Postcards from Rome. Maps of Rome.

Colliseum 2 Ext Rome, by Arran Henderson

Strange to be back in Dublin, after 10 days in Italy, 4 of them in Rome.  I used to live there, 19 years ago.

I don’t know about you, but I tend not to go back to places I lived (and loved) in in my 20s.  It’s too nostalgic, too sad somehow, amid the footsteps, the ghosts of your former, younger self. I was apprehensive anyway about the prospect.  Yet it was amazing, especially as I’d not been at all since all those years ago.

Colliseum, Rome

In fact it was great.  For one thing, I’d forgotten quite how spectacular everything was, and remains.  Here is a massive 20 foot high, multi-ton, solid bronze pine cone, from ancient Rome.

Pine Cone vatican

It used to the the turning point of the Circus Maximus, during chariot races.  (yep, Ben Hur et al, that Circus Maximus)

Now it sits in the Vatican, framed by a huge towering niche, designed especially by Donato Bramante, or is it Michaelanglo?

and yes, “remains spectacular”. To my slight chagrin, the Eternal City had not noticed my departure two decades back.  They had not rearranged the public spaces.  Nor put up a single statue in my honour.  I’m quite miffed bout it to be honest.

Piazza Navronna, ome, by Arran HendersonI wondered if this might be in my honour.  But no, on closer inspection it turned out to be a “River God fountain” and Obelisk, sculptures by by Bernini, Piazza Navonna.

Capitiline Hill, Marcus Aurellius, Rome, by Arran HendersonThis is not me, but that Marcus Aurelius chap. 

IMG_7311Vestal Virgins, amid the Roamn Forum.   Definitely not…

Nothing at all.  Everything is quite as it was, albeit with a multiple of other tourists. For I am now a tourist too of course, merrily snapping away.

Romulus and Remus wolf statue, Rome, by Arran Henderson

But a very happy tourist. Talk of spectacle.  The Vatican collections for example, inside and behind this well known church.

St Peters Rome, by Arran Henderson

The quality of the art works is, of course, ridiculous, the collection unlike any other.

Sistine Ceiling

Unlike anything else on earth in fact, because it combines the ultimate of quality with extraordinary quantity as well. There are miles of masterpieces, acres of legendary fresco, iconic Greek and Roman statues, by the mega-ton-load.  All of it vast, all of it superb. Beyond superb, indeed superlatives.  (Although heaven knows, I’m doing my best here)

School of Athens Raphael, Rome vatican

Leonardo Vatican

directly above, Leonardo, St Jerome.  (partially unfinished oil painting, and the better for it) Above that, School of Athens, Raphael, above that, Sistine Chapel, (the ceiling) Michelangelo. He painted the gable wall as well of course,  in a separate work, sevral years later, the Last Judgement, below.

Last Judgement, Rome

Again, to labour a point, we’re not merely speaking here of artfacts well known or famous.  But icons, celebrated as seminal; central, and at the very apex of western art. Yet one after the other they come, each gob-smacking in its impact, miles of them.

This sounds like a truism I’m aware. Banal even, coming from a supposed art historian. But sometimes one gets jaded, then comes full circle. Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.

Take this sculpture below for example. It’s the Torso Belvedere, an ancient Roman statue. It was legendary in the Renaissance (and deeply influential on artists then) and has been ever since.

Torso Belvedere 1 Vatican Rome

Torso Belvedere 3 Vatican Rome

People stop and look at it a while. (God forgive my cynicism, but I suspect because the guide book tells us to)   Very few look up at the ceiling above, which looks like, this…

Ceiling Vatican Rome

Here’s another ceiling that we all ignored.

Ceiling Vatican Rome Map

This one is in the famous gallery of the maps, the Galleria delle carte geografiche.  Which is stunning, and which are (the maps) utterly compelling.  They are by the friar-artist, Ignzio Dante.  There are dozens of them, on both sides of the very long corridor, with and below the incredible ceiling nobody looks at.  Each map is enormous, maybe 2.5 x 2.5 meters each,  and not only are they beautiful, virtuoso objects in themselves, and extremely accurate for their time.  But each is full of lovely details, curlicues and flourishes…



We were especially happy and intrigued to see this one, below, as its of the lower southern half of the Puglia region, the Salento peninsula, which was to be the second half of our holiday.  (We went by train 2 days after the Vatican art-orgy, both the train and the region especially highly, effusively, recommended.   I hope to post about the Salento in a couple of weeks, God willing)


So, given the great beauty of the maps below, I don’t blame people one bit for not looking at the ceilings above.  But just I wonder how long it took to paint, this ceiling, and how the artist or artist would feel now if they knew how utterly ignored it was.

That’s the problem with the Vatican, there is art literally everywhere.  And it’s all, all of it, superlatively good.

Here’s the Laacoon,  and the Apollo Belvedere.


Apollo, RomeLike the Torso above, both are icons.

Here is a ancient Roman sculpture head of the Emperor Hadrian and his erm, very close friend, Antinous.

Hadrian, Vatican Collection, Rome

Hadrian's friend, Vatican Collection, Rome

They are,  both of them, very famous sculptures.  But the one of Antinous in particular  inspired an important 18th German critic called Jochaim Winckelmann to write enthusiatically of the white, sheer stipped down beauty of the antique, classical world of art, in a book that was immensely influential at the time.  In fact Winckelmann is considered one of the “fathers” of Art History, as a subject of academic study.   So that handsome marble  head is not just part of the History of Art.   It’s part of the History of the History, of Art.  If you get my get my meaning.  That’s the Vatican for you:  everything is wow, gosh and blow me down with a feather.  And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Because the more you know about it, the more “wow” it all gets.

I’ll leave you with two more pictures of that ceiling that nobody, ever, can ignore.  Although there are other works, by Benozzo Gonzzoli, Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandio, and Sandro Botticelli,  (yes in the very same room, the S Chapel)  – that nobody even glances at.

Sistine chapel Walls

Here’s that ceiling one more time.

Sistine Ceiling

Over and out.

Sistine Ceiling C.Up

Thank you for reading.  We’ll be back next few days, with news of our Dublin Decoded walk, remembering the First World War in Ireland, a historic walk and conversation,  with a lovely concert too if you buy the combined version of the ticket.    If you’re in Dublin that Sunday soon,  April 19th, please be sure to come along.  Walk is at 2pm, Concert at 4.30.   All details are on that link.   But it would be a pleasure to have your company.

all the best for now.

Pine Cone vatican

13 thoughts on “Postcards from Rome. Maps of Rome.

  1. Spectacular indeed. It must be disappointing not to find statues in your honour. But perhaps if you go back they will stage a full Roman naval battle for you in the Colosseum. That would make up for it. After all, it’s been a while since they last did that.


    1. He he, that would be nice. (least i deserve) We went to the Coliseum on this trip of course. Also decided to pay the extra and go on the guided tour. I used to be sniffy or really a stupid snob about them, guided tours I mean, dumbly believing them un-cool and “only for tourists”. Now I’m a guide myself, here in Dublin, it’s exactly the opposite, I love them! Belatedly realise just how much detail, information, annecdote and expertise a good guide can and will pack in, and the enjoyment/entertainment factor they bring as well. I’m a total convert, in short.

      Anyway during our tour I asked the guide how on earth they flooded the amphitheater, to stage those naval battles, when there was a huge two story sub-terrain basement area, directly under the sand. Our guide told me they did it until the lower levels were constructed, then moved the naval battles back to the Circo Maximo.
      You can love ’em or hate them the ancient Romans, they could be cruel, savage and ruthless. But you can’t deny them the wow factor. Still takes my breath away.


      1. Yes, never having been to the Colosseum myself but the scale when you are there must be mind blowing. I was struck in your photo of how far down the basements go. I’d never realised that previously.


  2. Thanks for the reminder, Arran. It’s 25 years since I was there. We used to go to Rome often as a family. First time when I was seven, last time when I was expecting my first child. It was the first city I ever fell in love with and is my favourite still.


  3. Fantastic tour of Rome Arran. Thank you! My first and last trip was in 1995 and I’ve been meaning to go back every since.
    The WW1 walking tour sounds very interesting. My aunt went into the GPO on Monday with a diary of her uncle written during the week of the Rising. But of course WW1 was a much bigger deal for the Irish in 1915.


    1. Hi and thanks very much for commenting Clair, yes i agree, absolutely. It really was a bigger deal. ‘Think I’m right in saying about 4,000 people participated in the Easter Rising, on the rebel side. (more or less that number anyway) On the other hand about 84,000 Irish, from all religions and traditions joined up at or near the start of the war. Ultimately 300,000+ fought in France and Belgium. Puts everything in perspective now. That’s exactly how most Irish people felt and where their sympathies lay in 1914-15 certainly. And for well beyond too, for many, (a now-despised silent majority caste) History has been re-written, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great post, so much to think about. How do we even start to take in that kind of massive quantity of ridiculously iconic material. I suppose one way is in tailored walks like you produce yourself, or themed guidebooks. What a trip! Looks like you had great weather too.


    1. Thanks Rose Anne, delighted you read and enjoyed. Indeed yes, the quality +quantity combination, in the Vatican museums can be, (and coften is, for many visitors)- quite overwhelming.
      We are extremely fortunate in Ireland (as in Britain/the UK) that our state museums are free.
      Conversely in the Louvre, Uffizzi, Vatican, and many other great museums of the world (not to mention sites like the Alhambra) there are hefty fees, (not to mention huge queues and crowds) all to contend with.
      Both these factors mitigate against multiple and return visits, which is the best way to expereince a museum, Mitigate against multiple/reurn visits even for residents of a city, let alone visitors, who don’t of course have that luxury.

      And that’s a huge shame. Because in my view the best way to treat an important collection is exactly as you say, to take a thematic approach. I’d far rather spend 1.5-2 hours looking at just classical statues in the Vatican, or just frescoes from the 15oos there, (optimally with a real expert, in either subject) than dash around trying to cram in a huge collection, and 4000 years of superb, world-class art into an exhausting 5 hour visit.
      Having said all that, my art stamina, or “art-tolerance” level is set pretty high, fully commensurate with my interest, so I loved every minute of my 5+ hours!
      Thanks very much for your comment and interest, it is much appreciated. Must say i liked the look of your site. Hope your business is going very well. I’m prepping for leading a tour this weekend but I’m already looking forward to reading your blog as soon as that is done.
      my very best regards-


      1. As soon as I started reading your reply I was thinking ‘repeat visits! repeat visits!’. It’s very true what you say about cost and also even the time that is available to the visitor. It shows I suppose that we should spend longer going in and out of our own local museums then, as we have the luxury of no fee and also a lot more time.

        Another point is that even the fact that these are in galleries or museums at all, ie already collected in one place, makes it easier to see them in quantity (but the lack of context affects the ‘quality’ of the experience then). How wonderful would it be to visit Paris and its ‘population’ of fantastic pieces, and yet never step foot in the Louvre? That is a tour I would definitely like to take!

        Thanks for the kind words, you are very generous.


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