The night sky over Rome is like purple velvet, the street in front of the Vatican is deserted and the soaring doors that lead inside are sealed – the museum is most assuredly closed. But at precisely 7:00 pm, the jangle of keys from inside is heard and one of the massive wooden doors swings slowly open. Without saying a word, a museum guard whisks a small group of people inside and swiftly shuts the door behind them, lest less-entitled passersby ask what is going on.
Private Visit of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums
There is a clandestine feel to entering the Vatican Museums after closing time that never ceases to impress, no matter how many times one has done it. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to do an after-hours private visit of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel five times and it is a feeling like no other. As bucket list experiences go, this one tops them all: a private tour lasting two hours in the company of an expert English-speaking guide, 30 minutes of which can be spent in the incomparable Sistine Chapel.
The usual itinerary for this exclusive private visit includes the Upper Galleries (Gallery of Candelabra, Gallery of Tapestries and Hall of Maps) and the Raphael Rooms, finishing up in the Sistine Chapel. However, in reality it is the museum guards that decide — in advance or on a moment’s whim — which rooms to open, where participants can stand and for how long. Keys in hand, they walk ahead to open galleries and then lock the doors behind the group as it moves on. Certain guards are more accommodating than others; it all depends on what they feel like doing that day. The one promise is that everyone gets inside the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms: these are the masterpieces of Renaissance fresco painting that people pay so much to see.
Viewed without the shoulder-to-shoulder crush of tour groups and the background “music” of guards continually barking “no pictures, no pictures,” the Sistine Chapel seems so roomy and quiet! Even in a group of 50 people, the space seems to go on and on, not just lengthwise but also in height (the dimensions of the room — 131.98 feet long, 43.96 feet wide, and 67.91 feet high — are said to be copied from King Solomon’s great temple in Jerusalem). A state-of-the-art illumination system with more than 7,000 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) was recently installed to provide brighter lighting in the chapel. One effect of the new lights is to draw greater attention to the late 15th century frescoes by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino that line the side walls; their vivid, primary colors are a perfect foil for Michelangelo’s peerless ceiling above.
Michelangelo uses colors that are are startlingly intense, especially in the scenes he painted last, when he was rushing to meet Pope Julius II’s deadline. My favorites are the Ancestors of Christ over the windows who are dressed in gorgeous clothing tinted salmon pink, pale violet and acid green, and Jonah right above the altar who appears to be wearing a spandex body suit, 500 years before the material was even invented! The pure lapis lazuli background of the “Last Judgement” on the altar wall was more costly than gold, while the grimacing devils ferrying the damned souls to Hell are enough to cause nightmares.
Once inside the Sistine Chapel, the group can spread out to sit anywhere, walk anywhere and even take photos (no flash, please). There’s no way that the all-powerful guards will let you stretch out on the marble floor — this is still the pope’s private chapel, after all — but reclining on the wooden benches to gaze up at the ceiling is allowed. A VIP privilege that had previously been afforded to prominent political leaders and celebrities alone, can now be yours when you book Select Italy’s after-hours private visit of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.