Rome

Rome, Italy: The Vatican Museums

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This post is not going to really be a detailed insight into the many museums of the Vatican, because I only had about two hours to spend there, so the whole thing was pretty rushed.  However, there were a few things about my visit I wanted to share, so I’m writing a half-assed post about it anyway.  First of all, if you’re going to see St. Peter’s, I don’t think there’s any means of skipping the queue (unless maybe you go with one of those shady and extremely annoying tour guides that hang about the place), but the queue moves fairly quickly – just make sure you have obeyed the dress code!   Basically, you must be covered down to your knees, and over your shoulders, and don’t think that wearing a short skirt with tights will do the trick, because my mother got refused entry wearing such a combo a few years back (which was pretty amusing to me, but she was pissed off about it).  Really, you can look like a complete slob as long as you’re covered up, which seems kind of wack, but this is the Vatican we’re talking about.  However, if you’re planning on visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, there is a very easy way to skip the massive queue.  You can book online at this website (which looks a little sketchy, but it is an official website. I used it and didn’t get scammed) and stroll right inside the complex whilst looking down your nose at the plebs lined up outside.  It costs an extra 4 euros to use this method, but you’re already paying 16 euros just to get inside, and I think the extra charge was well worth the sense of smug satisfaction I got from bypassing the queue.

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I was slightly worried about my outfit, due to the aforementioned dress code, as my skirt just barely covered my knees, and rode well above them when I walked up steps, but there’s no Swiss Guards at the Vatican Museums, and the regular guards didn’t seem that bothered, as I saw a couple women with skirts a few inches shorter than mine.  There is still ostensibly an enforced dress code though, so I wouldn’t push your luck by rocking up in a mini skirt or tank top or anything (I do hate that uncomfortable feeling of having men scrutinise your outfit though.  I don’t need to be stared at like a piece of meat by men trying to catch a glimpse of my defrauding knees).  Anyway, the experience once you’ve entered the complex is ironically, fairly hellish.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to head straight for the Sistine Chapel.  Unfortunately, to get to it, you need to walk through about 50 rooms, each more elaborately decorated than the last, all whilst following signs that promise the Sistine Chapel is right ahead.  It felt like being in a some lame comedy sketch.

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Because you’re crammed in with a herd of people (and tour groups, my god the tour groups!  I really think they should have set hours when tour groups are allowed in, and then ban them the rest of the time), you can’t linger and look at stuff, so I got no more than a fleeting glance of most of these apartments as I was being shoved along in the crush.  The Map Room was notably cool though.

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I seriously reckon we must have walked through a set of rooms belonging to every pope ever before even getting close to the Sistine Chapel.  It’s like the Church felt the need to impress everybody with how much money they have by making us walk through the maze of rooms before getting to the one thing everybody comes to see.  I dunno if Papa Francesco approves of that kind of ostentatiousness.

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So, when most of the elderly and infirm had been weeded out through the endless trips up and down staircases, we finally made it to the Sistine Chapel.  No photographs are allowed in there, and you have to be silent, which is maintained by a cast of professional “shushers” (what a job!  Maybe I should move to Italy!).  I hate to say it, but after walking through a gazillion rooms with elaborate paintings on their ceilings, it was pretty anticlimactic. It was neat seeing God and Adam in the centre, but the whole thing was a little underwhelming in light of the splendour I’d already been forced to admire.

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After that, you have to walk through a crapload more rooms, most of them with convenient gift shops built in the middle, before you get back to the central area that holds a cafe and large gift shop.  The only other thing I felt I NEEDED to see before we left was the Carriage Pavilion, which is home to the former Pope Mobiles.  I mean, Renaissance art is all well and good, but I feel kitsch is the modern legacy of the papacy, and it doesn’t get better than the Pope Mobile.

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The Carriage Pavilion was pretty good.  For starters, you had to walk through a big garden to get there, and it was kind of hidden underground, so I don’t think many people even knew it was there, making it blissfully empty.  In addition, they had plenty of signs in English, and the carriages themselves were fabulous.

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I hesitate to use the expression “pimped out” to describe a papal carriage, but that’s essentially what they were.  There was a level of ostentation that went well beyond what was necessary, which was what I loved about them.  I also loved the busts of the popes, with a little description of each one.  You hear a lot about medieval and modern popes, but 18th and 19th century ones normally kind of get lost in the shuffle.

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And then there were the Pope Mobiles themselves, which is what I really wanted to see.  The bubble style Pope Mobile didn’t come into being until after the assassination attempt on John Paul II, so they had the uncovered model he was shot in, as well as a few covered ones from later in his papacy.

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Honestly, I prefer the older models, which were “proper lush,” as Tom Kerridge would say, but I guess I can see why they don’t use them anymore. I wouldn’t want to have my face blown off either, but I would probably just modify the cars to have thicker doors and bulletproof glass and such, as some popes have done to more modern cars.

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Seeing the Pope Mobiles was probably the highlight of my visit (which again, probably says something about my lack of culture), but I still made a point to stop by the Stamp Museum on the way out.  They had a little post office right after it so you could mail a postcard from the Vatican, with several Papa Francesco-based postcard designs to choose from, so I’m sure you can guess that I took full advantage.  There were probably about 10 more museums I didn’t even get to peek at, so I’ve no doubt I could have easily spent the entire day there if I didn’t have a flight to catch.

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To sum up, I’d say that you should definitely pre-book online if you’re visiting the Vatican Museums, and then laugh in the face of the obnoxious jerks trying to sell you overpriced tours to skip the line, as you’ll have beaten them to it.  Seriously, the Vatican is one of the worst places I’ve visited in my life in terms of being pestered to buy crap.  Worse than Tijuana even.  It really put a damper on the whole experience, as well as the stupidly convoluted route you have to take through the place.  Still, it is a piece of history, and they’ve got some cool stuff in there, so it is definitely worth seeing to complete the “Rome experience.”  At the very least, it gives you a chance to easily tick another country off the list.

 

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Rome, Italy: Museo Delle Cere (Wax Museum) and the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

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Oh my, have I got a treat for you today!  Rome isn’t all high culture and ruins.  Fortunately for people like me, it is also home to an extremely terrible wax museum.  And I mean terrible in the best possible way.  Trip Advisor reviews indicated how cheesy it was, and I’m pleased to report it lived up to the hype!  At 9 euros, it’s not exactly a cheap way to get a laugh, but it was blissfully free of crowds and beggars, so I think it was money well spent.  We’ll begin our tour, appropriately enough, in ancient Rome.  Above, that’s Julius Caesar on the left, and Cassius and Brutus on the right.

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This was followed by a trip through Italy’s history.  I have absolutely no clue who any of the people of the left are, the dude on the right is Alberto Sordi, but I’m only going off the sign next to him, as I don’t actually know who that is.  This was a common occurrence throughout the museum, as many of them were obscure Italian figures, and even ones who weren’t had been given Italianicised names (would you have known Giuseppe Vissarionovic is Stalin?).

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The hall of music was impressively lame.  Michael Jackson was the biggest name there, but they also had Zucchero (I’ve only heard of the man because one of his songs was number 1 in Italy when I was taking a road trip there a few years ago, so I heard it played about a million times on the radio).

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Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and judging by the drum kit, the drummer from Pooh(?).  Good stuff.

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The hall of heads was my particular favourite.  I think they had information about how the wax figures are made in here, but it was all in Italian, so I just walked around laughing at the terrible looking heads.  Why is the guy in the middle so happy?

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The head on the right is meant to be Pope John Paul II.  Or Papa Giovanni Paolo II, as he’s known in Italy.  He seriously looks like the crypt keeper or something.  Terrifying.

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I feel like Mussolini was a reasonable effort, Oscar Wilde, not so much.  He was definitely outshone by his counterpart in the Wax Museum Plus in Dublin.  (Still pissed off about being cheated out of Jedward there, by the way).

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The guy who looks like a prisoner is actually Pablo Picasso.  Robey Magee over there is Dante Alighieri; after looking up his portrait, I see that this waxwork actually bears some resemblance to him.  Well done, Museo Delle Cere!

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And now, Soviet Russia, which was surprisingly well represented.  In addition to Stalin’s head (shown earlier), that thing that looks like a cartoon character on the left is meant to be Khrushchev; Lenin and Putin are probably more recognisable, though still quite crap.

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You know how I love getting my photo with anything FDR themed, so I snatched a pic with the vampiric looking specimen on the left.  He was shoved in a corner with Churchill, whilst Mussolini and Hitler were given a relatively primo spot.  Papa Francesco is a recent addition, and he looks rather cheery about it.

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Hall of Popes.  Poor John XXIII had the biggest head I’ve ever seen, he practically looked deformed.  It looked like it was a bit big in real life, but not that comically huge, so I don’t know what he did to deserve the honour.  Benedict had clearly just been shifted from pride of place by Papa Francesco, and was left to hang out with a monk and some Italian footballer.

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And, saving the best for last, Brad Pitt, Obama, and Einstein!  Brad Pitt was by far the worst waxwork in the museum.  He was really just awful, especially that wig.  Obama is definitely a bit off-looking, but he looks great compared to Brad Pitt.  And Einstein is inexplicably saucy – I like it!  There were a couple more popes and such rotating in the museum’s windows outside to try to draw people in, but be forewarned – if you try to take pictures of them or any of the ones in the entrance hall without paying admission, the cranky old guys who work there will come out and scream at you in Italian.  It is by far the worst wax museum I’ve been to, so I loved it, but if you want realistic waxworks, I’d skip it.  4/5 for being splendidly awful.

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And now, something free that I can’t mock; the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.  If you wander around Rome enough, you’ll probably pass it at some point – it’s not terribly far from Campo de Fiori, (and the excellent pizza bianca at Il Forno Campo De Fiori), and is just off Vittorio Emanuele II.  It appears, at first glance, to be an ordinary square surrounding some ruins, like you’ll see many places elsewhere in Rome, but if you look closer, you’ll spot loads of cats lounging around in the ruins.

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These are the stray and abandoned cats of Rome, who have been taken in by the sanctuary, and thus get to sunbathe amongst the crumbling stones (they also have indoor housing!).  Although visitors are strongly discouraged from feeding the cats, some of them might come out to say hello regardless.  (Pet at your own discretion – the one I stroked seemed friendly enough, but I later saw her bite some guy).

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It was really nice to see abandoned animals being taken in and cared for, and there’s a pretty cracking gelateria just round the corner (Vice Gelato on Vittorio Emanuele 2, the pistachio and semifreddo flavours rocked), so you might enjoy stopping by if you have a free minute in Rome, and want to see something else not very touristy.   Or if, like me, you like cats but are allergic to them, you can enjoy them in an outdoor setting that is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. Next post will be on tourist central – the Vatican Museums!

 

Rome, Italy: Keats-Shelley House

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When it came down to a choice between visiting the Napoleonic Museum and the Keats-Shelley House, there was really no question over which museum was going to emerge victorious.  Seeing the room where a tubercular English poet died trumps looking at the art collection of a Corsican dictator any day!  The Keats-Shelley House is located at the foot of the Spanish Steps, so getting inside involves dodging hordes of tourists and jerks trying to sell you crap, but you will be instantly rewarded upon entering the cool, calm interior of the house.  The house is considered a British museum abroad, and it was a refreshing and much needed taste of home.  Entrance was 5 euros, and everything inside the museum is in English only, which was a rare treat (though I could see Italian people justifiably being annoyed by this).

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Upon climbing the steps from the gift shop up to the museum, I was pretty much instantly in heaven, as the walls of the rooms were completely lined with books (now THIS was a proper library, unlike Leighton’s lame attempt).  I began with the Severn and Keats rooms, which is where the poet and his friend lived in the weeks leading up to Keats’s early death. John Keats is of course famous for his poetry, most notably “Ode to a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,”  but because Keats died in the house, much of the focus here is on his death – as I am a lover of medical history, this was a-ok with me!  Keats had been suffering from tuberculosis for some years before he came to Rome; his mother and one of his brothers had already died of the contagious disease, and it was recommended that he go to Italy, as the climate might have improved his health, but he suffered a relapse and died not long after arriving, at the age of 25.  His companion was Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, who took the room adjoining Keats.  Both of these rooms are now filled with cases about Keats’s life and death.

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There were a few life masks of Keats, as well as numerous portraits of him.  Disturbingly, I think the closer he got to death, the better looking he became, but I’ve always had a weird fetish for all those tubercular English Romantics (yes, I know TB is a terrible disease that still kills many people in developing countries, but I think I’ve absorbed some of the Regency and Victorian romanticism relating to it).  Unfortunately, because Italian law at the time required destroying all the furniture in a house where someone died from tuberculosis, none of the furniture in Keats’s room is original.  Even the wallpaper was destroyed (though the ceiling tiles survived), and the house itself was narrowly saved from destruction by intervention from the US (led by TR) and other governments in the early 1900s.  However, the view from the window is much the same as it was in Keats’s day, and you can delight in the same views of the crowd that Keats enjoyed before he was confined to his bed.

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The house is also devoted in part to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to a lesser extent, Lord Byron (though I suspect he was just dragged in to add some sex appeal).  Even Shelley’s connection to the actual house is tenuous at best; he did live in Rome for a time, but not at the same time as Keats, and he and Keats never met, although they did correspond with each other, and Shelley wrote an ode to Keats after he died.  However, they were both English Romantic poets, and Shelley drowned a year after Keats, and was buried in the same cemetery (the Non-Catholic Cemetery -I would have liked to visit, but we just plain ran out of time, plus we were ever so tired of walking), so why not include him?  I think in this day and age, Percy Shelley has probably been eclipsed by his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, so it was nice to learn a bit more about him.  The museum had a lock of his and Keats’s hair, and again, a few portraits.

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Of course, Byron’s flamboyant personality meant that the section devoted to him was the liveliest in the museum (Keats’s was the most poignant, particularly the letters from his sister Fanny to his fiancee, Fanny Brawne).  It included a Carnival mask of an old man that Byron delighted in wearing, and a rather pompous-looking sketch of the poet.  In one of those snarky little touches of humour that I adore in a museum, its caption featured a quote from Marianne Hunt who said that in it, Byron looked like, “a great schoolboy who had a plain bun given to him instead of a plum one,” which cracked me right up (even though personally I’d much prefer the plain bun – I do not understand the English obsession with fruited breads and cakes).  This room also had an extensive collection of correspondence from all the main poets featured here, as well as Mary Shelley.

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This etching of Keats was said by Severn to make him look like a “sneaking fellow,” which also made me laugh.

The Keats-Shelley House proved to be a much needed little oasis of quiet in the middle of the often overwhelming city of Rome, and I’m very glad I went here instead of the Napoleonic Museum (though the Napoleonic might well be just as good, I’ll put it on the list for next time!).  I adored all the British humour on show, and relished the opportunity to learn more about Keats and Shelley.  I found it a well-run, lovely museum, and advise anyone tired of the bustle of Roman life to pay it a visit!  4/5

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After seeing the Spanish Steps, I appreciated the tranquility of the museum all the more!

Rome, Italy: Criminology Museum (Museo Criminologico)

 

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If you’re here because of the True Crime article on the soap-maker of Correggio, welcome (and thanks for clicking over)!  I like true crime too, and I’ve visited quite a few police and medical museums over the years, because I’m never happier than when looking at jars of organs, or famous crime-scene memorabilia!  I’ve linked to a couple of those places in the next paragraph, but you may also enjoy my posts on the Cleveland Police Museum (they’ve got reconstructions of the heads of some of the victims of the notorious “Torso Murderer”), the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Mansfield Reformatory (where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed), and the Siriraj Medical Museum in Thailand, which has actual pickled serial killers on display (sadly not pictured in the post). And now I’ll shut up and let you get on with the Criminology Museum post that you’ve presumably clicked over to see!

Regular readers likely won’t be surprised to hear that I hightailed it over to the Criminology Museum in Rome shortly after arriving there for a long weekend (yes, I know I’m weird, but it was my third trip to Rome, so I’d already seen most of the ruins and junk).  Though I really did enjoy the City of London Police Museum, I’m still completely puzzled as to why British police museums seem to think the British public have such delicate sensibilities.  Much like the wonderfully gory Danish Police Museum, the Italians were not afraid to put the nastier side of humanity on show.  I couldn’t tell you exactly where the museum is, as I walked about a million miles that weekend and have no sense of direction anyway, but I will helpfully note that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, and open from 9-1 on the other days (and I think reopens after a siesta break on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 2:30-6:30).  Admission is 2 euro, which is a bargain by Roman standards, and because it is not in a touristy area, there are no beggars or street pedlars to contend with, which was probably the best part of all (and one of the few times we’d be free of them all weekend)!

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Although the museum was primarily in Italian, the curators had a clear understanding of human nature, and thus had the foresight to put English captions on the torture devices and stories of serial killers (which is obviously what everyone comes to see).  The section on torture and execution was right at the start of the museum, and contained a mix of the standard, well-documented punishments (pillory, stocks, etc), and the fanciful (an iron maiden, which has pretty much been proven to be a Georgian fabrication, though the museum display didn’t reflect this).  My favourite part was the miniatures of methods of execution, which had been made by prisoners in the early 20th century.  They managed to combine the adorableness of tiny things with the hideous gruesomeness of medieval punishments; at least, I was certainly impressed (I mean, I never expected to “awww” over a man being ripped apart by horses, but if you overlook the bloody man lying spread-eagle in the centre, it’s awfully cute).

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Moving on through the hall of torture devices, we came to the room of executions, which held a few early guillotines and a gibbet with a skeleton still hanging in it (according the the caption, it was the remains of a deserter in the British Army, but I think most of the signage in the museum has to be taken with a grain of salt, if the iron maiden is anything to go by).  As you might expect from a predominately Catholic country, there was a whole elaborate ritual surrounding executions in Italy, which involved a “comforter” who would provide religious solace to the condemned.  Unfortunately, their outfit included a Klan style hood (you may have seen people wearing them in the religious procession in The Godfather II), which is scarcely comforting, though I suppose if I knew I was going to be executed later that day, I’d be well past the point of consoling anyway.  The comforter would follow the prisoner’s cart to the place of execution whilst bearing a large crucifix, and then offer the prisoner a final drink from a special cup, whilst priests would try to solicit donations from the crowd (for the church, presumably, as the condemned man wasn’t going to get much benefit from them!).

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Lord Byron and Charles Dickens both witnessed Italian executions in the 19th century, and were horrified by the gruesome and barbaric nature of the events (Dickens more so than Byron, as the latter seemed to have a certain appreciation for the pomp of the ceremony surrounding it).  Although Italy abolished capital punishment in 1948, the artefacts here serve as a grim reminder of that period in Italian history (and incidentally, that picture at the start of the post is a death mask of a hanged man, which was obviously not a great way to go, though relative to some of the other methods available, not that horrific).

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The floor above this was mostly about the Italian police, and was primarily only in Italian, though there were some cracking pictures (although I’m not exactly sure what they were portraying.  Policemen doing their job despite dramatic events, I guess.).  They included some examples of the uniforms prisoners would have worn, which were stylishly stripey, and surprisingly jaunty.  I don’t know who the man shown below is, but his picture made me laugh.

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There also appeared to be a display on the ways criminals could be identified, with an analysis of types of nose and ear shapes.  There was also a random human ear inside glass, no idea who it belonged to or why it was there!

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There was a pretty fantastic gallery at the end of the hall showing counterfeit objects confiscated by the police.  A lot of them were mock Etruscan jugs, some of which may have been used for bootlegging (the signs were a little confusing), but the best part were the forged paintings.  I’m not into modern art, so I don’t know if these paintings actually looked like the ones they were meant to be imitating, but even if they did, they were so ugly I can’t imagine why anyone would want to buy them in the first place!  The most hilarious thing had to be a fake Michael Bolton CD; why would you even bother counterfeiting such a thing?

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The second floor had pictures of Italy’s most notorious serial killers.  The English signs resumed here, so I was a very happy camper.  Most of the featured killers were women, and the most interesting had to be the Correggio Soap Maker.  She’d evidently had quite a hard life; ten of her children had died in infancy, and she had four surviving children – the eldest was about to join the army at the outbreak of WWII.  So she thought she should make a sacrifice to try to keep him safe.  She invited three women she’d known in her hometown to come stay with her (at different times), and then systematically killed them all with an axe.  One of them she dissolved in acid, and saved the blood to bake into a cake, which she fed to neighbours and family.  The last one was boiled down, and she turned the fat into the “most acceptable creamy soap,” thus giving her the Soap Maker alias.  She was eventually caught, and put in an insane asylum where she later died.

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There were a few other stories of murder like that, though the Soap-Maker’s was the most graphic.  The museum concluded with a tour through the 20th century history of fascists and anarchists, and featured a few more little items that had been created by modern prisoners, including the devil head and sexy handkerchief shown below.

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The museum was on par with the Danish Police Museum in terms of grisliness – the Danish Museum may have had more shocking pictures, but the Roman Museum had at least some English, so you could actually read some of the fascinating accounts of crime and murder.  I was very pleased with the large size of the museum for the price, and would recommend it to those visiting Rome who need a break from all the crowds around the main tourist sites!  The only complaint I have is that I wish that everything could have had an English translation, but I was ultimately grateful that they had any at all.  4/5