I arrived in the dark at 6:00 a.m., when the Vatican Museums were closed. The first person I met was Gianni Crea, the clavigero (keeper of the keys). Gianni informed me that he was responsible for 2,797 keys that opened more than 300 gates, doors, closets and rooms of the Vatican Museums. My immediate impression was that this would be a daunting task, but Gianni handled everything with ease. Keep in mind that there are over 4.3 miles of corridors in the Vatican property each with its own sets of doors and keys!
As I entered with my guide, Gianni skillfully handled the ring of keys and opened the doors, one by one. I entered into the enormous rooms blindly, knowing that I was about to experience something very special. Our guide shined her flashlight on portions of tapestries and described their unique features. Then the lights came on one by one, illuminating the stunning art that was held captive by the darkness. Although I visited the Vatican before, I had never seen it like this!
Being given special access to a very sacred place, I felt like a child sneaking around my grandmother’s attic, but these treasures were unspeakable and far superior. I saw Nero’s bathtub, made from one enormous piece of rose granite. Close by stood the sarcophagus of Helena (decorated with carvings of the Roman cavalry taking barbarians captive) made from red porphyry similar to the nearby sarcophagus of Constantina (decorated with cupids making wine from freshly harvested grapes). These ornate, elaborate boxes stood out to me as two of the most stunning pieces of art I’d ever seen. I was strongly moved at the privilege of seeing these artifacts with no one else around.
From here I visited the fascinating Gallery of Maps (my favorite) with topographical artwork that puts Google Maps to shame. Dotting the gallery maps (strictly of Italy) are inlaid painted scenes of incidents from history that occurred in the areas depicted by the maps. The accurate strokes provided an idea of what the villages, towns and hamlets may have looked like long ago, which are a far cry from today’s reality. Suddenly, the keeper of the keys unlocked a door to the outside, which is seldom allowed, and revealed hidden courtyards that were filled with the tallest cypress trees and the beginnings of the most verdant gardens I’d ever seen.
I was also enchanted by the Room of Immaculate Conception (1856-1865) with frescoes by Francis Podesti. Pictorial decorations of the virtues of the Virgin cascaded down from the ceiling, flowed onto the walls (even included a self-portrait of the painter) and rested on the most luxurious inlaid marble floor. I felt as if I should remove the shoes from my feet, as I walked on holy ground, but there was yet the pièce de ré·sis·tance.
The next part of my journey exceeded all of my expectations, as Gianni handed the key to the Sistine Chapel to me so I could open the door! I’ve been in this Chapel in the past, when it was filled to capacity with thousands of people, and although the guards kept shushing the visitors, their whispers could still be heard as a dull roar that permeated the Holy of Holies. During this visit, it was silent, as if I were deaf! I was even permitted to take photos, which is strictly forbidden during regular hours.
My guide pointed to a special red overstuffed chair of the Pope’s that sat alone behind an open door that is usually locked during regular hours. My eyes pondered the chair briefly, before I was drawn to the stunning frescoes, the altar, and then The Last Judgment, The Creation, The Delivery of the Keys, The Temptations of Christ, The Last Supper, and The Creation of Adam.
As I stood in awe of the Sistine Chapel, while the different works of art were explained, I enjoyed being alone in this sacred place with my guard and the keeper of the keys. Overwhelmed by the beauty, I was all the while thinking of Michelangelo, who wrote this marvelous poetic memoir that continues to describe the strenuous conditions under which he painted:
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succor my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
Understanding that this was Michelangelo’s final work of high renaissance art before his death, when his fingers were gnarled and crippled from devotion, I was extremely blessed to see this wonderful historic life work.
Throughout my private Vatican experience, it was hard to contain the emotion I felt walking through the corridors and museums. I wanted to capture everything on camera, and spend hours with experts who could explain the importance of each and every piece. My host Filippo, with a Ph.D. in history, pointed out his favorites and explained them. He also expounded on how time had influenced the painters’ strokes from Renaissance (1300-1600) to Baroque (1600-1750), and how lighting accentuation was brought into the artwork to move the emotions of onlookers. I am sure it would take a lifetime to learn all there is to know.
Exiting down the spiral staircase, I wondered what the steps would say if they could talk. How many feet had walked upon each step, what kinds of people had come? I was thankful that my feet were there and that my life was touched by this fascinating place. These were once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I believe are almost as rare as the art itself.
As I left in the rain with my driver, I slowly passed immense lines of people patiently waiting in the persistent rain with umbrellas unfurled. Some people were fortunate enough to have skip-the-line entry tickets, and others stood still waiting for their turn. None of them enjoyed the solitude and majesty that I just did, before the doors were unlocked, when no one else was present.
With the connections and relationships that Frontiers enjoys with IDI Travel, we would be happy to plan a similar tour of the Vatican for your benefit. This experience would be perfect for multi-generational families where grandparents could take in the masterpieces with grandchildren and enjoy the luxury of time. IDI Travel can open the doors for you, which is one of the benefits of making reservations with Frontiers. Before giving private tours, guides are required to obtain certification in Italy in addition to any relevant experiential education they may have.
This tour starts at approximately €5,000 depending on the season and number in your party. If this is not in your budget, Frontiers can still arrange an outstanding guide and pre-reserved entrance tickets.NextGEN gallery is not installed/inactive!