and trying to process site visits and my first viewing of some incredible pieces of art, that have, for decades, just been images I have seen in art books or on television, or , even more recently, on social media sites.  By the end of Day Five of my Grand Tour I was feeling somewhat, understandably ,overwhelmed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s