The Sistine Chapel shouldn’t be a tourist hell

The site of Michelangelo’s famous fresco is both the pope’s private chapel and a lucrative, overcrowded attraction. This conflict could be resolved in a flash – if the Vatican dared

This article was first published in the Catholic Herald on 27 March 2015.

ceiling

The Sistine Chapel takes you by surprise. You turn into a narrow, nondescript doorway, and suddenly the world’s most famous fresco looms above you. Taken as a whole it is a breathtaking sight. For the individual scenes you wish you had binoculars. The world it depicts seems to be in 3D – male nudes sit on plinths in the foreground as the story of Genesis unfolds behind them. You stare, mouth open, neck craned, trying to fathom how it works.

Michelangelo took four years to paint the ceiling and, once completed, it won instant renown. His biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote: “When the work was thrown open, the whole world could be heard running up to see it.” Artists such as Titian and Raphael immediately imitated the new style. Prints and drawings of the various scenes circulated in Europe. Two centuries later, Sir Joshua Reynolds, urging students to copy the fresco, called it the “language of the gods”.

The Church proved harder to please. Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, liked it, but nine years later Adrian VI threatened to have it chiselled off, saying it was more suited to a bath house than a church. Michelangelo’s second fresco, The Last Judgment, painted 25 years later on the altar wall, provoked more controversy. The chief objection was all the flesh on display: the figures being lifted up to heaven and dragged down to hell were mostly naked. During his lifetime, Michelangelo was eminent enough to have his way, but once he died the most explicit details were painted over with loincloths, breeches and bits of flowing drapery.

Adrian VI, who reigned for only 18 months, has been much derided for his dislike of the fresco. But he had a point. Michelangelo was enraptured by the human body. Sensual, muscular figures dominate the chapel. No wonder they caused alarm among Vatican officials. Even today Catholics may wonder if they are not perhaps entirely suitable.

These days, of course, Michelangelo’s artistic triumph is as celebrated as ever. His Sistine Chapel ceiling, which depicts the finger-tip creation of Adam, is regarded as the high point of the Renaissance. Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times critic, calls Michelangelo the “Everest” of the art world. “By most modern measures of such matters,” he writes, “he qualifies as the Adam of his species and was the first artist.”

Thanks to better arts education and cheaper travel, the popularity of the Sistine Chapel has continued to grow. Last year nearly six million tourists flocked to it – three times the number 30 years earlier.

But the chapel is not just a place of secular pilgrimage. It is also the pope’s private chapel. It is where the pope is elected, where he celebrates his first Mass, and, in a tradition started by St Pope John Paul II, where he welcomes newborns into the Church through baptism every January.

The chapel’s two roles – as a tourist spot and a sacred space for Mass – are in conflict. This is especially so when it comes to money. The chapel generates a lot of revenue for the Vatican. Technically, there is no entrance fee. Yet everyone who steps inside it has paid €16 (£12) to get into the Vatican Museums. And most of the tourists who pay that fee aren’t interested in the sculpture, the 16th-century maps or the porphyry (incredible though they are): they are there simply to see the Sistine Chapel.

According to Fortune magazine, the Vatican Museums are the “only branch of the Vatican run like a true business”. They generate £88 million a year. Fortune’s Shawn Tully claims that, along with the Vatican Bank, the museums have been identified as an area for future financial growth, with the Vatican’s financial tsar Cardinal George Pell hoping to increase revenue through marketing and exhibitions.

The museums are already heading in this direction, with administrators happily wringing funds out of the rich and famous. Justin Bieber, for instance, was reported to have paid £15,000 for a private tour, shelling out extra to see the Apostolic Palace, the pope’s official residence. Last October Porsche effectively hired the Sistine Chapel, putting on a concert there for members of its travel club. (The proceeds went to charities working with the poor and homeless.)

If the use of the pope’s chapel to make money is one scandal, the poor treatment of its visitors is another. Unlike at other popular sites, tourist numbers are not capped in any meaningful way. This means that every summer the crush is horrendous. Tour guides report visitors fainting from the heat and parents losing their children in the fray. One irate critic complains on TripAdvisor that they “just push everyone in and take their money”. Another says it is worse than the Tokyo underground. “Are the Musei any good? Don’t know, didn’t see anything!”

Calls for the Vatican to limit numbers are nothing new. In 2012 the Italian writer Pietro Citati caused a furore by describing the Sistine Chapel as an “unimaginable disaster” ruined by tourists resembling “drunken herds”. In an article for the Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, he complained: “These monstrous conditions are intolerable.”

In response Antonio Paolucci, the director of the museums, accused Citati of being elitist. “The days when only Russian grand dukes and English lords or Bernard Berenson [an American art expert] could gain access to the great masterpieces are definitely over,” he wrote. “Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Such a sentiment is laudable. But it seems highly convenient, too, given that wider access comes with much greater revenue.

Last autumn Paolucci finally relented, saying visitor numbers would be limited to the current annual figure of six million.

That will not fix the problem. He must go further: a timed entry system and evening opening hours would be a start. In London, where museums and galleries are under pressure to innovate due to shrinking state funding, this is now commonplace.

The Sistine Chapel’s other problems can be solved at a single stroke: by ending its use as a sacred place. That way the chapel can be admired by the world’s art lovers and shore up Vatican finances without causing any scandal. The process would be simple: the pope would issue a decree recognising the church’s new status and the Masses celebrated there would be moved elsewhere. For conclaves there would be no shortage of other venues. If Michelangelo frescoes are a requirement, the elections could take place in the splendid Pauline Chapel, which is slightly older than the Sistine Chapel and just across the hall.

The change may bring relief to papal masters of ceremonies. One contemporary critic of Michelangelo was the pope’s MC, Biagio da Cesena, who thought the nakedness of the figures in The Last Judgment was shameful. In revenge, Michelangelo painted his likeness into the features of Minos, a goat-eared demon. An end to Masses in the chapel would mean future MCs no longer having a predecessor staring out at them from hell.

Right now the Vatican Museums hardly seem poised for dramatic change. Paolucci, the director, and Mgr Paolo Nicolini, the administrative head, have been in their posts since the early days of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Pope Francis’s attention is elsewhere. But the Sistine Chapel is one of the only points of contact many people around the world have with the Catholic Church.

Francis is trying to reform Vatican finances because he sees the Church’s credibility being damaged by it. The present state of the Sistine Chapel is having the same effect – if only he could reform that too.