(reprint from The Florentine May 2005)
Did you know that you could have a private visit to the Vatican Museums and have the Sistine Chapel to yourself? That you can be in this holy place after it closes to the public, to the 'masses?' Alone, so that you can stand far enough away to take in the entire wall of The Last Judgment, without two backpacks and a raised guidebook with a photo of the same blocking your vision? No wait. No lines. No noise. No one pushing, shoving or bumping into you, or otherwise spoiling the sanctity of this sacred and transformative experience.
If a a 'Pristine Sistine' viewing is what you desire, this 'once in a lifetime', 'dream come true' opportunity is available to you. something we generally assume is only reserved for presidents, royalty and George Clooney, can be yours. For a mere 1800 euro, you and up to 29 of your closest firends (or like in George's case, your entourage) will enter the Vatican Museum at 5PM.
Since you have to wait until closing to enter the museum, take advantage of your trip to the Vatican by arranging to first visit the Scavi (the tombs and Christian graveyard necropolis), a fascinating tour into the archeaological discoveries and theories of St. Peter's and his bones. Depending on your guide (a priest), the trip can either be a DaVinci Code-like tour filled with mystery and suspense into the authenticity of 'the bones' or merely just wondrous and interesting. Either way, it is an important archeaological discovery, believed to be where St. Peter himself was buried.
You walk through an excavated street between tombs and an ancient graveyard, a part of the Vatican that most miss. Due to the close quarters, the Scavi tour, which needs to be booked weeks ahead, is limited to groups of no more than 15. So you will get acclimated to the 'privacy' and 'exclusivity' you will encounter in the Sistine Chapel.
At 5pm, after 'the mortals', or public, have left, you enter the Vatican Museums. A few moments (instead of hours) to pass through security, then you enter the grand and quiet halls. Of course guards accompany you, but it appears their only job is to serve as your valets, to open and close doors (translation: lock/unlock/secure).
Most memories of entering the Vatican consist of rushing and maneuvering through the crowds in a race to get to the Sistine Chapel, missing or perhaps not even conscious that there are halls and galleries filled with some of the world's most precious art. Sculpture from ancient Rome, a room filled with the paintings of Raphael, the amazing hall of Tapestries and Maps. When you enter alone, something is very different, you are not in a museum, but a private villa or palazzo. You are no longer a tourist but an invited guest. At the same time that you are overwhelmed by the grandeur, there is a feeling of intimacy, a closeness to the awe.
Take your time, the Chapel is waiting for you. Go into the gardens, be moved by the same ancient sculptures that possibly were seen by and moved the great Michelangelo. and let the expectation build (you know you won't be disappointed), then as the sun begins to set, enter the Sistine Chapel. Stop. Breathe. This is a moment you will remember for the rest of your life. for now, it's all yours.
Reservations and information: www.vatican.va
for 'Scavi' www.catacombsociety.org