The Sistine Chapel: A Compendium of Theology for All

Suggestion to Limit Visitors Spurs Debate

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 5, 2012 (Zenit.org).-Roman autumn rolled in with a lively debate over the Sistine Chapel. As high season reaches its climax, and crowds push visitors, guides and custodial staff to their breaking point, it seems more than natural that the question of limiting the visitors to the Chapel return to public scrutiny.

On September 27, Italian writer and intellectual Pietro Citati penned a brief-yet-scathing report from the Vatican trenches in the daily paper Corriere della Sera. Describing the tourists as “drunken herds”, he painted a picture as unappealing as Michelangelo’s are inspirational. He saw visitors encompassed in clouds of their own breath, sweat and scent, which were occasionally stirred by the loud calls for “silence” or “no photos” by the custodians. During his visit, Dr. Citati saw little beyond his surroundings and believes that the tourists who ruined his experience viewed less than he.

His solution? Limiting the number of visitor by a fourth or fifth of the total influx. With an average daily presence of 20,000 in high season, that means cutting out four or five thousand people a day.

Furthermore Citati expresses sympathy with the financial straits of the Vatican implying that the museums allow these vast hordes merely to fill the papal coffers. With a final rhetorical flourish, he states that the limiting of visitors is a "necessary good for all Christians".

Professor Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Museums, was quick to respond. The following day, he wrote a short riposte in the Osservatore Romano, explaining that limiting the visitors to the Vatican Museums would be like “limiting the pilgrims to Lourdes or San Giovanni Rotundo”.  He explained that the Sistine chapel is a "compendium of theology or catechism in pictures". Who should be excluded from learning about God?

Dr. Citati’s argument is not new. Every year, the more crowds arrive, the more people start talking about limiting visitors. The late Robert Hughes, art historian and cultural commentator reserved a significant section of his final oeuvre "Rome" to lamenting the administration of the Sistine chapel and the mass tourism it embraces.

This little discussion went global when it was picked up by several new outlets including the UK Guardian. While the occasional Italian intellectual notes that the Sistine chapel is not the place he remembers from his youth, (nothing in Italy is) Anglo Saxons tend to champion the idea of a limited number more than anyone else.

Of course in the same article, author Tom Kington’s thumbnail description of the Sistine chapel, limits itself say that it "is dominated at one end by The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo filled with nude males reportedly inspired by his visits to Rome's brothels."

If the Vatican Museums is going to limit visitors, I have a suggestion of whom to start with…

Civtati, Hughes,and virtually every other proponent of limiting the Sistine chapel visitors follows the same train of thought. He or she went to go meditate in the Sistine chapel, armed with better instruction on the art and circumstance of the frescos than most, and with a greater sense of devotion to the artistic achievement of Michelangelo. The expected contemplation was disturbed by the lines, waits, crowds and noise, all produced by people who did not appreciate the works in the same way. Then afterwards comes the argument, “wouldn’t it be better for the painting if there were fewer people?”

Professor Paolucci is keenly aware of the stress and contamination the Sistine chapel endures. He began to address the problem from the moment he became director of the Museums in 2007, hiring more custodians and developing routes to slow down the visitors who try to race to the Sistine.

His reforms have been too successful; the reservation system streamlined the process of entry, the openness of the Vatican Museums to allow filming and the many books he has published had increased interest in the work of Michelangelo. In any other “company,” anyone who revitalized interest in a 500-year-old product would be hailed as a genius, but Prof. Paolucci, referred to with the odd term of “manager” in the Guardian article (would anyone really call Thomas P. Campbell , director of the Metropolitan Museum of art, a manager???) seems to simply be dismissed as the milker of the Vatican cash cow.

Having seen the slight frame of 73-year old paolucci, in his over-size jackets, walking through the halls of the museums during the most crowded hours of the most chaotic days, elbow to elbow with scruffiest tourist, I am certain he knows both his museum and its crowds.

Custodians do not beat a path for him amid the press of people; he walks, stopping occasionally to contemplate a work despite the din and an intermittent jostle.

Long before Citati and Hughes leapt to the defense of the Sistine chapel, Paolucci was already at work. In September 2010, the Director of the museums was facing the new dangers threatening the chapel. For five hundred years it had been filled with candles and oil lamps which had darkened the frescoes until the miraculous restoration under Blessed Pope John Paul II, today it was threatened by the heat, fibers, dust and particles emitted by its millions of visitors.

Paolucci however, displays a confidence in science and technology that the Vatican is rarely credited for, as well as some good old common sense. Besides sensors installed during 2011 to collect data regarding the atmospheric situation of the chapel and an analysis of the existing filtering and air conditioning systems, he also began evening opening of the Museums, to drain off some of the day visitors and especially to give Romans and the intellectual heirs of the grand tourists of the Enlightenment a chance to see that art in the same way their predecessors Goethe and Burckhardt did, in peace and quiet.

The Sistine chapel was originally built as one of the most elite spaces in the word, housing the papal court of Sixtus IV which totaled about 350 people. The court of Julius II, who ordered Michelangelo to paint the ceiling from 1508-1512, swelled to about 500, but compared to the five million visitors last year…

The decoration was purchased from Italy’s finest artists, but gradually the papacy realized that confining this extraordinary wellspring of beauty to a few elite was not the best face the Church had to offer; gradually more and more people were allowed in until the present day of mass travel presented a new series of challenges.

The diverse languages and costumes, manners and mores that gather in the chapel is a testimony to the Universality of the Church. The myriad interpretations tell us that many, many people have look up in that vault and seen themselves reflected in Michelangelo’s art. How can one limit the great potential of that “theological compendium?”

How would one discern who should go in and who should stay out? Would it require a college degree, a baptismal certificate? Would volunteers in relief shelters be favored over inner-city school teachers? Would it allow Italians by right and exclude nations without diplomatic relations with the Holy See? How would a church, which came into being promising salvation to all, explain its criterion to enter the greatest salvation sequence ever painted?

Perhaps we would weed out those “drunken herds” following paddles and beribboned antennae, ears plugged by headsets and eyes shielded by camera lenses. Yet how are we to know that the colors and intensity of Michelangelo’s painting won’t penetrate those blinders and open another soul to the beauty of Truth?

The obvious criterion would be a limited number of tickets available, but that would inevitably weed out the poorer, who cannot afford the extra reservation fee or the worse yet the racket that would spring up to sell the unattainable Vatican ticket. The critics of the over-crowding consider beauty a right, part of the western legacy and meant to be enjoyed by those who are accustomed to it. I wonder about the millions who live with very little beauty, who do not enjoy the amenities of our aesthetic choices for our clothes and homes, or where we dine, stroll or pray. Perhaps the most just criterion would be to favor those who rarely see the beauty, hope and the glory of man as the image and likenes of God.

There is obviously much to do and the Vatican Museums are studying a new ventilation system to be put in place in 2013 as another step to protect the painting. In the meantime, perhaps instead of waiting for the Vatican to “do something” we tourists could start with a few small steps.

1.      Try coming at a less predictable hour, or time of year. May through October is high season. Choosing a less busy time of year or even later in the day, takes the burden off you and reduces the crowding in the Sistine. If you want to visit for just two hours or less, come at 3:30-3:45pm and the museum stays open until 6:00pm

2.      Keep it down. If you a screaming in the Pope’s private chapel, that should be a sign there is a problem. The Sistine requests silence, but if you want to speak, try to do so in a low tone so the Sistine noise remains at a pleasant soft murmur as opposed to a football game. Noise vibration is also bad for fresco.

3.      Put the camera away. The flash photography is BAD for the painting. The custodians, who are always blamed for anarchy in the Sistine chapel, are exhausted from a day starting at 8 of telling visitors nicely to not take pictures, only to see you sneaking off in a corner as if you were cleverer than anyone else. They’ve seen it before, and you just look silly and dishonest. If you can’t look at the ceiling without a lens in front of your face, perhaps you should leave, buy a picture book, and relinquish the space for someone who wants to look at the frescos instead of a tv screen

4.      Visit other parts of the museums. It is three and half miles! It has a collection of papal carriages, Raphael paintings, early Christian art and Etruscan artifacts, just for starters! If you are on vacation, you have time, go see what the museums have to offer!

The Sistine chapel is the patrimony of all humanity, one of the highest examples of where man’s skill and creativity meet faith. Pope Benedict XVI trusts the director to do his job and understand the unique mission of the museums, perhaps we too can muster a little faith and offer a little cooperation.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached atlizlev@zenit.org