topics: capelletti (food), bicycle advocacy, Vatican Museum, history, art, Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, Christianity, Etruscans, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Lateran Treaty, Vatican City (Holy See); jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: May 20, 1998

Food of the Day: capelletti

As everyone knows, pasta comes in many shapes and sizes. Today's food of the day, capelletti, is a cone-shaped pasta, often stuffed with cheese or meat. By the time we leave Italy we hope to have tried every possible variation of pasta... or maybe not.

Person of the Day: staff at, Roma

For all their help in getting us Internet access while in Roma, for allowing us to use their offices to conduct our regular, Wednesday, live chat 'n' debate, and for their efforts to alert the media of our arrival, we make the staff, in particular, Ernesto Spinelli click to view a photograph, Lesley Pritkin, and Laura, our people of the day.

Also present and helpful on more than one occasion was Mr. Alfonso Gemelli, of the Gruppo Publiaci (with which shares offices and often collaborates). He seemed very interested in the BikeAbout site and mission and showed us information about something called BIKE live EXPO in which participated. Having already occurred from April 2-6, 1998, BIKE live EXPO is a huge annual event celebrating two-wheeled traffic. We discussed possibilities for a BikeAbout presence next year and agreed to keep in touch. For more information about this, please visit the BIKE live EXPO at and Roma are very busy, working as hard as possible to bring the Internet to the people of Italy. They are keenly aware of the growing consciousness of the advantages of the Internet is spreading, and, as this consciousness spreads, and other providers compete for the attention of interested people. They also compete for more fair telecommunications practices in a market dominated for the time being by the national monopoly.

We wish and its staff the very best in all that they do. And for their far-sightedness. (Just as we were leaving, Ernesto was helping to prepare for the first live 'Net video simulcast from cameras mounted on supersonic jets! We're not sure what happened, but it sounded like a great experiment - flying faster than the speed of sound... on the Internet.)

Place of the Day: Vatican Museum

Continuing our tour of the most popular tourist attractions in the Mediterranean, we made a morning pilgrimage to the Vatican - one of the few sites we will visit that receives more visitors than Pompeii, which as you might recall receives roughly TWO BILLION tourists a year! (Well, over two million.) No longer intimidated by crowds (or at least not by tour groups who, weakened by the poor air and cushy seats of their tour buses, are soft and easily trampled), we boldly stomped into the Vatican Museum.

Inside, we quickly realized why the Vatican receives so many visitors. Quite simply, it is one of the best museums on earth. The Vatican's vast collection includes important pieces from virtually every culture of the Mediterranean and from nearly every time period. Indeed, the Vatican Museum offers perhaps the best example yet of how deep and important are the relationships between different Mediterranean civilizations throughout history. Yes, one of Padraic's favorite themes.

If we reflect on the origins and development of Christianity (for lots more on this, see tomorrow's dispatch), the reasons for the pan-Mediterranean flavor of the museum are obvious. Christianity began and first flourished in the Mediterranean. When, under Emperor Constantine, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, its preeminence in the Mediterranean, and its connection to the city of Roma was assured. While the Western Roman Empire decayed and collapsed, the Church, and its administration, largely remained. Its durability made it one of the last remaining links to the glories of the Roman past. But the Church soon became a power in its own right. Having filled the cultural, economic and political void that followed the collapse of Roman authority, the Church became the focal point of much of Western European society through the Middle Ages and into the modern era. The Vatican Museum is just one windfall of the Church's great and long-lasting importance.

We started our tour in the Vatican's Egyptian Museum, which houses an excellent, if small, collection of Egyptian artifacts acquired by the papacy over time. But particularly interesting to us was the Museum's small collection of materials from the ancient Assyrians, including this stone tablet of cuneiform writing. click to view a photograph Cuneiform is one of the earliest known forms of writing, first used as long ago as the 4th millenium BC (6000 years ago!) by the inhabitants of the ancient Middle East. It eventually fell out of use with the rise of the more flexible Semitic alphabet (like that used by the Phoenicians) developed in the 2nd millenium BC. For more about alphabets see Ethan's Tech Fact on alphabets from Byblos, and Anthony's dispatch from Syria.

We also briefly explored the important Etruscan section of the Museum. Long before the Romans, from the 8th to the 4th centuries BC, the Etruscans were the dominant civilization in Italy. Like the Phoenicians and the early Greeks, the Etruscans were excellent navigators who relied on foreign trade. And, like the other great civilizations that preceded the Romans, the Etruscans were also subdued by the growing Roman power. But, though Etruscan civilization was eventually swallowed whole, its culture profoundly affected the Romans, giving them their customs, advanced arts, and institutions. We saw some signs of their art and their advanced craftsmanship, including this curious design on a ceremonial shield click to view a photograph, this wagon click to view a photograph, and these elaborate gold bracelets and figurines. click to view a photograph

From the Etruscan Museum the BikeAbouters moved on to take in the Vatican's excellent collection of Greek and Roman sculpture and mosaics. Excepting the Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Vatican had the best collection we have ever seen, and included some justly famous pieces.

Perhaps the most renowned, and most influential of the statues is the beautiful Laocoön group. The sculpture depicts a struggle against giant serpents by Laocoön (a Trojan priest) and his two sons, all characters from the Aeneid, Virgil's epic that follows up on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. (For more information on these works, check out Odysseus, our Person of the Day in Djerba, and the story of our near-visit to the ancient city of Troy). In the Aeneid, Laocoön of Troy tries to warn his fellow Trojans that the wooden horse the Greeks had left was dangerous. To punish his meddling, the goddess Athena, a strong supporter of the Greeks, sent serpents to kill him. click to view a photograph To make matters worse, the Trojans interpreted his abrupt and unusual death as an omen that they should take the giant wooden horse within the gates as soon as possible. This sequence of events did not end well for the Trojans. Anyway, the statue is almost miraculously lifelike. If Laocoön were not entangled with a serpent, we would worry about him leaping out at us.

Another statue, the Belvedere Torso click to view a photograph, though obviously missing its extremities, also shows the careful study of the human body that distinguishes many of the classical sculptors from their less technically adept imitators. This particular sculpture was very much admired (and even copied) by Michelangelo and others.

In this section of the Museum we were also treated to some excellent mosaics from the Roman period. One shows a dragon click to view a photograph, while another depicts Athena in full regalia. click to view a photograph

After a long time wandering among the statues, we pressed on to the Gallery of Maps, a enormously long hallway click to view a photograph with representational maps of Italy and of the Papal States of the 16th century painted in fresco on its walls. Anthony and Ethan traced our route, discussing where we rode and where we should have ridden (for instance on this map of the northern Italy and the Dalmatian coast). click to view a photograph If only we could find such detailed maps that are easier to carry on our bikes - these maps were5 meters (15 feet) from top to bottom!

For most visitors the highlight of the Vatican Museum is its collection of masterpieces from the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means "rebirth" in French, and refers to the great outpouring of cultural activity that characterized Europe (and especially Italy) in the 15th and early 16th centuries. But the Renaissance had much to do with a rediscovery of the roots of Western Civilization, Greek and Roman literature, philosophy and art. Authors began to look again to classical works - for example the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the poetry of Virgil - for inspiration. Artists rediscovered and studied the great works of antiquity, for example the magnificent Greek sculpture (such as the Laocoön Group statue that we mention above) and Roman frescoes.

Instead of concentrating on the otherworldly - the Christian emphasis on the afterlife and spirituality that characterized the Middle Ages - Renaissance authors and artists concentrated on man, on the human form, on the human mind, and on accomplishments in this world. Their new emphasis soon became known as humanism - a broad and open-minded study of classical knowledge used to promote the development of human capacities and stress human dignity and values.

Though Florence was the center of Renaissance thought and art, the Church served as an important patron as well. This might seem strange considering that the Renaissance (and humanism) was in some ways a challenge to Christian priorities, as well as an attempt to break away from Church control. But in other ways it made a lot of sense. For centuries, the Church had played a crucial role in preserving and then spreading learning. Renaissance humanists found classical works in Church libraries. And though the Church might have seemed to dislike the profane, the Church was one of the richest institutions in Europe and also one of the most prolific patrons of artists. The popes, like other Italian nobility (for most of the popes came from noble families in Italy) wanted to hire the best possible artists who would produce the best possible works of art.

The Raphael Stanze - the next section of the Museum we visited - is a perfect example of this and provides a good representation of Renaissance and humanistic ideals. Although many of the beautiful frescoes address religious motifs, one of the best-known frescoes depicts the "Athens School" - portraying all of Ancient Greek's most prominent and important philosophers, like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and mathematicians like Euclid. click to view a photograph The fresco represents the search for rational truth - a quest considered crucial for human development in this world, but not necessarily important for gaining entry into heaven. And, the fresco shows the new humanistic direction of art. Instead of offering symbolic representations of man, Raphael obviously took care to portray his characters as realistically as possible, using contemporaries (like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci) as models.

From the Raphael Stanza we proceeded to the jewel in the crown of the Vatican Museum, Michelangelo's breath-taking Sistine Chapel. Covered by over 980 square meters (10,000 square feet) of fresco, the Sistine Chapel is one of the great accomplishments in the history of art. Though he considered himself primarily a sculptor, Michelangelo was a remarkably skilled painter. Indeed, in conception and composition, the Sistine Chapel is a work of genius. And though it depicts religious scenes, Michelangelo concentrated on painting the human form. The frescoes of the Chapel offer a visually stunning exploration of humankind.

The ceiling, which Michelangelo completed between 1508 and 1512 has scenes from Genesis (from the Creation to the Great Flood) as well as other stirring biblical scenes. More than 20 years after he completed the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to paint the monumental depiction of the Last Judgement that graces the altar wall. Despite the constant crush of people into the Chapel, and the annoyingly loud demands for silence by the guards, we stood and stared at Michelangelo's masterpieces for a long time. But, long before we could take it all in, we reluctantly made our way out of the Chapel. We were soon to be late for our appointment with Paola across town.

On the way out of the museum complex, we stopped at the Court of the Pigna to admire its beautiful green lawn click to view a photograph with a striking statue of a deconstructed earth in the center click to view a photograph and the colossal pigna (a giant bronze pinecone from the Roman period) in the niche at one end. click to view a photograph We also stopped for a quick photo of the group with the dome of St. Peter's Basilica behind us. click to view a photograph

Unfortunately, we did not have the time to see the Pinacoteca (which was closed) or Picture Gallery, in which masterpieces by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and other Renaissance artists are displayed. Nor did we visit the Vatican Library, considered to have one of the best collections of manuscripts, geographic charts, and books in the world.

Obviously the Vatican Museums deserve more attention, but we are afraid this attention will have to wait until our next visit to Roma. We hope it will be some day soon.

Tech Fact of the Day:

The State of Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, is an independent state lying wholly within the city of Roma. One of the smallest states in the world - 0.4 square kilometers (1/6 square mile) - the Vatican still manages to have a population of over 700 people, all of whose work requires that they live in Vatican City.

Vatican City is both an absolute monarchy (a state in which one person rules completely) and a theocracy (a state ruled by a person believed to be divinely guided), though the ruler, the Pope, usually delegates all but spiritual leadership to a special Pontifical Council.

The papacy has long wielded political as well as spiritual power. From the 8th century AD the papacy controlled large parts of modern day Italy. These territories, known as the Papal States, covered over 17,000 square miles in the 19th century. However, when Italy united in the 1860s, it did so in part by wrenching control of the Papal States from the Church. The new limits of the Papacy's political domain were not formalized until 1929 when the Italian government under Mussolini negotiated the Lateran Treaty with the Church. This treaty established the boundaries of the territory, now known as Vatican City (though some other sites outside these boundaries, such as Castel Gondolfo, the Catacombs and a number of important churches, also fall under papal control), and stipulated that the Italian government had no political authority over the papacy. Later, after the fall of Mussolini, the new Italian Republic agreed to uphold the Lateran Treaty.

Group Dispatch, May 20
picture of Padraic

Today's is a hard dispatch to write. Not only was our day full of activities, but Roma is worthy of a month of dispatches. In fact, trying to recount our adventures and cram some sense of Roma's importance into a short dispatch requires divine inspiration not often forthcoming to long-distance cyclists (not even to those staying within sight of the Vatican). We blame Roma. Its layer upon layer of history, its innumerable significant sites, and its sheer beauty make it almost impossible to describe adequately. Its delightful distractions are significant in themselves.

For centuries this was the most important city in the Mediterranean and the Western World as the capital of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, when the Church's spiritual and political power dominated all facets of European life, Roma again became central to Western Civilization. It remains the capital of Roman Catholicism - a religion that claims hundreds of millions of adherents worldwide. Then, of course, you have to reckon upon Roma as the capital city of the modern state of Italy, and as a huge commercial, educational, and cultural center.

Our gentle readers must forgive us, however, if yesterday we told you what we did yesterday and today we only tell you what we managed to do today.

We woke early and visited the Vatican Museum (see our Place of the Day), cutting the tour short to hike across town and meet one half of our hosts, Paola, at one of the campuses of the University of Roma. There, Paola introduced us to some Communications students, including Michael and Massimo, whom she thought would be interested in what we are doing. click to view a photograph We not only gave them our BikeAbout presentation, but also had an interesting discussion on the future of the Internet - for instance, the possibilities it opens up to students of Communications.

By the time we had finished our visit, it was already almost time for Wednesday's chat 'n' debate. The staff at, our People of the Day graciously allowed us the use of their network connection and a conference room in their offices. Joined by Michael, his friend David (an Economics student also at the University of Roma), and others click to view a photograph, we engaged in a spirited real and online discussion of the problem of drug abuse in Italy and the United States. After the chat had ended, our night really began. Realizing that we still had not eaten, Michael and David insisted on taking us to one of their favorite restaurants in the Trastevere district of Roma. On the west side of the Tiber, the Trastevere has always had its own identity distinct from that of Roma proper. Today, loaded with trattorias and bars on its pleasant narrow streets, it has become quite fashionable. We followed Michael and David to an airy piazza where dinner at a fine trattoria awaited.

Not yet exhausted after our long day's work, we followed dinner with a Roman specialty (a frozen coffee-based dessert of flavored ice shavings topped with fresh cream and all called a granita café, or, in Roman slang, a gratta checcha), and a late-night, whirlwind tour of Roma by car. Roma - and particularly its most panoramic vantage points - loses none of its charm after 1 a.m.

Not wishing for the day to end, we nevertheless stopped for a final libation before collapsing into bed at 3 a.m. Thanks Michael and David for making our long day's night more fun.

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