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Opiate of the masses

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By Andrew Biggs

This week your correspondent is unable to make any casual observations on Thai life owing to the fact he is 8,823 km away.

Greetings from the Eternal City! As I write this I am sitting at a “ristorante” in Rome, Italy. That’s Italian for “restaurant,” by the way, a fact I gleaned from a slightly snotty waiter when I enquired as to the word’s English equivalent.

I am staying not far from Campo de’ Fiori, the site where Julius Caesar was murdered during the ides of March.

This is my first visit to Italy since 2001 when I drove all the way down the Amalfi Coast to Sicily in a rented Fiat 500. Mount Etna happened to be erupting and I took some molten rock back home, only to be dealt karmic retribution by getting completely lost on the train back to Rome.

(Catching the train from Sicily to Rome, one must cross the Strait of Messina. Trains do not travel over water; it uncouples itself and the carriages line up on a barge that floats over to the mainland. Your correspondent, his sense of direction a little distorted owing to a potent bottle of limoncello, could not locate his cabin during this uncoupling and made a slight idiot of himself as he ran through railway corridors trying to find his seat. Next time I’ll take the plane.)

I write this having just spent four hours in the Vatican. It’s the jewel in the Italian crown when it comes to tourism though writing that is technically incorrect. I have always harbored a grudge against a certain Bangkok deejay who, back in the mid 1990s, asked a question on air that would earn the first correct caller a bottle of Chivas Regal. His question was: “In which country can you find the Vatican?”

Incredibly I was the first one through and answered triumphantly: “Vatican City.”

“Wrong answer,” the deejay replied before hanging up on me unceremoniously, for all of the Bangkok listening public to hear.

The second caller answered “Italy” to which the British deejay ejaculated “That’s correct!” and congratulated the dunce on his knowledge, asking how he felt about winning a bottle of Chivas Regal. His feelings about that are lost forever in my memory, unlike my own feelings of anger and resentment that fester to this day.

We all know I was correct. The Vatican is not in Italy. It’s in Vatican City, the world’s smallest country with a population of 600 citizens of which 75 per cent are clergy. That night I bought a bottle of Chivas Regal just to spite that deejay, who has been rightfully related to obscurity in the Bangkok radio industry — much like the industry itself.

Today I returned to the center of the Catholic Church for a three-hour walking tour. The history and artwork are spectacular. I don’t feel any closer to God after the experience, though it did give me a whole new understanding of how it feels to be an ox, crushed up against other oxen, being jostled and jousted forward relentlessly towards the slaughterhouse, all the while being told to shut up by men in uniforms. It’s hardly conducive to conversion.

This is not an exaggeration. The Vatican gets upwards of 20,000 tourists on a busy day and around six million visitors per year. I believe I saw a good wad of them this morning.

Surprisingly that figure is less than the annual number of visitors to the Grand Palace here in Bangkok, which sits at around 8 million, yet is half the size of the Vatican.

At least at the Grand Palace you can wander around where you like. Not so the Vatican, where you are herded from one chamber to the next, catching quick glimpses of the world’s most exquisite art, but unable to truly appreciate them owing to the production-line nature of the journey.

This morning the queue to get into the place had to have stretched over a kilometer. That’s longer than the line at a new Krispy Kreme outlet in Thailand. It costs 16 Euros to get in, or around 600 Baht, a little more than you pay for the Grand Palace, which is free for Thais.

The Vatican Museum is not free for anybody, and one can understand why the Pope doesn’t want Catholics getting in for nix. Ticket sales generate 80 million Euros >>per day<< and another 20 million in merchandise. Half of that is profit. No matter how close your proximity to God, one does not bite the hand that feeds.

Once inside a visitor must pass security, the ticket counter and a swirling mass of tour group humanity. After that is a staggeringly huge collection of paintings, frescoes, tapestries and sculptures, though it feels like you’re viewing them from Siam BTS platform during peak hour as the train doors open.

While I stood in front of Raphael’s School of Athens fresco, for example, one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen, the man next to me fainted. His condition was not so much due to the breathless magnificence of the work. He was breathless owing to a stuffy chamber infested with carbon monoxide from 20,000 creatures being herded through.

The Sistine Chapel is the same. Again, I can understand how it can be life-changing to view Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I am open to anything life-changing but it is hard to feel ethereal and sublime when museum police are hissing “Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” every minute or two. How ironic that they jettison tens of thousands of people through a church at 16 Euros per head yet expect it to be silent.

Viewing the artwork housed within the Vatican Museum is an exercise in witnessing the talents of the best of humanity. Sanzio’s Expulsion of Helidorus From the Temple, for me, was magnificent. So too was the work of Botticelli and the marble sculptures.

There is a recurring theme in much of the artwork, and it is not the exultation of God. It is more about conquering and controlling. Centuries of artwork reveal the Catholic Church’s need for consolidation of power to the extent that opulence sometimes morphs into obscenity. We are also reminded of the not so regal nature of the place. At one stage we are herded from one chamber of exquisite art into the former residence of the Borgias, where Lucrezia used to wander in between dispensing with her husbands.

Remember that figure of 20 million Euros per day in merchandising? I was relieved to find that at the end of the tour, outside St Peter’s Basilica, there is a gift shop! It is almost as if the Vatican wants to bring you down to earth after all that artistic splendour by sending you into a shop selling you the absolute antithesis of masterpieces. It is here one can buy bottled “holy water” for 2.50 Euros, Pope calendars, plastic rosary beads and little metallic crosses all for a couple of Euros. I swear if I’d have seen a Papal snow dome I wouldn’t have been surprised, not to mention instantly snapping it up.

These days the whole world is travelling. The Vatican, like the Grand Palace and Thailand itself, is a victim of its own success. Thailand will have some 30 million visitors this year. The Vatican shuffles through up to 20,000 visitors per day. When do we say “enough”?

I don’t have the answer to that question on this glorious sunny day in Rome, as I prepare to enjoy my rigatoni and Peroni, not necessarily in that order, far from the Vatican crowd. It’s not important, or, as we say in Italian, >>non ti preoccupare<<. See you in Bangkok next Sunday!




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In real art you always have mistery. Always. Art evokes emotion. Thats the mistery. Death, life, the moon, the sun...all the big themes were the materials for these artists. You can see real art even in a small egiptian box decorated for a funerals cat. But the most of things you can see in a museum are made to 

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