A close encounter with Michelangelo

Our small tour group alone in the Sistine Chapel. PHOTO CREDIT: WOLFGANG ACHTNER

 VATICAN CITY — Gazing up at Michelangelo’s magnificent altar in the Sistine Chapel with nothing to distract me save the soft sound of our guide’s footsteps pacing behind me, I couldn’t help but count my lucky stars. Usually, it’s a different story. Mile-long queues, fed-up tourists, guides trying to scam you, and that’s before you even get in. Followed by airport-style security checks, guards shuffling you along, and the constant feeling of being watched. Snakes of single-file tours worm their way through the crowds, led by a stone-faced guide holding a flag, reeling off their speech which the group can hardly hear because of the background noise, despite the headset provided. The whole scene is almost zombie-like — visitors trudging through the Vatican museums, barely able to stop and appreciate the art surrounding them. By the time they arrive at the Sistine Chapel, exhausted from having to fight through the throngs, amidst a constant sound of ‘shhhh,’ and people being told off for taking photos, they are left unable to take in the breath-taking frescoes by Michelangelo, Raphael and some of the most talented artists in the world.

 The situation is all-too familiar. But this is another world compared with the exclusive City Lights tour that I was fortunate to join on Monday evening, when the Vatican was closed to the general public. The appeal of the dazzling tour is that it is quite the opposite of the usual crowded, rushed experience in the Vatican museums. It gives you the opportunity really to see the beauty around you, without the hustle and bustle of any old tour.

 Maja Ajdin and Sean Egan, founders of the company, and Mario Baas, the tour guide for the evening, greeted their 10 guests in a nearby bar with complimentary prosecco and nibbles. It was a chance to get to know each other before this once-in-a-lifetime experience that we would share. Some had visited the Vatican, for others it was their first time, but we were all assured it would be completely different from any other visit.

 Heading into the Vatican at 6 P.M, it seemed a ghost town, with just a couple of guards to check our bags. We were inside in a matter of minutes, a world apart to the usual entrance procedures, where they see over 35,000 visitors a day.

 There was certainly a feeling of having to tiptoe, or as our guide put it, feeling like “a thief in the house of the pope.” As we made our way through the Vatican Museums, pausing briefly in the Egyptian Gallery, the Gallery of the Candelabra, the Gallery of Tapestries, the Gallery of Maps, the Room of Immaculate Conception and Raphael’s Rooms, Mario pointed out favourite works, made memorable with interesting details, such as the minute mosaics made using tweezers to pick the pieces of glass. Hiding on the corner of a table showcasing different copies of the Dogma, they would have been easy to miss were it not for, first, a knowledgeable guide, and, second, the space and time required to actually see them. ‘If you had five seconds to see every piece of art in the Vatican museum it would still take you over 25 years,’ Mario explained.

 After one hour and 20 minutes, Daniele, the sole guard accompanying our tour, signalled to Mario quietly; “They’re ready.” And then came the climax of the tour, the moment everyone had been waiting for.

 It is truly striking that the entry to such a majestic chapel, covered in work by the likes of Michelangelo and Botticelli, is a such a small, simple wooden door.

 We gathered outside, and even Mario, who has done hundreds of tours of the Vatican, was visibly excited. ‘Who wants to have the honour of coming in first?’ he asked. One could tell that it was truly a special moment for everyone there. Our Insider photographer Wolf led the way, and we were soon standing in a serene, empty chapel, just the way it was intended to be by Pope Sixtus when he had it renamed and restored between 1477 and 1480. We felt just as VIP as the Cardinals and royalty he would have received there at the time.

 The most noteworthy aspect upon entering the Chapel was the silence. All that could be heard was the gentle hum of the air conditioning. Mario, who until then had talked and joshed with us throughout the visit, fell quiet, letting us take in the artistry that encompassed the space. It felt like another place, a different Chapel to that which regular tourists see in the daytime.

 This was miles away from my last visit to the Vatican, 12 years ago. Pope John Paul II had just died. The crowds were even busier than usual, gathering to see his embalmed body. My family were undeterred, however, and so ensued a longer-than-usual wait outside the Vatican Museums, surrounded by a weeping throng.

 After a few minutes this time, Mario started to explain the incredible feat we saw before us, taking us through Moses’ panels, read right to left because of Hebrew tradition, on the right side, and Christ’s on the left. He brought history to life by describing the working conditions at the time of the frescoes; details such as how different artists who did not necessarily know or like each other had to collaborate, for instance for the forest from one fresco that followed into that of its neighbour.

 Mario then moved onto the iconic ceiling, originally a blue sky with yellow stars, which Pope Julius II had commissioned, hoping to see it in his lifetime. Where we stood there was once scaffolding, designed by Michelangelo himself, which he climbed in order to paint, lying on his back. Gazing up at the artworks for several minutes can hurt the neck, let alone for four years, dust falling into his eyes, ears ringing from the noise around him, working on them.

 “But he still came back to work on the altar wall,” continued Mario. Amidst all the ascensions and descents of Judgement Day, he pointed out the skin of St Bartholomew, or Michelangelo’s self-portrait. The insertion of contemporary people, faces, monuments into historic art, was a great theme in the Renaissance, and it had been pointed out to us throughout the tour.

 It came as no surprise to learn later that Mario was also an actor, after he recited Michelangelo’s letter to a friend, having finished the altar, as we all gazed up:

 “I live alone and miserable, trapped as marrow under the bark of the tree. My voice is like a wasp caught in a bag of skin and bones. My teeth shake and rattle like the keys of a musical instrument. My face is a scarecrow. My ears never cease to buzz … This is the state where art had led me …”

 And, on that slightly sad note, the tour was over. Forty minutes in the Sistine Chapel — longer than the normal 30 promised on the exclusive evening tour — had gone by in a flash. 

 It felt strange, leaving such a stunning building after a wonderful two hours, almost like coming up from underwater, back to real life. Now at 8 P.M, it was dark as we stepped outside the tiny city state and back into Italy. The cleaning staff and security guards who had had to wait until we were finished to leave evidently breathed sighs of relief as we made our way outside.

 Overall, at 400 euros per person, the tour does not come cheap. However, group discounts can be made, with a maximum of 10 people per group. If you were left slightly disappointed on a previous visit to the Vatican, or you’ve never been but crowds aren’t your thing, it’s worth every cent. A magical experience.

 Find out about City Lights’ other tour opportunities and prices here: http://www.citylightstours.com/

Shadows lengthen over the Vatican during the evening tour. PHOTO CREDIT: WOLFGANG ACHTNER
Our guide leads us towards the Sistine Chapel, PHOTO CREDIT: WOLFGANG ACHTNER