Vatican may eventually limit Sistine Chapel visits

VATICAN CITY Wed Oct 31, 2012 1:52pm EDT

Pope Benedict XVI leads a special meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican November 21, 2009. Pope Benedict meets up to 500 artists from around the world, as part of efforts to turn the page on the Vatican's sometimes conflicted relationship with the contemporary art world. Picture taken with fish-eye lens. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict XVI leads a special meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican November 21, 2009. Pope Benedict meets up to 500 artists from around the world, as part of efforts to turn the page on the Vatican's sometimes conflicted relationship with the contemporary art world. Picture taken with fish-eye lens.

Credit: Reuters/Osservatore Romano

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes turned 500 on Wednesday with the Vatican warning it may eventually limit visitors to protect one of the wonders of Western civilization.

On October 31, 1512, only 20 years after the discovery of America, Pope Julius II said an evening vespers service to inaugurate the room where Michelangelo toiled for four years, much of it on his back, to finish his ceiling frescoes.

The frescoes immediately became the talk of the town and have since become the talk of the world.

The problem is that it sometimes feels that they have become the walk of the world. The Sistine Chapel is arguably the most visited room in the world.

With mass tourism growing, every year some five million people, as many as 20,000 a day in summer, enter the chapel and crane their necks upwards. Most are left awestruck.

The ceiling of the chapel where cardinals meet in secret conclaves to elect new the pope includes one of the most famous scenes in the history of art - the arm of a gentle bearded God reaching out to give life to Adam in the creation panel.

Earlier this month, Italian literary critic Pietro Citati sparked a storm by writing an open letter in a major Italian newspaper denouncing the behavior of crowds visiting what is technically a sacred place.

Tourists, he said, "resemble drunken herds" as they unwittingly risked damaging the frescoes with their breath, their perspiration, the dust on their shoes and their body heat.

The atmosphere, Citati wrote, was anything but contemplative as the tourists ignored the Vatican's requests for silence, composure and a ban on taking photographs.


Citati became the latest critic to demand that the Vatican severely limit the number of visitors to the Sistine, a must-see for visitors to the eternal city.

At a vespers service on Wednesday night to commemorate the event in the same room 500 years ago, Pope Benedict seemed to agree on the need for more contemplation when in the chapel.

"When contemplated in prayer, the Sistine Chapel is even more beautiful, more authentic. It reveals itself in all its richness," he said.

Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, said he did not foresee limiting the number of visitors "in the short and medium term" but said the museums might not have any choice after that.

"Pressure caused by humans such as dust introduced, the humidity of bodies, carbon dioxide produced by perspiration can cause unease for the visitors, and in the long run, possible damage to the paintings," Paolucci said in an article in the Vatican newspaper.

"We might limit the access, putting a cap on the number (of visitors). We will do this if tourism grows beyond the limits of reasonable tolerance and if we are not able to respond adequately to the problem," he said.

Under the current system, visitors to the Vatican museums can either book times to enter or wait in long queues outside, but there is no cap on the total daily number.

In 1994, at the end of a 14-year restoration project, technicians installed an elaborate system of dehumidifiers, air conditioning, filters and micro-climate controls in the chapel.

But the number of visitors has grown in the past 18 years, putting the system under stress.

Paolucci said Carrier air conditioning, a unit of United Technologies, was studying a "new, high-tech, radically innovative" project to protect the frescoes from atmospheric damage. The new equipment should be ready in a year, he said.

The director of the museums said the Sistine, where Michelangelo returned between 1535 and 1541 to paint the monumental Last Judgement panel behind the main altar, is for many a "fatal attraction, an object of desire".

He said a way would have to be found to allow as many people as possible to satisfy their artistic yearning while at the same time defending the precious frescoes from damage.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Paul Casciato)

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Comments (8)
Kevin88201 wrote:
I visited the Sistine Chapel in early September this year. The description of the people as a “drunken herd” is accurate. I was saddened by the fact that people completely ignored the signs and verbal instructions of the guards. They were really simple. Don’t talk. Don’t take pictures. That’s it! After all, it is a place of worship and regardless of your denominational faith or lack thereof, respecting the rules applies to everyone. I liken it to visiting someone’s home. I am a guest there and should act like a guest. Because of the ill behavior and crowds, I was unable to fully appreciate the art.

Oct 31, 2012 11:42am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Libicz wrote:
That’s fine, let them close it. In recompense, perhaps the Pope and his top cardinals could go on display as I remember them doing in Fellini’s late 1960s or early 1970s film, Roma, I believe.

Representatives of the church hierarchy paraded before the enthroned Pope, they wearing lavish and illuminated (with blinking lights) vestments. (I knew an American girl studying theater in Florence who acquired one, and who had to be strongly persuaded not to wear it in public in Florence.)

The Sistine Chapel may be 500 years old, but it’s old hat art. A daily fashion parade of ecclesiastics in Fellini type vestments before the public would be a wonderful Post-Modern performance piece though. Really put the Roman Church in the spotlight for once in a fanciful and felicitous way.

Oct 31, 2012 7:48pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
johnart wrote:
It is now believed that Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling on his back. There is even a drawing he did of himself showing him standing to paint the ceiling.

Nov 01, 2012 7:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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