In the recent past, if you wanted to see the Sistine Chapel in any sort of civilized fashion (and who doesn’t) the procedure was simple. You got in line at the Vatican Museum entrance, very early, and at opening time you filed in and cut a direct line to the chapel, missing everything else out on the way. Then, after your visit you’d have to double back and see the magnificent art laden corridors that you missed the first time around, only by now they’d be packed out and you’d join the infamous ‘Vatican shuffle’, moving slowly as if in Kings Cross Underground Station at rush hour.
If you didn’t get in there early then sure, you could still see the Chapel, only you’d be seeing it with literally hundreds of others, and they’d be milling about heads turned upwards, bumping into each other, and the guards would be announcing over loudspeaker ‘No talking, no photos please!’ every minute, and George from Texas in front of you would ignore them totally and talk to Ethel from London about the time he was at the Louvre because, as you know, it’s the unwritten law of tourism that when you’re somewhere brilliant you must always talk about someplace else that was really good, even though when you were at that other place you totally ignored it and talked about someplace else that was really good, etc…
Anyway, all that is in the past, if you want it to be. Now you can join a VIP tour and have the sort of exclusive access to the Sistine Chapel, and more, that any art lover would dream of.
We met at a pre-arranged corner in Vatican City and our large group promptly got divided into four smaller groups of 12, each of us with our own guide. Ours was David, a resident of Vatican City, who weÂ appreciated more and more as the tour progressed for his knowledge, friendliness, humour and great storytelling ability.
We got headsets right away which was essential; the Vatican Museums are one of the biggest tourist attractionsÂ in the world and without headsets we’d have had little chance of hearing David’s commentary. He started, as we pausedÂ outside the museums, byÂ telling us briefly about the history of the paintings inside the Sistine Chapel Â (he couldn’t tell us inside the chapel itself as there’s a silence code in effect there) and showing us images both in print and on his tablet to illustrate the details and make the explanations more visually exciting for us.
If you’re thinking of not taking the VIP tour, get to the entrance very, very early. Here you can see our group walking past the queues which were already quite long at Â 7.30am, an hour and a half before the museumÂ opens to general public.
We skipped these lines and went straight through for ourÂ early access into the museum; we’d be sharing the whole museum and most importantly, the Sistine Chapel, with only a few other small groups for a whole hour before the general public were allowed in!
We walked through the tapestry gallery and David pointed out several noteworthy pieces, including one tapestry which hadÂ an optical illusion woven into it, where the eyes and an object on the painting changed perspective as you moved through the room. As you can see, we were free to enjoy the art in peace.
Later, as we passed back through this same gallery, this would be the scene…
No time to stop, to enjoy the tapestries. To be perfectly honest, I do love seeing good art but if my experience of seeing the Vatican Museums was that of the general visitor I’m not sure it’d beÂ worth it for me. They get over 40,000 visitors per day through these corridors, it’s incredibly crowded and not the sort of atmosphere that I need in order to enjoy my art. I’m so glad we chose the VIP tour, so that we could take the time to stop and enjoy.
We were led into the Sistine Chapel; there were only about fiftyÂ other people inside.
“You have twenty minutes here,” David said at the door. He gave us eachÂ a colour printÂ of the ceiling and wall frescoes that we could refer to for details. We sat down and enjoyed the ceiling in peace. TenÂ minutes on one side of the chapel, five on the other and the last fiveÂ stood before the Day of Judgement painting that covers the entire western wall.
It was a joy. Everybody was well behaved. Nobody was talking, or taking photos; everybody was just there to appreciateÂ Michelangelo’s paintings in peace and quiet. For Lamia and myself this twenty minutes were the highlight of our eight days in the city.
I was pleased thatÂ David enforced the ‘No Talking, No Photography’ rule, letting us know that although at times the guards couldn’t see us, we shouldn’t break the rules of the chapel. It’d been the same on our Walks of Italy VIP Tour into the Colosseum and Roman Forum. These places are so big that the guards would have trouble keeping their eyes on all the tourists so it’s essential that the tour guides act as guards themselves and make sure that their groups are behaving accordingly inside these places. I could see during that Colosseum tour that other group leaders didn’t take this responsibility seriously as members of their groups were acting quite badly at times. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case with us.
After the chapel, we passed by the Vatican library archives which we were excited to see after having seen them in the film ‘Angels and Demons’. David anticipated this and told us right away that the film version wasn’t true.
“It’s not so highÂ security and high tech!” he said. “Anyone can go in there for research purposes, with permission of course.” That made LamiaÂ daydream a little, of one day spending herÂ hours inside the Vatican archives researching for a paper…
We enteredÂ a courtyard where we saw the tower from where astronomers worked out the Gregorian calendar…
…and where there was also a giant pineapple. It made me think of Basildon HouseÂ near London which has pineapples sculpted on top of the park gates, from an era when pineapples were so incredibly expensive that it was a sign of extreme wealth to have them (they were so pricey that people would rent them to have as table centerpieces at parties and then return them after the parties ended!).
We then moved intoÂ the sculpture galleries. The main things of interest for me here were seeing the Belvedere Torso which had inspired Michelangelo before he painted the Sistine chapel…
…and also learning that all the white marble sculptures had at one time been brightly painted.
There was also lots of other incredible pieces of art to get to grips with. The crowds had begun to filter in by now but David got us up close to every highlight of the vast Vatican collection, including works by Raphael, Matisse and Dali.
Occasionally a view would present itself out of the airy windows…
Having spent over two hours in the museums, we went back into the Sistine Chapel – which was hideously crowded by this time – and exited via the far right hand door – which is only opened for VIP tour groups – and walked straight down into St. Peter’s Basilica. If we’d have been on a regular tour, or been guiding ourselves, it would’ve taken half an hour to walk around the outside of the museum wall and then another half hour of lining up and passing through a security check before we’d have got into the basilica. Once inside though, there was no escaping the crowds.
Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ statue is beautiful, but the crowds…wow.
Five minutes of dodging and pushing got me this image…
…and that’s nice, but, it’s just so hard to really appreciate the delicate beauty of a piece when there’s all sorts of pushing and random conversations going on about you.
The rest of the church was ok. I’ve been there twenty years earlier, when access was much easier, the crowds far less and a feeling of grandeur remained so it was rather a shock to return to restricted access, a huge amount of tourists and a building that seemed to me to be devoid of feeling. But still, some nice photo opportunities could be had.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to David…
…and then we walked outside to enjoy the view from the square and post a few cardsÂ with ‘Vatican City’ stamps on them!