My favourite room
Sir Christopher Lee

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 10

Sir Christopher Lee will never forget his first, extraordinary, visit to St Peter's Basilica, Rome

I have been to St Peter's many times, but the first time was perhaps the most memorable. It was after the fall of Monte Cassino in 1944 and I was probably the first Allied officer since the beginning of the war to have entered the basilica. I went with members of my own family, the Carandinis. [Sir Christopher's mother was Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzanon; the Carandinis are one of the oldest families in Europe.] It was a privilege to have what amounted to a private tour.

Everything was, of course, covered up. Canvases were piled against the walls. The curator of the Vatican Museum whisked off one cover after another and declared, "Raphael. Botticelli. Leonardo," as if he was reading from a telephone directory.

In general, I am not much in favour of very ornate things, but the great baldacchino by Bernini is of a different order. The tomb of St Peter is supposed to be underneath it though I don't think it's ever been proved.

Inside the basilica there is a statue of St Peter where the foot is worn away by kisses from the faithful, and there is a spot on the floor where the heirs of the Emperor Charlemagne are allowed to stand. As a descendant of the emperor's family, I was permitted to do so. One of the greatest treasures is Michelangelo's Pietà which is just – well, 'fantastic' isn't the word. It renders you speechless.

Intriguingly, the Church of Our Lady in Bruges houses the only Michelangelo statue that left Italy during his lifetime. I have seen the Bruges Madonna and it is exquisite, although it has a little boy standing by her instead of the adult Jesus of the Pietà. But the face of the Madonna is virtually identical.

If you look up under the great central dome of St Peter's you will see the Latin inscription: "Tu Es Petrus Et Super Hanc Petram Aedificabo Ecclesiam Meam Et Tibi Dabo Claves Regni Caelorum (You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven)". There is an old amusement park outside Barcelona called 'Tibidabo' and I have had to point out to an awful lot of people – and explain to many Catalans on several occasions – the origin of its name: 'I will give to thee'.

Sir Christopher Lee's most recent honour was to be made a Fellow of the British Film Institute.

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