In the News in Rome

18 Oct

The Conflict

A few weeks ago, in an open letter published in Corriere della Sera, famed Italian literary critic and biographer Pietro Citati recounted his last visit to the Sistine Chapel after not visiting it for several years. In the letter, Citati essentially told the Vatican that it needed to severely limit the number of annual visitors to the Sistine Chapel. During his visit last year, Citati was appalled by what he encountered. A translation of his words shows his disgust:

“It was an unimaginable disaster. The great hall was filled with many hundreds of people: heavy jackets, coats, hats, hoods, raincoats, and umbrellas. Breaths from visitors formed halos, vapors and mists that hung at the ceiling around the Last Judgment, the Creation of Adam and the Sibyls. I believe that in a short time, it will be necessary to restore the Sistine Chapel again, and then, without some limits, gradually the heavy human breath will again fill the vast ceiling of the chapel.”

He also criticized the clapping and loud interruptions from the guards admonishing all to be silent, further inhibiting one’s ability to contemplate the majestic surroundings. Citati compared the visitors to “drunken herds” who end up confused and ultimately see nothing.

The Response

The Vatican’s response, as reported in L’Osservatore Romano, noted that five million people visit the Sistine Chapel each year to admire Michelangelo’s 16th century frescoes.  “We are now in the epoch of mass tourism, millions of people want to enjoy the culture of the past; it is a phenomenon of which we are perfectly aware and which must be faced…” The manager of the Vatican museums added “for the past two years, a study has been under way for the renewal of the ventilation system and damp control. But restricted entry is unthinkable. The Sistine is not only a place of art; it is also a consecrated chapel, a compendium of theology, and a true and proper catechism in pictures.”

A Personal Story

When I was a student in Rome in 1971-2, and my parents came to visit, they had scheduled a tour of the Sistine Chapel through a priest at our home parish.  Back then, there were significantly fewer tourists, so tours of this nature were not so unusual.  Note the daytime picture below of me standing outside the Vatican…it’s NEVER this empty anymore!

Judy (left) at the Vatican

As I recall, we didn’t walk through miles of halls en route to the Chapel, but entered fairly close to the Chapel itself. As our priest guide was explaining various details about paintings in the great halls to my parents, I wandered off alone and through a doorway into another room. Stunned, I looked around, then up at the ceiling…the fingers almost touching…The Creation of Adam….I was in the Sistine Chapel…alone. Truly, honestly, alone, with Michelangelo and his incredible years of work. I will never forget that moment or that sight.

Shortly after, I heard my parents’ slight gasps as they too entered this magnificent room. We stood in awe, mouths open, unable to speak. Together with our guide, we lingered with great astonishment and incredible admiration.

I have visited the Sistine Chapel several times over the last dozen years. Each time, however, the visit grew more and more crowded, noisy and frustrating, so I fully understand Pietro Citati’s concern and dismay. Noisy and sweaty tourists on smart phones stand shoulder to shoulder, often ignoring the ban on flash photography or the request for silence. And yet, limiting entry to the one of the greatest artistic creations of all time is, in the words of the museum director, unthinkable. “The time when only Russian grand dukes, English lords or experts … had access to the great masterpieces of art is definitely over.”

How does the Vatican save yet share, preserve yet provide? Somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum lies the answer. I wonder what Michelangelo would suggest.

Ciao,

Judy

2 Responses to “In the News in Rome”

  1. Sandy Holswade October 18, 2012 at 9:14 PM #

    Judy – that was beautiful. Thank you.

    Like

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  1. Should the Vatican Limit Access to the Sistine Chapel? - April 26, 2014

    […] In the News in Rome […]

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