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Rome in the Time of Coronavirus


ROME – When my husband and I decided to move to Rome for the first half of this year to escape distractions and try to write books we’ve been working on for years, we had no idea that we’d be living in one of the centers of a global epidemic. At the time we left California in January, coronavirus had surfaced in China and the World Health Organization was yet to name the disease it caused COVID-19. We didn’t expect to encounter it in Rome. But we did.

The epicenter of the disease in Italy is Milan and the North, including Venice. The morning of March 8, Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte put nearly 16 million people in Lombardy, the Veneto, and Emilia Romagna under virtual quarantine until April 3. The decree also ordered the closure of all cinemas, theatres, museums, nightclubs, and casinos throughout the country. In addition, Vatican City, which is a separate nation, announced the closing of the Vatican Museum and access to the Sistine Chapel also until April 3.  Over the past several weeks the number of cases in Rome have grown from three to 49 at the latest report. The decree also closed the blockbuster Rafael show of more than 100 of the artist’s paintings and drawings. Ironically, the exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death by fever at the age of 37 at height of his career while working in the papal apartments, which of course are also now closed.

As of Sunday, March 8, the latest reports from Italy’s Civil Protection Agency said that a total of 7,375 people have tested positive for the virus and 366, up from 233 on Saturday, have died from COVID-19, the disease it causes.

Roberta Green Ahmanson and her husband Howard in the hall of Roman artifacts inside the Vatican Museum.

Already last week the national government closed all schools and universities. Schools in the quarantined region will not open until April 3, while in the rest of the country schools are set to open March 15. American colleges and universities with programs in the city sent their students home. Airlines have canceled flights. And, those that remain are virtually empty, as my husband learned last week flying back from London. Our inboxes have been packed with friends asking how we are and are we still in Rome.

While we take the necessary precautions, our daily routines haven’t changed much. We do wash our hands a lot more and steer clear of anyone who is coughing. And, since we came here to eliminate distractions so that we could work on writing projects, it’s hard to imagine a place with fewer distractions at the moment.

The recent closures make two experiences we had last week even more precious than they seemed at the time. Just last Thursday, March 4, my husband and I along with our friend who is a top Vatican guide had the entire Vatican Museum, the Rafael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel to ourselves. Us and the guards with the keys. Don’t they make movies about stuff like this???

We had the museum to ourselves for two reasons. First, the architects for an art gallery and studios we are planning for Los Angeles and two members of our board were coming to Rome for a meeting. Because of concerns over the virus, they understandably canceled. You pre-pay for the Vatican Museum after hours and they do not refund. We decided we’d go anyway. Second, because of the virus, there was no group behind us as there would usually be.

Our visit started at 6 p.m. when the museum closes. We were early and so was our friend. Very few people came out. Our friend talked with the guards – she knows them all. They even hugged.

We went inside, through security, and into the huge and wondrous elevator with benches so you can sit. My favorite elevator in the whole world. We stepped out and the museum was ours.

Our first stop was the porphyry sarcophagi of Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena and his daughter Costanza. Carved out of rare red-purple marble found only in Egypt – and used only for emperors and kings – each sarcophagus is the size of a small room or miniature travel trailer. They face each other in the marble-clad entry hall of the building Pope Julius II transformed to become the Vatican Museum in 1506. An avid collector of antiquities, Julius gave his collection to the Church to be used for the educated to further their understanding of art. Julius is the pope who tore down the original St. Peter’s Basilica to make way for the Renaissance masterpiece we know today. In spite of the nickname the Warrior Pope for his many battles, Julius also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Rafael to fresco the walls of the papal apartments.

From the entry we start down the marbled hall displaying Roman sculpture and artifacts. The idea, according to our guide, was to show both the wonder of Roman artistic achievement and the fact that the art of those who persecuted Christians had become a witness to how much people can change.

It was hard not to jump up and down or dance with elation at having this space to ourselves. No crowds. No selfie sticks in our faces. No pushing. No shoving. Just us, our friend, and the art.

A tapestry by a student of the Renaissance artist Rafael, made sometime in the first half of the 16th century. Photo by Roberta Green Ahmanson.

We turned down a hall lined with the tapestries made to decorate the Sistine Chapel for the feasts of the liturgical year. Pope Leo X, Julius’s successor, commissioned Rafael to paint cartoons for a series of the lives of the apostles, which were not on display. [One of those with its cartoon, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, is in the now-closed Rafael show.] However, we did see the series of the life of Christ made in the first half of the 16th century to cartoons by Rafael’s students. From the Resurrection tapestry the eyes of Christ follow you as you walk by. This Jesus is risen and is watching you!!

The next hall was one of the things that made the visit worth it for my easily-bored-in-museums husband. Around 1580 Pope Gregory XIII commissioned his cosmographer the Italian priest Ignazio Danti, who had taught mathematics at Bologna, the world’s oldest university, to create maps of Italy. Danti had already established his authority by creating the Gregorian calendar that is used to this day. Now he turned his attention to mapping Italy. The series begins with the four major port cities, then moves from the north to the south, including Corsica and Sardinia, and ends with frescoes of two critical sea battles where Christians were victorious against Muslim naval invaders – the Battle of LePanto off the coast of Greece in 1571 and the Siege of Malta in 1565.

For the fun of it Danti put ancient battles where they happened on some of the maps. So, you get to see Hannibal’s elephants from 216 B.C. Because the maps were designed so the pope could see the land from Rome, the top of the map is south not north, for places like Sicily and Naples that are to the south. Once you move north of Rome to Florence, for example, the top of the map is north. Makes sense if you’re the pope!

But the best was yet to come. Our next stop was the set of rooms Julius intended for his private library in the palace, now known as either the Stanza della Segnatura or the “Rafael Rooms.” The last time we were here we couldn’t move for people squeezed in like sardines in the summer heat. Now, we entered cool, empty spaces. My favorite is the one for the Segnatura or highest court, complete with a niche for the pope’s throne. Above his seat are the four cardinal virtues – Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. Three putti, mini-angels, embody the theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity. Just in case the pope needed reminding!

Howard and Roberta in the “hall of maps.”

To the left a frescoed Emperor Justinian receives the civil code, and on the right Pope Gregory IX receives the code of canon law. The message seems to be that law – both religious and civil – are not only to be rooted in all seven virtues but to promote them. On the long wall to the left as we looked toward the throne is the most famous of the frescoes known as “The School of Athens.” The top half of the image is a Renaissance architectural dream. Marbled columns rise to coffered arches, bas reliefs and classical sculptures decorate the walls. Under the central arches stand two classically robed men – an aging Plato his right hand pointing up toward the transcendent and his student Aristotle, a younger man pointing down to a book, focusing on this world. To their right and left is a who’s who of ancient philosophers – Epicurus, Pythagoras, and more. Down the steps just below them are artists and architects, the people who make things as opposed to those who think things. Sitting on the steps is Diogenes, famous for being the cynic, trusting none of them. Second from the right on the lowest level, you glimpse a portrait of the artist, Rafael himself. Added later and dressed as a sculptor, perhaps as a hint that he should stick to working with marble, is Michelangelo. This whole image is horizontal. The message? These figures offer only earthly knowledge.

However, for this court something more is needed. And, Rafael painted that on the opposite wall. The arced space is divided horizontally into two tiers. Below on earth, theologians are debating the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic teaching that the wine and bread of the eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ at consecration. Near the center are the four doctors of the Western Church – Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. Julius and his mentor, dressed in gold, Pope Sixtus IV, are off to the side, Dante Alighieri and Savanarola close by. Central to the top tier is Christ in Glory as judge, God the Father above him, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove below. Peter and Paul are there as are Moses and Adam.

Most important is the visual message. On the lower level, the figures all turn toward the center where Peter is pointing upward. The structure of the fresco draws your eyes first to the center, then up to the Trinity, to revelation, the source of holy law. The point of the room is clear: The pope and the court do need the wisdom of this world – philosophy, but even more they need the wisdom of revelation that comes only from God to make the best decisions.

The best was saved for last. We walked through several halls and down flights of stairs led by the guard, his keys jingling as he walked. At last a door opened, and there we were – just the three of us – and the guard – with the glory of the Sistine Chapel all to ourselves. A quick intake of breath. Hard to believe. Remember Pope Sixtus IV from the fresco? Well, the vision for this space came from him.

There had been an earlier chapel decorated by Fra Angelico, which had to have been wondrous, but it was said to be in ruins by the time Sixtus IV came along. The papal chapel was needed as a place for the papal household or court – made up of clerics, officials of the Vatican, distinguished laity, about 200 people – to gather 50 times throughout the liturgical year as mandated. Eight masses, such as Christmas and Easter,  were held in St. Peter’s with a large crowd. For the rest, this smaller chapel was needed. Sixtus IV built the new chapel, named for him of course, from 1473-81 and commissioned the best living artists – Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, and others – to fresco the walls. The ceiling was blue with golden stars.

Well, when Julius II came along, he decided to change the ceiling. He hired a fairly young Michelangelo to paint it in between 1508 and 1512. The artist demanded a free hand, and so we could look up to see the story of creation from the separation of light and darkness to the famous finger-touch creation of man and then of woman to the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Noah, the ark, and the Flood. Even though my neck was aching, it was hard to stop looking up.

One revelation remained – the Last Judgment. Thirty-two when he started the ceiling, Michelangelo was 62 when he accepted this  massive challenge in 1537. He even fell from the scaffolding at one point and broke a leg. Originally commissioned by Pope Clement VII, the project was overseen by Pope Paul III who  succeeded him in 1534. History had moved quickly between the two projects; the Protestant Reformation had shaken the Western world to its core. The Catholic Church was in defensive mode. It was Paul III who would later convene the Council of Trent.

And, so Michelangelo, who had used architectural trompe l’oeil in the ceiling design, now left structures of this world behind and blew out the entire wall above the altar. No longer in a building, we are now looking through a window into eternity. You can almost feel the other-worldly breezes. It’s as if God enabled Michelangelo to pull back a veil and show us the future. At the center of it all is Christ. Below him on the left is St. Lawrence with the grill on which he was martyred, on the right is St. Bartholomew holding his rubber-like flayed skin with Michelangelo’s face. Next to Christ, in a very Catholic Reformation visual statement, is the Virgin Mary, representative of the Church through which we come to Christ. Throughout the image you see those higher up helping those just below, another message – the need for prayer and the help of the saints. Only those on the lowest level are headed to hell, represented by demons, one of them looking straight at you, in the central cave, the Golgotha cave on which the crucifixion stands.

A view of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City at night. Photo by Roberta Green Ahmanson.

We stood and gazed, wondering just how this moment was possible. And, then we had to leave. More doors. More keys. The elevator. And, out.

The very next night, with our same friend and her husband and some other friends, we saw the now-closed Rafael show. Another special wonder.

Then came Sunday’s announcement. Now, on Monday, I sit at my computer writing, which is exactly what I came here to do. My husband and I laugh; we came here to get away from the distractions of home. Here we are in the Eternal City locked out of everywhere. In a way the joke is on us. But nothing can take away our memories of that remarkable night at the Vatican Museum. Just us, our friend, and the guards.


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