“Oh crap!” I held in further obscenities as I realized where the door at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica had led us. The laughter was stolen from my mouth when I stepped through it onto the narrow ledge that circled the inner-dome of the tallest Christian church in the world. One hundred meters below us people moved about like a small ant colony on vacation. Perhaps it was the slight dehydration the beautiful Italian weather induced in my sun-deprived, Irish-acclimatized body that made me somehow forget, again, that what goes up must look down …
I plastered myself to the mosaic wall and took a few steading breaths, reasoning through my fear. The ledge was not likely to crumble anytime soon because of the care that they give the building. The tall wall of heavy metal mesh was sturdy as it separated us from sudden death 1.5 meters away from the solid form I tried to insert myself into. Avoiding looking down, I began to inspect the small fragments of stone my hands were stuck to. Centimetre by centimetre they filled the entire wall. Looking up I realized they filled the entire dome creating stunning pictures that, from below, passed for detailed paintings. On its own, each piece wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention on the street but together they told a story. I was finally able to go to the edge and take a look before walking as far as I could around the circumference of the dome. A quarter of the way around was another door leading us to the exterior platform with a sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square and all of Rome.
Rome. There it was, spread out in front of us, steeped in history and social change. A city representing a nation built for glory that fell to a level of very ordinary existence. Lines of greenery wove between the varying shades of beige buildings forming a very different sort of mosaic from that which we saw inside. Although beautiful, this view from a distance couldn’t compare to the vibrancy of detail that mortared its shape into place – the vibrancy of the people who fill the streets and buildings.
We descended from our birds eye view to spend the following day and half exploring the extraordinary view from below. Old streets and even older buildings filled our cameras while living works of art moved through traffic, walked in and out of shops, stood in small elevators and greeted us over the counter. Tucked behind eyes peering out into the world, just like mine, were dreams and hopes for the future mingled with histories of both joy and heartache. In that close up moment of eye-to-eye, strangers softened into momentary friends with pockets full of kindness without having to say a single word. We are not so different. We are made of the same things. Unlike the mosaic at the top of the Basilica, we were made to be seen and appreciated up close, instead of from a distance. If you find this terrifying, take a few steadying breaths and reason through the fear. The experience is worth it.