St. Peter's in the Misty Morning
I dip my fingers in the basin of water near the door. I’m rather surreptitious about it. I wonder if this is disrespectful. I’m not Catholic, and I don’t even know how to cross myself properly with it. But, I do it with the most respectful of intentions. There is such immensity here. I want something that I can feel. Something that is scaled to my humanness in the gargantuan proportions of St. Peter’s Basilica.
We wander to a purple circle on which Constantine was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor. The Constantine. The Holy Roman Emperor. It seems unreal to me that I am standing on this spot, with no one taking any note of it. To be fair, there is, mostly no one here. There are a few tourists, cameras raised, hurrying toward the belly of the church for photos. But, by in large, this cavernous space is empty. We’ve arrived just as its massive doors swing open for the day and are rattling around in its immensity.
We make our way up the long nave, passing markings on the floor that signify where other notable churches end. Not only is this the largest church in the world, but it is intent on flaunting its proportions. I can see the rationale. It is singularly impressive to walk by hundreds of yards of markers, denoting where every other church falls short.
Priests walk purposefully down the corridor and stoop quickly to kiss a bronze toe. Some simply touch it briefly as they pass. The audio guide that is buzzing in my ear explains that pilgrims have traveled to this spot for centuries to kiss the toe on this statue, St. Peter Enthroned. It tells me that the toe is actually on its second iteration, so many pilgrims have held court here.
I’m curious. I reach up and feel the toe of St. Peter. It is soft. It is almost impossibly smooth, worn featureless by the devotion of millions. I wonder about them. Who are they, that have come here, hoping to stand in this space, touch this spot? What is it that they’re seeking?
I step toward the side chapels. Any one of them would engulf most churches. Nuns, priests, and the faithful are in their earnest worship, before the edifice is overrun by those like us, come to gape.
An elevator ride deposits us at the base of the dome. Teetering on the ledge that encircles the dome, the voices of just four men drift up as they sing out their early morning worship. It feels impossible to hear this expanse filled by so few.
I don’t want to turn away. I feel that I could stand, perched above this colossus for hours yet. But, there is more to see, so, finally, regretfully, I turn to begin the ascent up Michelangelo’s dome. Not a man for meager gestures, he designed it to serve as Rome’s 8th hill. And it feels that way. The ceiling begins to slope over our heads, the passage becomes more confined , until we reach a stairway so tightly spiraled, a rope is its only handrail. I’m grateful for empty stairwells on a cool morning instead of the crowds of a summer afternoon.
Mists blanket what we had intended to be the crowning experience for the morning. We came for majestic views of Rome from above. Instead, we’re enshrouded in a cool fog. It quiets the barely waking world below. It is eerie to tower above the city like this, unable to see or hear it.
As we descend, the fog lifts just enough to give us a glimpse of the edges of the city. I won't be getting any of sweeping photos of Rome that I had hoped for. But, standing up here, it’s awfully hard to be disappointed.