At 500 years old (from the time of its completion), the Sistine Chapel may not be visited by as many tourists as it has in the past. This comes as the Vatican has suggested for the first time that it could consider putting a cap on the number of people who can tour the historic structure.
The famous frescoes of Michelangelo have been described as one of the most amazing sights in the world. The artwork tells some of the most powerful stories from the Old Testament, and the depiction of God reaching to give life to Adam is at the centre of the work and one of the best known images in Western art. However, this room has become a victim of its own wonder and fame, attracting too many visitors.
The Vatican says that some 20,000 tourists enter the Sistine Chapel every day, which mounts to over five million every year. In an Italian newspaper, literary critic Pietro Citati slammed authorities for allowing such large numbers of tourists inside, calling it an “unimaginable disaster” and saying that no-one can really see anything. He also told the BBC that the Sistine Chapel was full of people that were packed in tightly, and it was terrible. The endless humid human wall could damage the frescoes, he warned.
It’s argued that the Sistine Chapel should be easily accessible for any pilgrim in Rome, and an official said recently that it would be unthinkable to limit access to see the room. However, Citati argues that this is really about money. This is because the Catholic Church makes a lot of money off tourists wanting to visit the Chapel and other museums. Visitors pay over €15 per ticket, while those who want to avoid the crowds are paying near €220 for private tours – which includes just ten people.
In response to Citati’s criticism, Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci recognised that there’s a big problem. He says the Catholic Church’s whole doctrine was set out in the Sistine Chapel’s images. He wants everyone who visits the city to be able to appreciate the symbolism. However, he accepts that it’s not easy to appreciate the work when the room is overcrowded. He says it gets too noisy, confusing and hard to understand. It’s uncomfortable when there are too many people, while this also creates a problem for the frescoes to be preserved.
Paolucci says plans for the ventilation to be improved and the threat of humidity to be countered in the Sistine Chapel will be revealed soon. However, steps may need to be taken to limit the number of people allowed in. So far, they have tried to avoid this, as the room is for those who visit the Vatican as a place of art and for spiritual and religious reasons.
This isn’t the first time that the Vatican has been criticised for allowing so many people inside the Sistine Chapel. Critic Robert Hughes, shortly before his death, recalled reading about a visit to the Chapel 200 years ago by German writer Goethe. The Chapel was a place for people to be alone with the art in that time, but this is more of a fantasy today. Mass tourism, he added, has turned a contemplative pleasure into more of a rugby scrum.