This is the Best Time to Visit A Museum
Last week, I went to the Vatican twice. Yes, twice. The first time was May 30 when my husband and I were invited to preview the Vatican Museums prior to its June 1st reopening and the second time was June 5 for the evening Happy Hour entrance. (Surprise: the Vatican organizes a lovely aperitivo hour complete with a glass of prosecco). Why twice? Because we can- there are no crowds, no lines, and no one to tell me I can’t leave my house anymore.
Living in Rome since 2003, I’m a repeat visitor to the Vatican Museums, but my love for this museum started long before when, as a child, I’d return to Rome with my parents and sisters every few years to visit my mom’s family. Each trip always included a Vatican Museums walk. I distinctly remember celebrating my third birthday in the Museums and the glee of running up and down the spiral staircase at the entry/exit. My last visit was February 18, 2020 when the Raphael tapestries were hanging in the Sistine Chapel for a single week. But these most recent two visits are different.
Walking up to the monumental brass doors of Rome’s Vatican Museums, I found myself in complete awe. The entrance, where an ever-present line of visitors usually wraps around the 16th-century walls, heralding a two-hour wait to get in, stood unattended. There were no umbrella-waving tour guides, no tourists—not even the usual vendors were stationed out front.
On my first visit, we have the entire museums to ourselves, escorted by Gianni Crea, the Museums’ clavigero (holder of the Vatican’s 2,797 keys to its various rooms), who opens the doors to the Vatican Museums every morning at 5:45 a.m, greeted us. At the invitation of the Museums, Crea allowed a few journalists and art lovers to join him at the Museums early one morning, just before they officially reopened to the public on June 1. Holding his curlicued iron key, Crea gently pushed open the doors of the Sistine Chapel, flicking the lights on before us. What we saw—a masterpiece unimpeded by throngs of other visitors—was magnificent.
Heavenly silence, just our breathing. If you’ve seen The New Pope, you had a glimpse at the beauty of a quiet Sistine Chapel in recreation. It drastically pales in comparison to standing in the chapel with only 12 people. We were allowed photos (without flash) and I tried not to fangirl the Last Judgement. Who cares, my husband told me as he obsessively snapped photos of the cosmedin pavement, an antique marble technique that we usually never see in its entirety due to the amount of people walking in the Sistine at any given time. I only wished I could lie on the floor and stare at Adam and Eve.
Just before we leave, Gianni paused and asked us all to remain as he made way to turn off the lights. For a half-second, there is a celestial buzz, and then absolute darkness.
Now, after a nearly three-month shutdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the Vatican Museums are officially open again. The Museums will allow just 100 visitors to enter every 15 minutes for the foreseeable future (all of whom will need to purchase tickets online ahead of time, for a specific time slot). This represents a roughly 85 percent reduction from the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 daily visitors that the Vatican Museums see during the high season, which runs from April through June. And while this safety measure is essential for crowd control and encouraging social distancing, it also means that Rome’s residents, like myself, can for a limited time explore treasured sights like the Sistine Chapel without the crush of the usual crowds.
This relative emptiness is why I’ve now been twice in the past week—first, with Crea, and later, once the Museums officially reopened, for an evening visit. The Vatican wants you to come back, and more importantly, they want Romans and Italians to come in, kicking to the curb those knee-jerk statements like “I haven’t been since elementary school” and “I don’t want to go if there is a line”. Right now, visiting the Vatican Museums is a walk in the park, which will most likely not stay this way for ever but let’s enjoy while we can.
Walking around the Vatican Museums with just a few people beside you brings a heightened awareness—not only of the feats of art that hang in these halls, but also of the incredible fact that they hadn’t been viewed by any other visitors for 113 days. In the newly painted Cortile della Pigna, a gorgeous oblong courtyard near the entrance, I observed how bright the space, filled with chirping birds, now seemed. That’s no coincidence; Crea says that while Italy was shut down, museum restorers dug into the Vatican’s archives, and found the original color formula for the courtyard wall paint. They discovered that its secret ingredient was milk—so using milk from the Vatican farms, he says, they applied a creamy, fresh coat.
In the Galleria degli Arazzi, it felt as if figures in the tapestries were staring at us, surprised to see newcomers after all these months of quiet. In the Cortile Ottagono, a courtyard of statues, I noticed a cobweb on the arm of the ancient sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons. But amongst the familiar works that have lured me back for over 100 visits, I noticed a sense of newness in the air, too.
There were some obvious changes: for example, how security has evolved in the wake of COVID-19. Once past the body and baggage scanners, there are now also digital temperature scanners, and posted etiquette rules about social distancing requirements. Hand sanitizer, made by the Vatican’s on-site pharmacy, sits on a pedestal at the entrance for anyone to use. And everyone—visitors and staff alike—is required to wear a mask.
But other changes show that the time off has enabled important restorations that many lovers of the Vatican Museums will be grateful to see. As mentioned, the Cortile della Pigna is in the process of being repainted. The frescoes of Raphael’s Room of Constantine are finally visible, after having been under tarps for most of 2019 for restoration. The Scala di Bramante, an elliptical staircase near the visitor exit, is expected to reopen soon in the evenings (the exact date is yet to be announced). For those interested in visiting the Vatican Gardens (a separate ticket), there’s also a new open-air eco-bus to take you around its 57 acres.
Given how few tickets to enter the Vatican Museums are available, they’re still surprisingly easy to snag online, for both the daytime visits, which cost 17 euros (the 4 euro transaction fee is currently being waived) and for the 7:30 p.m. Happy Hour offering, that, for an additional 17 euros, includes a glass of prosecco, and pasta in the Cortile della Pigna—which is how I ended up returning just days after my first visit. (I highly recommend going on a summer evening when the inky night sky matches that in Raphael’s Deliverance of St. Peter in the Room of Helidoros.) Though the Museums previously ran keyholder tours like the one I took with Crea, that offering (which usually costs 2,000 euros for a private group of up to 20 people) is on hold for the time being. Groups, now limited to 10 people, are still allowed to enter with guides.
It’s hard to say how long this rare type of visit—with no lines, and a lack of crowds—will last. Until things change and tourism picks up, we’re told—which of course signals only good news for the city as we exit lockdown and reclaim a sense of normalcy. But this rare moment in time will be a special memory that I, and other Roman residents, have to ourselves. And I will always remember being able to, for once, be alone in the room with the recently restored Last Supper tapestry, close enough to appreciate every thread.
A version of the article appeared in CN Traveler on June 8, 2020.
All photos by Erica Firpo.