VATICAN CITY - Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy first day in Rome on Monday, going from the pope to a "Pussy Riot" protest to dinner at the palazzo of his old friend, Silvio Berlusconi.
Putin showed off his religious side during his visit to the Vatican, stopping to cross himself and kiss an icon of the Madonna that he gave Pope Francis. But Moscow's improving relations with the Vatican only went so far: Putin didn't invite Francis to visit.
After the 35 minute audience, Putin went across town to pay a courtesy call on Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
A few dozen people protesting Russia's detention of two members of the punk band "Pussy Riot" tried to block his motorcade, toting posters reading: "We spit on Putin."
He managed to get through, and then arrived at Berlusconi's Palazzo Grazioli.
Berlusconi promised a fully Italian dinner for Putin, whom the three-time Italian premier has entertained before at his Sardinian estate.
The reunion was sure to buoy Berlsuconi's spirits: The Italian Senate is due to vote Wednesday on whether to kick him out of Parliament following his tax fraud conviction.
It remains unclear whether Berlusconi will show his old friend the "Putin bed," inside the palazzo. The Russian leader gave the bed to Berlusconi; it gained notoriety when escort Patrizia D'Addario tape-recorded Berlusconi instructing her to wait for him in it while he showered during a night they spent together in 2008.
It was the end of a busy day for Putin, who on Tuesday travels to Trieste for a meeting with Premier Enrico Letta.
During his audience with Francis, Putin thanked the pope for his September letter to the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg, in which Francis urged world leaders to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria and lamented what he said were one-sided interests that had prevented a diplomatic end to the conflict.
Francis mobilized hundreds of thousands of people around the globe to participate in a daylong fast and prayer for peace, as the U.S. threatened military strikes following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. Moscow opposed military intervention as well.
Francis gave Putin a ceramic mosaic of the Vatican gardens, and Putin presented Francis with an image of the icon of the Madonna of Vladimir, an important religious icon for the Russian Orthodox faithful.
After they exchanged the gifts, Putin asked Francis if he liked the icon, and Francis said he did. Putin then crossed himself and kissed the image, and Francis followed suit.
The Argentine pope is particularly devoted to Marian icons.
Long-running tensions in Russia between Orthodox faithful and Catholics in Russia prevented Pope Benedict XVI and before him Pope John Paul II from achieving their long-sought dreams of a Russian pilgrimage and meeting with the Russian patriarch. Recently officials have floated the idea of a meeting in a third country, but the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said ecumenical issues weren't discussed Monday.
He confirmed that Putin didn't invite Francis, making the Russian president one of the few world leaders who have visited the popular pope and not extended an invitation in exchange.