St. Peter’s square/basilica and I go way back. My first trip to Rome was in April of 2005, right after Pope John Paul II had passed away. I happened to be reading Angels and Demons at the time, so of course I was extremely knowledgeable about all of the steps that were being carried out at that very moment to elect a new pope. Of course, conclave or no, no trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Il Vaticano, which technically involves leaving the country. On any given day in St. Peter’s square, you will find hundreds of tourists snapping pictures of the famed basilica, or standing in absurdly long lines to gain entrance to the most important church in Christendom.

April 2005 was a little different. The basilica was closed, so there were no lines, and as a result the number of tourists lingering around was significantly reduced. There were rows and rows of folding chairs, largely vacant, and a haunting rendition of The Litany of the Saints playing over loudspeakers. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals was in the process of electing their newest leader. I, of course, explained all of this to my family while surreptitiously looking around for abducted cardinals and canisters of antimatter. At my mom’s insistence, we took seats and listened to the prayers for a little while.

All of a sudden, other people nearby started exclaiming and pointing in the direction of the chimney of the chapel, where smoke started to appear. When everyone realized it was black smoke, the excitement died down (black smoke = no pope), and I resumed my reading.

Sometime during all this, the square slowly started to fill up with people from all over the world, often congregated into groups according to their nationality. Many of these groups were waving signs or flags, hoping and advocating for their country’s cardinal to be the new pope. Still the square was not that crowded.

Suddenly, people started exclaiming and pointing again – sure enough, more smoke. This time everyone was really hesitant for a minute, then someone shouted “bianca! bianca!” and then everyone flipped out. White smoke = POPE!!!

Within minutes, what seemed like the entire population of Rome swarmed on St. Peter’s square, even filling the Via della Conciliazione, the road leading up to the square. Bells started ringing and people were laughing and crying and snapping pictures like nobody’s business. This went on for maybe 30 minutes, then the big window in the center of the basilica opened, and everything went silent in anticipating of the big announcement.

Habemus papam.

And that is how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI.

Ok, now back to this trip, St. Peter’s 2011. Sadly, PapaRatzi was absent, spending his summer at Castel Gandolfo, as popes are wont to do. I guess I will have to catch the German Shepard next time.

Inside the basilica are numerous paintings and sculptures of religious and historical importance, as well as confession boxes and altars (it is a real church, you know). Perhaps the most famous sight inside the basilica is St. Peter’s baldachin (top left), designed by Old Reliable himself, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Also of note inside the basilica is Michelangelo’s Pietà, of which I was only able to get two very blurry pictures.

Of course, when Michelangelo wasn’t busy creating famous sculptures and painting certain ceilings, he liked to try his hand at fashion design.

Here they are, those sexy sworn sentinels of Vatican City, the Swiss Guard, in the latest Ready-To-Wear line designed by Michelangelo himself.

Next time, I’ll visit the Sistine Chapel, although you won’t know because photography is verboten (tell that to a certain badass, photo-snapping mother of mine).

And because I hate to leave without mentioning food even once, check it out:

chocolate pasta!

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