At the end of 2022, I refused to renew my yearly pass to work as a guide in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.  “Why?” you ask.  Well, visiting the Vatican Museums and Sistine had become unpleasant.  Really unpleasant.  So, read on, if you’d like to know what you’re getting into.  And if you’d like to balance my opinionated and disgruntled blog with one written by a more diplomatic and level-headed guide, read Should You Visit the Vatican Museums?

Forget Sitting Down; But Do Buy Something!

When my adventures as a guide began a quarter of a century ago, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel were amazing places.  And I remember them with immense pleasure.  Halls adorned with art.  History exuding from every sculpture.  Interior decorating that would leave professional designers gasping…  And benches!

Yes, benches!  They now seem like a distant dream, like a senescent guide’s hallucination.  Yet I remember the relief of large families traveling with grandparents, harried mothers with tired children, enchanted visitors who simply wanted to sit a spell and absorb the grandeur of the Vatican Museums…  The benches at regular intervals made you feel welcomed.  As if the homeowner worried about you.

Attention K-Mart shoppers: Many gift-shops now stand where benches once were.  Forget the quality of your visit; the Direction is concerned with the quantity of your purchases!

“Is This Crowded?”

“Is this crowded?” has always been travelers very polite way of saying, “Why did I bother pre-purchasing tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, if this is the mayhem I get in return?”

First of all, be thankful that you can pre-purchase tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel!  (Well, you could once upon a time, as you’ll read below.)  Despite the vertiginous increase in tourism over the years, the Vatican Museums only adopted an electronic booking system toward 2005.  (I don’t remember the exact date and, strangely, google doesn’t remember either.)  Rumor had it that enterprising guards were selling VIP entrances to insider guides.  (And I can’t find any on-line confirmation of that rumor either, but it’s clearly not something that Vatican officials would brag about.)  And, according to hearsay, the Direction inaugurated its own official booking system to monetize on what several guards had started as a small racket.

The Real Vatican Museums

Now, you would assume that an electronic booking system would benefit the public.  Not really.  Pre-covid, having pre-purchased tickets simply meant that you stood in line with lots of frustrated people, who waved their pre-purchased tickets with overbooked timed entrances before blasé guards.  So, the booking system had simply split one line into two parts: one for travelers with pre-purchased tickets who often had to stand in line to access the Vatican Museums, and the other for people without pre-purchased tickets, who still hoped to get in.  And their hopes were accommodated.  So, both lines trudged heroically at different speeds toward an uncertain fate.

The picture I took of the Hall of Tapestries (that leads to the Sistine Chapel) will admittedly lose most photo competitions.  But it does capture the spacious and pleasurable conditions of a wing of the Museums on a random day in December, 2022.  Not.  Overbooking meant and means overcrowding, with all its concomitant risks.  This article from the Guardian paints an accurate picture of the hazards that visitors face in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.  They include fainting spells and panic attacks.  The perfect condition for art appreciation.

The Takeaway: Your Pre-purchased Tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel Does Not Ensure the Quality of Your Visit.

Surely, There’s VIP Access to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel?!

So, you’re dreaming of the optimal experience?  You see yourself and your family nearly alone in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, exploring Art and Beauty?  You see yourself strolling down an empty hall, adorned with frescoes and rich with history, as your five-star guide narrates one incredible anecdote after another.  And the Vatican Museums look like they do in this photo that I took.  Sure, I snapped it with my low-end android, and it shows.  But darn, there’s not a soul in the Gallery of Maps that leads from the Museums to the Sistine!

“So,” you observe, “if you’ve been in the Museums practically by yourself, there must be options?”  Well, of course there are!  If you want VIP treatment, write to the Office of Services and Public Relations and ask for VIP treatment.  3500 euro (in 2022) will buy you two hours in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in the evening– as long as there are 20 or fewer people in your group.  To that, add a standard entrance ticket for each participant.  A little too pricey?  Then be psychologically prepared to be people-extruded in the Vatican meat-packing plant!

VIP evening tour at Vatican Museums /Sistine Chapel

Your Private Guide Cannot Talk to You in the Sistine Chapel

In circa 2010, the Vatican Museums Direction dictated that guides could no longer speak in the Sistine Chapel.  It was an unexpected “180.”  Traditionally, guides lorded it over the Chapel and could talk to their visitors – even animatedly. What a thrill!  The beauty of being able to describe the chapel’s art, history, and stories — while in it!  My visitors and I could easily focus on it for hours…  (And that was the problem, as we will see.)

As a guide, it was also somewhat embarrassing to discuss the Chapel with my visitors.  Right next to us, I would watch the guards chew out unaccompanied tourists who whispered to one another.  But that’s what it was like before Dan Brown, mass tourism, and the Vatican Museums as “a destination.”

Why can your private guide no longer talk to you in the Sistine Chapel?  Allowing guides to explain the Chapel in the Chapel became an inefficient use of space and time.  So, “keep ’em moving” became the Vatican Museums’ new mantra.  Here’s a point in case: Many unaccompanied visitors have said to me, “We didn’t stay in the Sistine for long.  The guards told us we had to leave.”  I hate to break it to them: The guards will never tell you to leave.  But they will tell you to stand in the middle, not to stand on the left, to keep moving, etc.   And, if you’re polite and routinely follow instructions (like many Anglos do), you’ll find yourself directed out of the Chapel as quickly as you stumbled into it.

  Is the Sistine Chapel a Chapel or an Attraction?

I confess: I’m a stickler for coherence.  If the Sistine is a chapel, then visitors should be able to access it for free.  Like churches.  The faithful pray in church for free.  Meanwhile, tourists pay to access an attraction.  Not surprisingly, many churches in Florence are run as attractions.  You pay to see the art, possibly with a guide who will explain it to you, without any external distractions.

Using payment as our yardstick, could we say that the Sistine Chapel is an attraction?  Yes.  After all, you pay to visit it.  But as of the last several years, a priest routinely stands under Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and reminds you that you are in a chapel.  He’ll tell you in both English and Italian.  And it’s a tad comic because neither are his native language.  Then his strongly accented words of welcome fill the Chapel, as he enjoins visitors to pray to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Pray?  So, it’s a chapel.  I’m like, “Ok, I’ll pay or I’ll pray…  But you can’t have both, not in the same place!”

Silenzio, No Photo!

Here’s a silly aside about being silent in the Chapel: after silence was made mandatory for guides in the Sistine Chapel, every now and then, the guards would skin me alive a la’ Saint Bartholomew for talking briefly to my visitors.  But talking to other guides’ visitors was never a problem.  And I could even converse with other guides, as we waited for our visitors at the back of the Chapel.  Talking to the guards was acceptable too.  And some were quite chatty, when they were not yelling, “Silenzio!  No photo!”  (Isn’t yelling “Silence” to get silence a contradiction in terms?)  So, why the emphasis on silence?  Because that leads to “No photo!”  And that brings us to…

No Photo! No Video!

Okay, but why can’t you take photos?  I agree, seeing flashes go off continuously is annoying.  But what about photos without a flash?  Ah, I see.  The Vatican Museums’ Direction is eager to sell images of the Sistine Chapel.  And if you have doubts about the sort of income they generate, read this article from the New York Times from 1983.  Breviter, a Japanese television network donated over 3 million to the Chapel’s restoration.  In exchange, it held the copyright on the restored images for quite some time.  Long enough, I assume, to handsomely recoup its investment.

As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything.  Except temptation.”  And who, if not the Catholic Church, understands its power.  If the Direction dissuades you from taking photos, you may feel the need to buy a postcard.  Or a calendar.  The puzzle.  A book.  A pencil…  A mug?  A snow globe!

documents for the Vatican Museums
criminal record to work at Vatican Museums

 I’m Daniella, the Freelance Guide, not Boris the Spy!

This does not really impact your visit.  But it’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the way the Vatican Museums treats freelance guides.

From circa 2015, the Vatican Museums’ Direction has required that guides apply for a yearly Vatican Museums pass.  So, how difficult could that be, right?  Loaded question!  Let’s start with the background check.  That’s right, to work as a guide at the Vatican Museums, I had to go to the Questura (the head police station of Rome) to request certificates of a non-criminal record and no pending charges.  And I have posted photos of the last hard-earned trophies here.

I understand, shady types exist.  And some of the shadiest call the Vatican home.  But once I’ve demonstrated that my record is clean, can we get past this theological idea that humans are inherently flawed?  Do I really need to provide a background check every year?

Now, obtaining extracts of my non-criminal history is neither free nor easy. It represents a long half-day of Italian bureaucracy.  (Which is its own circle in Dante’s Inferno.)  The handful of euros I paid to the Italian State was affordable.  But the yearly pass to work “for free” in the Vatican Museums cost me 250 euro pre-covid.  250 euro for zero services, heaps of double standards, and unpleasant working conditions?  You know, I’m not asking for free drinks or a thai massage at every entrance.  I just want the guards not to snarl when greeted with a “buongiorno!”

The Lost Quote from Genesis: “And the Lord Said, ‘Let there be Tchotchkes.’”

Although I could have renewed my pass in 2021, I decided to take a year off.  Assuming that I had detoxed, I renewed it for 2022.  I felt fresh and ready to present the phenomenal and historic collection to curious visitors and art aficionados.  Wrong.  I made an unfortunate discovery on my first day back.  To exit the Museums, my visitors and I were corralled through a quarter mile of cafes, restaurants, drugstores, and collectibles that had not existed pre-2020.  I was disoriented.  Where did this quarter of a mile corridor come from?  My mind boggled.  It was like, “the Lord said, ‘Let there be tchotchkes.’  And He saw that a quarter-mile long gallery of merch was good.”

Both my visitors and I were stunned.  Footsore, we slogged toward the exit comparing sensations.  One suggested that it was like being in a mall.  Another replied, “No, it’s like being at those bazars in third world countries that get set up near ports where cruises dock.”  That night I woke up in a daze and thought, “No, it’s like an airport.  You know, when you have to walk by all those newsstands and eateries and bookshops and coffee shops to get to your gate – but without the international travel.”

A Bill of Rights for Visitors and Guides at the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel?

changing closing hours because they can!
sorry the vatican rethought its closing hours

Every tour in 2022 felt wrong.  Covid was still described as a threat, but the Museums were packed to the brim.  Wanted in Rome’s 2021 coverage of the situation is telling.  But covid wasn’t the real problem.  It was the lack of benches, the surly guards, and the word “silenzio” screamed repeatedly in the Sistine Chapel.  It was the number of visitors squeezed into narrow spaces.  The simple idea that a child who visited the Museums even with a five-star guide would probably only remember seeing rear ends and backpacks.  Yes, rear ends and backpacks.  Educational.

Other factors poisoned my vision of the Vatican Museums as well.  Factors that visitors would never perceive, like the yearly letter from the Vatican Museums’ Direction to guides.  It hammered on what we freelance guides were not supposed to do.  What our visitors were not supposed to do.  The Direction insisted on our cooperation; it laid down iron rules; and in exchange we guides got to work in an overcrowded zoo.  Yehaw!  The Wild Wild West Art History Tour!

And not just that.  Add the last-minute emails from the Vatican Museums’ Service and Public Relations Office.  “We rethought our official hours.  On x day, the Sistine Chapel will close early.”  Or, “For reasons we’re not disclosing, it will close from 1:30 to 3:30.”  Or, “Just because, the Museums will open an hour late.”  The Office could give you three weeks’ notice — or three days.  I recognize that I am absurdly service-oriented.  After all, I was born in the States.  My cultural imprinting tells me a ticket represents an institution’s promise to the customer/visitor who purchased it.  Not in this case!  Just for good measure, I’ve added several screen shots of the Public Relations Office’s emails regarding the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel’s varying hours and unexpected closings.

All Visitors Are Equal, but Visitors with Guides Are Sometimes More Equal…

Let’s go back to the 2022 Boardwalk of Tchotchkes.  It made my mind reel.  Had the Director had called in a Disney consultant?  But, more importantly, did I really have to walk that extra quarter-of-a-mile to get to the exit after every visit?  (2022 was also the year I discovered plantar fasciitis.)

Then I had a rude awakening/epiphany – if the two things can be combined.  I was on my way out with visitors one day, when I noticed a Vatican Museums’ guard sitting at a crossroads.  Behind him, the forbidden corridor that led directly to the exit.  To the left, the quarter-of-a-mile Disney gauntlet.  The guard’s stern gaze suggested that visitors were to prefer the open passage to the left.  I therefore screwed up my courage and asked very politely if my visitors and I could take the shortcut to the exit.  He agreed, moved aside, and shooed us through.  Meanwhile oblivious couples, elderly folks, pregnant women, people with undetectable medical conditions were sent for the quarter-mile slog.  I disliked my privilege.  It felt grimy.

And Finally…

The final straw was scalpers.  Sure, scalping is an age-old game.  And being philosophical, I have never gotten bent out of shape about people or travel agencies reselling tickets at inflated prices.  After all, the expression caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is as old as commerce itself.

And securing tickets through the official Vatican Museums’ website was relatively easy.  Tickets were made available 60 days in advance.  And until the summer of 2022, a desperate guide could scrounge up standard tickets for a last-minute request even up to a week before the date in question.  After the summer of 2022, you had to be quick: tickets could and did sell out several weeks in advance.

But toward the end of 2022, tickets sold out 59 days, 23 hours, and 55 minutes in advance.  Yup.  Every day.  Regularly.  To satisfy one traveler’s request, I went on-line at 11:59 p.m. on October 28th to book tickets for December 29th.  By the time the tickets appeared at midnight and I purchased the ones I needed, all the morning time slots for December 29th had sold out.  I assumed the afternoon entrances would be the next to go.  But I wasn’t staying awake to find out.

So, who was on-line at 12:03 a.m. on October 29th hustling for December 29th tickets?  69-year-old Nanna Taylor from Pensacola, Florida, who was planning the trip of her life?  I have my doubts.  But maybe she had pressed the wrong button multiple times and had bought all the standard entrance morning tickets for herself and her husband.  Or had international travelers become incredibly savvy?  Having been warned about the scarcity of tickets on travel sites, they sat poised before their computers, synced to Italy’s time zone, to buy their tickets.  Or would I be cynical to suggest that some big agencies with awesome bots were at work?  Apparently, the official Vatican website had not been designed to exclude this sort of hacking.  And, if the Vatican Museums’ Direction is aware of middlemen scalping tickets, then it is complaisant about the fact, to say the least.

Visiting the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, the Conclusion

As a private guide, I want my visitors to have an educative and enjoyable experience.  That just doesn’t happen at the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.  So, as far as I’m concerned, adieu and may God be with them!  And if I were visiting Rome, I might consider taking them off my list in favor of some other fabulous sites.

Good News, aka Give Credit where Credit Is Due!

At the end of 2023 — toward the beginning of December, to be precise — the Vatican Museums introduced a full-proof electronic booking system.  And that solved problems with scalping.  So, you can disregard my griping above.

But for the record, there’s really nothing new about the Museums’ booking system.  If that’s the case, what made the difference and why is scalping no longer an issue?  Well, because someone FINALLY ordered the Vatican Museums’ guards to check the names of ticket-holders printed on tickets against photo IDs.  Now, wasn’t that simple?

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