Monthly Archives: May 2009

Behind the Lens: The Story of the Rome Keyhole Photo

Posted by on May 12, 2009


The door to the SMOM HQ

The door to the SMOM HQ. Click to see a larger image of people looking through the keyhole.

This article is all about the daily photo from May 12, 2009. If you haven’t seen it, please check it out. It is a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole to the door of the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. (that is a mouthful)

There are certain iconic photos of famous places that everyone is familiar with. If you have seen a photo of the Taj Mahal, odds are it is of the building taken from the front with the building in the center and reflecting pool in the foreground. If you’ve seen a photo of Machu Pichu, you’ve seen it taken looking down from a hill above the ruins. If you’ve seen a photo of Time Square, it was taken near ground level pointed at One Times Square. Every one of those iconic photos can differ slightly depending on where you are standing, what you are standing on, etc. This photo is one of the few iconic photos I know of that everyone pretty much has to take exactly the same. The camera has to literally be in the same spot to get it to work.

The key hole

The key hole

If you look at the top photo on this page (click to see a bigger version) you’ll see a girl taking a photo through the keyhole. She was actually rather frustrated because it wasn’t working out for her. While I was there about a dozen people walked up to the gate to look through the keyhole. I took over 30 photos with various settings on my camera to get it to work. It is a really tricky shot because you are dealing with a very small hole, not much light, and a very far away object. The lack of light means a longer exposure time and the far away object means it will move around significantly with the smallest movement on your part.

If you look at the second photo, it shows the entire keyhole with some of St. Peter’s in the hole. This is a much harder shot because you need to get the door and the dome in focus. This would have turned out much better if I had my tripod with me. I should go out of my way to note that this photo is far from original. If you search for “Rome keyhole” on Google, you will find a ton of almost identical photos.

The view through the keyhole is so perfect, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t planned that way. Not only is St. Peter’s perfectly framed by the garden arch, but the two domes are in perfect alignment. If the garden were aligned just a slight bit differently, or if the keyhole were in a slightly different spot, it wouldn’t work. I have to believe that during construction, someone noticed the view and set up the arches and keyhole on purpose.

SMOM Letter box

SMOM Letter box

All of this of course raises the question: what exactly is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? They are better known as the Knights of Malta and their full name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. They are what is left of the former monastic order of the Knights Hospitaller which were created during the Crusades to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. They used to control Malta until they were expelled by Napoleon in 1798.

They are a very unique entity in the world. They claim to be a sovereign power and have diplomatic relations with over 100 countries and international organizations. Yet, they have no territory. They also have permanent observer status at the United Nations similar to that of Palestine, the difference being that Palestine, however you define it, is a place. The SMOM has extraterritorial jurisdiction over this location and another building near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The buildings are Italian soil, but the SMOM has authority over it as if it were the embassy of a foreign country. Some people think they are an independent country like the Vatican, but they are not. (However, I think it would be cool if they were because the world needs more tiny countries.)

The SMOM has their own license plates, coins, stamps, and passports. Despite the use of “military” in their title, their current mission is that of providing humanitarian and medial aid. Its mission is similar to the Red Cross.

When in Rome…

Posted by on May 11, 2009

Trevi Fountain Rome

Trevi Fountain Rome

The last several days have been extremely busy for me in Rome. After the grueling day of travel from Tel Aviv to Rome via Athens, I basically slept in and tried to find a more permanent lodging solution (I grabbed a hotel close to the train station in central Rome that was more than I wanted to spend per night for the rest of my stay). The place I’m staying is reasonably located, reasonably cheap, very clean and new with free wifi….most importantly, it has free wifi.

Rome is the most densely packed city I’ve ever seen in terms of things to see. Asian countries tend to move their capitals every few hundred years. Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo is a good example. That means all the history gets spread out as the capital moves. Rome has been a primary city in the Italian peninsula for almost 3,000 years. You have Roman ruins along side renaissance churches. Almost every street you walk down will have a small church several hundred years old. You can look down any semi-major thoroughfare and see a fountain or obelisk at the end of the road. (BTW, I’ve seen more Egyptian obelisks in Rome than I did in Egypt. That is not an exaggeration either. I only saw 3-4 in all of Egypt still standing)

Pantheon in Rome

Pantheon in Rome

Wednesday I went to see the Roman ruins around the Palentine Hill. This was the city center of ancient Rome. There is a surprising amount still standing, at least partially. You can go in the curia where the senate once sat as well as go up on the Palentine hill and see where the Emperors going back to Augustus lived. Nearby is also the Colosseum, which I am sure you are familiar with. I’ll be doing a longer write up about the Roman ruins in the city later after I process some of my photos and visit some more sites.

Other than ancient ruins, the big thing you think about when you think of Rome is churches. I managed to visit St. John Lateren, St. Mary Major, the Pantheon, aka the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs, and several other basilicas and smaller churches. I also wound up at the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday. On Saturday I took a tour of the Vatican Gardens and the Vatican Museum. The Vatican and the churches of Rome will also be a longer, separate, and really interesting post of its own.

Spanish Steps in Rome

Spanish Steps in Rome

Thursday I was asked by Jessica from Rome Photo Blog if I wanted to come along on a tour of one of the few Jewish catacombs in Rome. It was the only catacomb in Rome on private property and is seldom open to the public. Not being one to turn down and opportunity, I said “sure”. She works for a company called Context, which until then I had never heard of, but what they do is really fascinating and is one of the better business models I’ve heard of for a tour company. The create walking tours of small groups lead by scholars and experts in their fields. You could do a lot worse than to sign up with them to do a different tour every day you are in Rome.

I’d like to thank everyone who offered advice for what I should do and see in Rome. I’ve done many of the suggested things already. I’d especially like to thank Jim Drake, Connie Laubenthal, Miss Expatria, Drew, and Bob Hayes.

The rest of my time in Rome will be just as busy as the last few days. I’m planning on a trip to Ostia Antiqua, the Headquarters of the Knights of Malta, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of the larger christian catacombs and probably another visit to the Vatican. I need time to process all my photos. I’ve taken more here than in any other city on my travels.