Champions League final? The Vatican had its own championship soccer game

St. Peter's Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday's final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

St. Peter’s Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday’s final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.


Every seminary student in Rome studying to be a priest sets himself on a personal mission. He is dedicating his life to carrying God’s message, to bring joy to people, to build fraternity among his fellow man.

Saturday afternoon the mission for Stephen Cieslak, ordained as a deacon just a week ago, is to stop a penalty kick from Robert Kayiwa, a seminary student from Uganda. There will be more important times in these two men’s lives, but without a Bible in hand and clerical collar around their necks, no moment may be bigger than right then.

The two were engaged in a penalty shootout in the championship game of the Clericus Cup, a Vatican soccer tournament involving 16 teams made up entirely of seminary students and priests. Organized by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, it started 12 years ago when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, wanted soccer to teach the “language of the world,” billing it “Prayer and Player.”

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.


Saturday was the morning of the Champions League final. About 1,500 miles to the north in Kiev, Ukraine, Real Madrid and Liverpool would play before a worldwide TV audience and two fan bases that don’t take a back seat to any in the world. Going from one extreme to another Saturday, I took a bus to Centro Sportivo Italiano’s nice sports complex a long goalie kick up the hill from the Vatican City walls.

Past a basketball gym, swimming pool and soccer fields of various dimensions is a main field with a small grandstand where the third-place game had just finished. I met Mark Paver, an Englishman who just won third place with Gregoriana and is a four-year veteran of the tournament. Tall, lean and fit, he looks younger than his 42 years. I asked him why he plays soccer while studying to enter the priesthood.

“It’s a chance to be a Christian with one another and secondly to be seminarians with one another,” he said. “In my case, at this point, to be a priest and create an environment and set an example for others to see and think, ‘Oh, yeah. Those are normal guys. I can be a priest, too. I can be a Christian, too.’”

Paver started playing soccer at 6 years old in Manchester where he later played in semipro leagues for several years. Most of the players in the tournament played as youths then in other cities as they went through their religious studies. These are serious, pious men, dedicated to a religious calling where righteousness is at the forefront of their lives.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.


But they play soccer. Many soccer players communicate on the field through conversational profanity. I asked Paver the obvious question.

Do you ever hear swearing?

“We picked a different way to live our vocation but we’re still human beings,” he said. “We still have blood running through our veins. And that blood goes to our heads sometimes.”

I asked what’s the worst he’s ever heard. He paused.

“I’m not sure I can repeat it,” he said, finally. “We try to let each other know when we think we’ve been wronged. Let’s say that.”

I walked through the fence onto the field in front of the two finalists who entered side-by-side in single file, just as Real and Liverpool would do later that night. These two teams were from opposite sides of the world: an American side with THE perfect nickname, the North American Martyrs. Their opponent was the defending champion, Pontificio Collegio Urbano, a group from all over Africa. Pope Francis even greeted and congratulated them at the Vatican earlier in the week.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.


Appropriately, the Martyrs were dressed in red, white and blue and Collegio Urbano wore uniforms of bright yellow and white. They looked like sprinting Vatican flags.

Without their religious gear, they looked like any rec league players, except the African team was almost universally short and the Americans were almost all boyish and almost, well, virginal. But they were all fit. I was curious about the level of play.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m still playing it,” Paver said. “That answers your question.”

If the level isn’t high, the passion is. The small grandstand seating 200 was packed, all with mostly students from the 80 seminaries around Rome. On one side hung red, white and blue bunting, the kind you see draped around baseball stadiums during the World Series. Behind it and the Cyclone fence were Americans yelling “USA! USA! USA!” and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” On the other side, Africans with yellow and white stripes painted on their faces banged drums and sang the entire game, ranging from Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” to the rhythmic chant, “VAI! VAI! VAI! COLLEGIO URBANO! (GO! GO! GO! COLLEGIO URBANO!)”

The soccer wasn’t as bad as I thought. They passed well. They dribbled efficiently. They had a plan. Cieslak made a nice stop on a free kick then a cool one-handed grab of a corner kick. His counterpart, Emmanuel Umanah of Nigeria, had a couple of sliding stops on one-on-one confrontations.

Yeah, guys dribbled the ball out of bounds a couple of times. They kicked the ball over the goalpost more than under it. Cieslak’s goalie throws looked like a third baseman pegging one to first base. None of it bothered the fans who kept up the beat of the drums and the Americans’ chant that couldn’t prevent me from smiling: “LET’S GO MARTYRS!”

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.


Regulation ended in a 0-0 tie, leading to the penalty shootout, leading to Cieslak staring down Kayiwa. With the Martyrs converting their first penalty kick, Kayiwa took a long run and kicked a medium-speed line drive to the right — just about where Cieslak was waiting. Kayiwa walked back slowly with his head down. Umanah, showing fraternity, gave Cieslak a fist bump. Matthew Goldammer, a hulking redhead who looks a transfer from the Vatican rugby team, banged one off the left goalpost, making it even.

But Collegio Urbano’s Victor Tibanyendera from Tanzania skied one over the goalpost and William Nyce scored easily to clinch the shootout, 4-2, sending him storming into a sea of hysterically happy seminary teammates.

Cieslak, 26, comes from Portland in my home state of Oregon and went to De La Salle North Catholic High School. A goalkeeper since second grade, he showed up as a freshman and quickly became the starter when the regular keeper got angry and punched the ground.

Was it because he swore, he showed anger, he failed to show moral restraint and the school benched him to teach him a lesson?

“No,” Cieslak said, “He fractured his wrist.”

OK, it wasn’t the first dumb question I’ve asked in my career. Soccer is, in a small way, part of the plan for all these future priests. It’s not only to show their human side but it helps them work on the same skills they’ll need in a future parish.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to grow in fraternity,” said Cieslak who soon goes to a parish in tiny Tillamook, Oregon, for a year. “A lot of the things we try to do in seminary formation is to relate to each other on a fraternal level and on a personal level. When you’re out playing with other guys who are working toward the same goal, working to become priests, it’s amazing.”

Being a sportswriter for 40 years, I know athletes pray before games. I asked Cieslak who would God favor in a game if both sides are seminary students and all are praying.

“He favors us all,” he said. “There’s no favoritism with God.”

Then what’s the point of praying? I asked.

“It’s to thank God,” he said. “Thank God for our athletic gifts, gifts of our bodies and we can glorify him and we can glorify him whether we win or lose.”

The two sides greet each other after the game.

The two sides greet each other after the game.


But what does He think when you swear?

“We’re all capable of sin,” he said with a smile.

Soccer and religion transcends the world. Umanah, 28, the Collegio Urbano goalkeeper, started playing when he was a little boy in Nigeria and his friends kept taking him by the hand from midfield to the goalpost.

“They said, ‘Since you’re not good, stay here,’” he said. “‘If the ball comes, you take it.’”

Like the others, Umanah sees a direct connection between soccer and the priesthood.

“The world today, just like Pope Francis tells us, it’s a world that really needs people to go to the different areas to find people,” said Umanah who’s studying canon law. “I think football, apart for the passion I have for it, is also entering society and meeting people like me who are out in the world and trying to dialogue.

“Just like every other social activity (soccer) puts you in contact with people. For example, I never knew some of these footballers. Today, we and the Americans got to know each other. Now we know each other from different realities, from different countries. We get to share our stories and experiences.”

Later that night, I went to my soccer pub and watched Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius make two of the biggest errors I ever saw a goalkeeper make. In the Champions League final. In front of the world. He was last seen walking across the field crying, trying to hide his face and tears with his jersey. It was a night that may scar him for life. I’m interested to see what will happen to him, if he’ll ever recover.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.


It’s all about perspective. A few thousands miles and even more levels below the action in Kiev, Umanah put the Vatican spin on sport.

“Today was a very nice match,” he said. “We could really see the evangelical spirit. If someone gets down, the other one helps the person. To me, that is the gospel.

“We lost and I’m smiling.”

Caravaggio: Your city guide to see all works of Rome’s greatest Baroque painter and famous all-around rebel

Caravaggio came to Rome in 1592. Today nine sites hold more than two dozen of his paintings. Port Mobility photo

Caravaggio came to Rome in 1592. Today nine sites hold more than two dozen of his paintings. Port Mobility photo


My hero is a murderer.

He’s also dead, along with Wilt Chamberlain, my childhood idol. However, like Chamberlain, this man inspired me with his fierce independence as much as his enormous talent and an image bigger than life. His fame dwarfs the 7-foot-1 Wilt’s and gets bigger with each passing year.

It’s 408 years and counting.

I’ve admired Caravaggio, Italy’s greatest Baroque painter, ever since I first lived in Rome in 2001. An old baseball writer colleague, Mark Saxon, lived here then and raved about him like he raved about some major league slugger. Caravaggio was different. Even in an era and a country where artists were the rock stars and athletes of their day, Caravaggio was an all-star, a future hall of famer who advanced an art already at its height.

Today he transcends society. Even to an untrained eye such as mine, from the first Caravaggio painting I saw I was transfixed. Was this a painting or a fantastic photo from a photographer who really knew how to use a light meter? Before living here, art was a look into a country’s history. I’d stroll national art galleries to get a sense of their conflicts and passions. The quality of the paintings themselves? After a while they all blended together, like spilled paints onto a floor. I knew nothing.

In a museum, I was a pair of white Nikes on a tuxedo.

Caravaggio changed that. So did Rome. Caravaggio is everywhere here. I can escape the rain into a church and find myself under three Caravaggio masterpieces. It won’t cost one centesimo. It recently rained in Rome for more than a week, a perfect time to revisit my favorite artist. In Ireland they say it doesn’t rain in pubs. Here we say it doesn’t rain in museums.

Caravaggio, born Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio near Milan, was a brawler, a womanizer and, indeed, a murderer. You can walk down the street and see the site of the murder that sent him fleeing from church authorities all over the Mediterranean.

What stands out for me was his rebellious nature. A genius to whom the Catholic Church gave numerous commissions, he painted religious figures with a realism that often grated at the snooty authorities. Jesus was sometimes seen with a gut and 5 o’clock shadow. Occasionally Mary didn’t look all that pretty. Violence and blood jumped from his paintings. They not only depicted his violent nature but also reflected a part of a Italian society around the turn of the 17th century that many didn’t want to see. He stood up to the church, at the time one of the most powerful, vicious forces in Europe.

The Calling of St. Matthew shows his mastery of light and shadow. WebMuseum photo

The Calling of St. Matthew shows his mastery of light and shadow. WebMuseum photo


His mastery of shadow and light made him worth the trouble. Look at his work and see how light through a window casts delicate shadows on faces, forearms, even swords. No one in the Renaissance could match that. No one could since.

Rome has nine places to view more than two dozen of Caravaggio’s works. If you idolize him as I do, are just a casual admirer or can’t even pronounce his name (car-a-VAGG-io), use this blog as a guide to explore. Some works are free. Some require a reservation. All can be seen by walking. When you’re finished you’ll see most of the important sites in the most important art city in the world.

Even if you put strolling art museums on a level with shopping, give Caravaggio a try. He may bring out the inner artist in you.

These are in a rough order if you wanted to walk to all of them. If you do, take three days. These museums and churches have more than Caravaggio, and the Vatican Museums are a voyage all their own.

Piazza del Campidoglio. OMNIA Vatican photo

Piazza del Campidoglio. OMNIA Vatican photo


Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio 1, open daily 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., 15 euros. Piazza Venezia bus stop. Warning: Campidoglio is a bit of a tourist trap. You may have to weave your way through cell-snapping tourists to negotiate your way up the long, wide, elegant staircase known as the Cordonata. It’s on Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome on which the city was founded. It’s worth the effort and you’ll see why tourists flock here. At the top of the staircase is a beautiful piazza designed by the Michelangelo of Renaissance fame and anchored by a statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s emperor during part of its height of power from 161-180 AD (Psst! It’s a copy. The original is in the museum.)

The palaces on the left and right, Palazzo Nuova and Palazzo dei Conservatori, respectively, house the museums, the oldest national museums in Italy. They hold two Caravaggios:

The Gypsy Fortune Teller (1594): More than 400 years ago, gypsies were the lowest form of human life, much as they’re viewed today in Rome. But Caravaggio identified with the gypsies’ desperate nature. The gypsy he paints is attractive, not a vagrant off the street, and wins the customer’s heart before stealing his ring.

St. John the Baptist: Youth with a Ram (1602). Caravaggio did eight paintings of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus. The ram symbolizes lust, and the boy’s smirky grin fits in well with Caravaggio’s own libido.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Italian Ways photo

Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Italian Ways photo


Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Via del Corso 305, daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros. Piazza Venezia bus stop. Via del Corso is on any Rome shopping street list. It’s lined with such high-end haberdashers as Ralph Lauren, Elisabetta Franchi and Yamamay. It’s closed to cars on Sunday, turning it into one long pedestrian zone commandeered by shopping bag-wielding warriors. In the middle of the mob is an early 16th century palace with Doric columns framing the tall doorway. Inside is total tranquility where you can escape amongst orange trees and a bubbling fountain.

The collection is from the Doria and Pamphilj families and is considered the largest privately owned gallery in Rome. They include three Caravaggios:

Mary Magdalene (1595): Most artists pictured Mary Magdalene nude as the prostitute she was, or innocently reading a book as the repentant she became. Caravaggio, instead, had her seated low, in the dark, in sorrow. Note the tear near her nose.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1597): This comes from the Bible story in which the Holy Family is fleeing to Egypt after hearing Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judea, was seeking to kill baby Jesus.

Young St. John the Baptist (1602): This is a copy of the one in the Capitoline Museums. But don’t be disappointed. Caravaggio copied many of his paintings.

Three Caravaggios can be seen in one chapel in Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi photo

Three Caravaggios can be seen in one chapel in Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi photo


Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, Piazza di San Luigi dei Francesi, Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m., 2:30-6:30 p.m., Saturday 2:30-6:45 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m., 2:30-6:45 p.m., free, Senato bus stop. Welcome to THE best bargain in Rome. It’s better than free limoncello from your overly friendly trattoria owner. Here you can find three Caravaggios in a corner of a church, absolutely free. All you need is a 50 centesimi, 1 euro or 2 euro coin to plunk in the box that illuminates the paintings.

This 16th century church was dedicated to, among others, St. Louis IX, the king of France, and is France’s national church in Rome. The Archbishop of Paris is the resident priest. Any francophobes are warned to stay away. You’ll see tons of French tourists.

They’ll be occupied, maybe breathless. So will you. In the far left corner of the church, in the Contarelli Chapel, are three Caravaggio masterpieces:

The Calling of St. Matthew (1600): This is one of Caravaggio’s best illustration of his use of shadow and light. Note how the light from the window illuminates Jesus’ face and the men looking at him as he calls for Matthew to follow him.

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600): This violent painting shows a soldier about to kill Matthew for standing up against an Ethiopian king for sexually harassing his own niece. How much do I like this painting? A print is framed and hanging over my couch.

St. Matthew and the Angel (1602): Caravaggio did eight paintings of St. Matthew. This one is a replacement that was rejected and later destroyed. An angel is beckoning Matthew who seems bothered and in a hurry as you can see by his stool teetering on two legs.

Basilica di Sant'Agostino. Reid's Italy photo

Basilica di Sant’Agostino. Reid’s Italy photo


Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Via di Sant’Eustachio 19, daily 7:45 a.m.-noon, 4-8 p.m., free, three-minute walk from Chiesa di San Luigi. This is one of the first churches built in Rome during the Renaissance, in 1483. The travertine rock used in construction was taken from the Colosseum. It houses only one Caravaggio and it is currently on loan to Chiesa Santa Domenica in Northern Italian town of Forno. It returns at the end of June.

Madonna del Loreto (1606): Another Caravaggio painting gets under the church’s skin. He shows Mary barefoot and not very pretty, just like a normal Mary.

Palazzo Barberini. Wikipedia photo

Palazzo Barberini. Wikipedia photo


Palazzo Barberini, Via delle Quattro Fontane 13, Tuesday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros, Barberini Metro stop. The Barberini name is all over Rome, particularly in this neighborhood north of Termini train station. This spectacular palace was built in 1893 by Pope Urban VIII to celebrate the Barberini family’s rise to power. Bernini and his rival, Borromini, worked on the design. Besides the three Caravaggios, check out the gorgeous painted ceilings.

Narcissus (1599): This is one of two paintings Caravaggio did from mythology. It shows a handsome boy who can’t stop staring at his reflection. According to the Greek myth, even as he is carted off to hell, he still stares at his reflection in the River Styx. It’s where we get the term “narcissism.” We all have a family member who could use this print, don’t we?

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620): Caravaggio often used prostitutes as models and in this one, a famous courtesan named Fillide Melandroni, is beheading a tyrant.

St. Francis in Prayer (1606): St. Francis’ humility and poverty were a popular theme for Caravaggio who could relate with his troubled life.

Borghese Museum. Borghese Gallery photo

Borghese Museum. Borghese Gallery photo


Borghese Museum, Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5, Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-7 p.m., by reservation only, http://www.galleriaborghese.it, 39-06-32810, entries 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 15 euros, Pinciana/Museo Borghese bus stop. This is my favorite museum in Rome. It has all the great Italian masters from Bernini to Raphael to Botticelli. Cardinal Scipione built it in the early 17th century to house his art collection and Prince Marcantonio Borghese did a renovation a century later. It’s not too big that you’ll get exhausted. It’s just big enough to take in leisurely in the two-hour viewing sessions. Also, the 198-acre Villa Borghese park where it sits is a great place to have a pre-museum picnic.

The Borghese has the most Caravaggios in Rome. Here are the three main ones:

Young Sick Bacchus (1594): Caravaggio painted this shortly after he arrived in Rome from Milan in 1592. He painted it using a mirror to illustrate his own horrific ailment, probably malaria, that put him in the hospital for six months.

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1606): The child kills the snake representing Satan. St. Peter’s rejected it because of Caravaggio painting Madonna with huge breasts. I had this copy on my wall in Denver. (I’m not a breast man. I just loved the satanic imagery.)

David with the Head of Goliath (1610): Look at the inscription on David’s sword: “H-AS OS.” It stands for the Latin phrase, “Humilitas occidit superbiam.” (Humility kills pride.) Note the humble look on David’s face.

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo. Pro Loco Roma photo

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo. Pro Loco Roma photo


Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo 12, Piazza del Popolo daily 7 a.m.-noon, 4-7 p.m., free, Flaminio Metro stop. In one of the most famous piazzas in Rome, near the gate where triumphant Roman armies re-entered the city, the church was built in 1477. It was one of the first churches Rome visitors saw. On the wall facing the church, see the plaque depicting the church’s last beheading, which took place in the piazza in 1825.

The Conversion of St. Paul (1601): Like the accompanying Crucifixion of St. Peter, this was first rejected for reasons that remain unclear. But it depicts Saul of Tarsus who’s blinded by brilliant light while on his way to Damascus to slaughter its Christian community.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601): Peter did not want to imitate Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus Caravaggio had him crucified upside down.

Vatican Museums. Best Tour in Italy photo

Vatican Museums. Best Tour in Italy photo


Vatican Museums, Viale Vaticano, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., last Sunday of month 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 17 euros without online booking, 21 euros with Skip the Line online booking, http://mv.vatican.va., free last Sunday of month, Ottiviano Metro stop. You’ll need a whole day to see this. It has 13 ½ acres of art, making it what’s considered the largest art collection in the world. Hint: To see the Sistine Chapel, head straight for it and work your way back. If you see every painting between the entrance and the chapel, you’ll be too dead to look up.

However, the Vatican has only one Caravaggio which tells you something about how he alienated the church. It’s in the Pinacoteca museum, an underrated papal picture gallery.

Deposition from the Cross (1604): Considered one of his greatest masterpieces, this is one of the only works depicting Jesus getting placed on the stone upon which he’ll be entombed. Rubens and Cezanne later copied the work.

Galleria Corsini. Reid's Italy photo

Galleria Corsini. Reid’s Italy photo


Galleria Corsini, Via della Lungara 10, Wednesday-Monday 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros, Lungotevere Vallati/Pettinari bus stop. Located in the once-Bohemian-now-trendy neighborhood of Trastevere, Corsini doesn’t get much foot traffic. The Corsini family built the Baroque palace in 1740 a dead carp’s throw from the Tiber River.

St. John the Baptist (1606): Caravaggio strength in realism shows through more than anywhere here. It shows the famous saint as a young man, looking disheveled with “boy band hair” as if he just woke from a bender.

(Bonus tip: Caravaggio’s old apartment and the street where he murdered his rival are one minute apart. His apartment, marked by his giant portrait, is on Vicolo del Divino Amore near Piazza Navona. Around two short corners on Via di Pallacorda is the site of an old tennis court where he killed an enraged Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606, which sent Caravaggio running from the law until his death in 1610.)

Caravaggio's old apartment near Piazza Navona.

Caravaggio’s old apartment near Piazza Navona.

Ten wild things I didn’t know about Michelangelo

It took him 4 1/2 years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It took him 4 1/2 years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


When you live in Rome, you get a lot of visitors. Walking the streets of this remarkable outdoor museum that is the city, they often ask me questions only a tour guide could answer: What’s that block of marble next to the Fiat? Who is that temple named after?

I don’t mind really. As a friend from my hometown once told me, “John, if you didn’t want visitors, you should’ve moved to Milwaukee.”

But I’m not a tour guide and don’t pretend to be. Instead, I have always given one bit of advice to first-time tourists.

When you go to the Vatican Museum, go straight to the Sistine Chapel. It’s at the end of the museum and if you stop and stare at every incredible piece of art along the way, you may not be as overwhelmed as you normally would.

After tagging along Through Eternity’s Vatican tour, I will never give that advice again.

I learned something from our tour guide that day. Luca De Angelis, an archaeologist who also studied art history at the University of Rome Sapienza, took us from start to finish. I learned to see changes in art styles from one century to the next. The graduation from stiff and flat in the 14th century to the human forms of the Renaissance to the beauty of the Baroque added so much more meaning to the art I was seeing.

It made me appreciate even more the magic that is Michelangelo. The advancements he took art during the Renaissance stood out like the Sistine Chapel when compared with what came before and after him.

It’s one of the many things I learned about Michelangelo during Luca’s five-hour Vatican tour. It was part of my new part-time gig: blogging for Through Eternity, one of the top tour companies in Rome (www.througheternity.com, office@througheternity.com, 1-800-267-7581, 39-06-700-9336). He told me so many things about history’s greatest sculptor that you won’t find in guidebooks or even “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Michelangelo’s biography I devoured in my youth.

Here are 10 things I learned that I will never forget:

1. Michelangelo sold one of his first statues in 1491 when he was 15 years old. However, it wasn’t he who sold it. He sculpted a sleeping Cupid so beautiful that a friend sold it to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, claiming it was an ancient piece of art. An art expert, Riario couldn’t tell the difference. However, Michelangelo’s friend wouldn’t share in the sale’s profits and Michelangelo ratted him out to the cardinal. Five years later, the grateful cardinal called Michelangelo to Rome and became his first patron.

Moses

Moses


2. Michelangelo even amazed himself. Before him, Donatello in the 1400s initiated realism and naturalism in sculpting but Michelangelo took it to the heavens, turning marble into near-lifelike figures. When he made his Moses, a crack appeared in the knee. Some say Michelangelo made the crack out of frustration. He made Moses so real, an obviously lonely Michelangelo grew angry and said, “TALK! DAMN YOU, TALK!”
Michelangelo was 33 when he got the ceiling assignment.

Michelangelo was 33 when he got the ceiling assignment.


3. Michelangelo got the Sistine Chapel gig because of a crack in the ceiling. In 1506, the Sistine Chapel was 33 years old and was beginning to deteriorate. A giant diagonal crack appeared stretching from one corner of the ceiling to the other. Pope Julius II wanted it repaired but the repaired crack was extraordinarily ugly. Combined with an already boring blue ceiling with gold stars, the pope thought about a total makeover. He commissioned Michelangelo, then 31, who was a sculptor, not a painter. He didn’t accept it until two years later. Said Luca: “He was afraid he’d screw up the whole thing.”

4. Speaking of blue, Michelangelo didn’t believe in just any blue, along with gold the most expensive color available at the time. In 1536 when he was 61 he was called to do “The Last Judgment” on the Sistine Chapel wall. He spent two years looking for the best blue on the market. Unlike when he did the ceiling, this time the church had an unlimited budget.

5. Michelangelo’s obsession with muscles wasn’t necessary due to the rumor that he was gay. Greek statues inspired him and the Greek artists often depicted their figures, gods and mortals alike, with large muscles. In turn, even Michelangelo’s women and children had bulging arms.

Apollo Belvedere

Apollo Belvedere


6. One of Michelangelo’s favorite statues in history was Apollo Belvedere. Made around 150 AD, it’s a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original, possibly bronze, from 400 years earlier. Blessed with a beautiful, confident face, “It’s the perfect example of classical Greek art,” Luca said. This contributed to the birth of the Renaissance: the rediscovery of antiquity. It’s believed Michelangelo used Apollo’s curly hair as a model for Jesus’ in “The Last Judgment.” So impressed, Michelangelo had a pupil restore the missing arms to the statue which is found in the huge courtyard outside the Belvedere Palace.
The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment


7. Michelangelo took out his revenge on one enemy in “The Last Judgment.” Cardinal Biagio da Cesena had criticized the many nudes he depicted. The cardinal said, “This is ‘The Last Judgment,’ not Roman baths.” A furious Michelangelo went to work on his version of hell in the lower right-hand corner. There, painted on the image of Minos, the judge of hell, is the unmistakable face of Cardinal Biagio.
Raphael

Raphael


8. Michelangelo had a bitter rivalry with Raphael. Their careers coincided. Born in 1475 in Florence, eight years before Raphael did in Urbino, Marche, Michelangelo came to Rome in 1495. Raphael came in 1508. Raphael was one of the first artists to put more life in paintings. He put red in children’s cheeks. He put saints flying on clouds. A baby looked like a baby, not, as Luca said, “like a disturbing little adult.” Michelangelo was merely the biggest star in Italy’s art world. At one point, they both lived in apartments in the Vatican. “Imagine how crazy and cool it would’ve been to hang around the Vatican back then,” Luca said, “these two incredible geniuses working in the same place, avoiding each other and were full of sarcastic comments any time they bumped into each other.”

9. Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel up to 18 hours a day. He also rarely bathed.

St. Peter's

St. Peter’s


10. Michelangelo would hate St. Peter’s today. Bernini was asked to decorate the inside of the basilica in a way to make people gasp in astonishment. It became one of the hallmarks of the Baroque style in the 1600s. “If Michelangelo could see the church as it is today he’d probably have a heart attack. Because in his mind, all these walls, all these floors, were supposed to be completely plain, only white plaster. Because in the Renaissance all the attention was on the architecture, not the decorations.”

Michelangelo is like the ghost of a mysterious, reclusive movie star still haunting the world’s most lavish home, the Vatican. Once you learn a little, you want to learn a lot. Every tour I take sheds new light on a man whose astonishing work stood out in the golden age of Italian art. His name still rings loudly around the world after 500 years. Even in a five-hour tour, there is so much more to learn about him. I would come back to hear Luca give the next chapter.

Just hanging out in the Vatican is worth the trip. For 16 months, from 2001-03, I lived two blocks from the Vatican Museum. When I walked home from Centro Storico, I had to walk through St. Peter’s Square, long after the last tourist had left. It was only me, a few security guards and the two fountains, the gushing water only adding to the romance. In the Vatican, around every corner is another story. Michelangelo is only one of them. Through Eternity tour guides know the rest.