Gianni Crea, Principal Keeper of the Keys, Vatican Museums — Photo courtesy of © Copyright – Governatorato SCV – Direzione dei Musei.
With over 5 million visitors each year, the Vatican is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. For this reason, it is also one of the busiest and can be difficult to fully explore and appreciate.
But imagine being able to stand in the Sistine Chapel and take your time admiring the genius of Michelangelo with only a few other people doing the same. In fact, what if you could actually help the head clavigero – the keeper of the keys – unlock the doors to the whole operation early in the morning before the audience descends?
GetYourGuide, the popular travel experience platform, has created an exclusive bucket list experience called Turning On the Lights at the Vatican Museums that gives you the opportunity to do just that. What makes it superior to similar offerings is that 1) it’s free and 2) you’re accompanied by Gianni Crea, who has held the keys to the Vatican Museums for 25 years.
With 2,797 keys to track, that’s a huge responsibility – and he takes it very seriously. Crea, who oversees 10 other clavigeri, can recognize each key on sight and tell you exactly which door it opens.
Chief caretaker Gianni Crea at work — Photo courtesy of © Copyright – Governatorato SCV – Direzione dei Musei.
I was able to join him and two couples who had won tickets through GetYourGuide and, although I had been to the Vatican twice before, it was like seeing it for the first time. In fact, for the most part I was.
We gathered before the sun even rose and at 6 o’clock sharp we were welcomed inside, where we met Crea who, with bright eyes, proudly brandished the tools of her trade: bunches of keys giants. Many, many keys. When he showed us the envelope containing the only key in the world that opens the Sistine Chapel, I was convinced that Crea must be one of the few people in the world who never loses his keys.
Each evening, this key is returned in a sealed envelope, signed and countersigned by the caretaker and management before being stored in its own safe. If it was my responsibility, I don’t think I would ever sleep.
This envelope contains the only key to the Sistine Chapel — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
One by one, we each had the chance to unlock the doors and turn on the lights as we walked through the beautiful and oh-so-quiet museum, inserting (and sometimes fumbling) keys and flipping switches. Each key was solemnly handed over and accepted with dizzying anticipation of what lay behind the specific door it would open.
It was impossible not to breathe a little when the Gallery of Maps – dark when we arrived – revealed itself in all its illuminated glory or when Crea invited us to stand behind Laocoön, one of the most famous ancient sculptures in the world, to close a story he told us by revealing a surprise that most people will never see. (Sorry, that’s a secret we just can’t reveal.)
You’ll never guess what’s behind this famous statue — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
And that wasn’t the only treasure we had exclusive access to. Crea led us to Bramante’s original spiral staircase, an architectural marvel when it was built in 1505 and just as impressive today. Prohibited to the general public as too narrow to accommodate 20,000 visitors a day, it offers panoramic views that are topped only by those from the Nicchione Terrace above Pinecone Court. Crea’s “favorite spot”, it offers spectacular views of the Vatican Gardens, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and seemingly all of Rome. It’s easy to see why he likes spending time up there.
But the highlight of the trip, the room that everyone secretly – and some not so secretly – wanted to be the one to open was the Sistine Chapel. We approached as if we had just reached Oz, and when Crea pulled out the envelope to reveal the key, he decided to have a little fun with us and place it among all the others. Whoever could choose the right key would be the one who would open the door.
There are 2,797 keys that open all the doors of the Vatican Museums — Photo courtesy of © Copyright – Governatorato SCV – Direzione dei Musei.
The amateur clavigero walked up the stairs, slowly unlocked the door and I swear you could hear the angels singing. There was an air of hushed reverence as we entered the Sistine Chapel, smiling at our stupid luck and trying to stay present. After all, we were alone with Michelangelo’s masterpieces.
I reveled in the privilege of being able to really look up at that iconic ceiling, to think about what I was seeing without being told to hurry. Last time I went I was pushed by the crowd and reminded not to take pictures. This time I didn’t have to hear anyone’s voice and was able to fully immerse myself in the incredible beauty that surrounds me.
We spent quite a bit of time in the Sistine Chapel, each wrapped up in our own thoughts and absorbing whatever we individually needed. It was, in its own way, a religious experience – and that’s why Crea loves leading these tours.
Imagine discovering the Vatican Museums without the crowds — Photo courtesy of © Copyright – Governatorato SCV – Direzione dei Musei.
“You don’t have to be religious at all to fall in love with the Vatican Museums,” he told me, through a translator. “Art is so powerful and so unifying that it is impossible not to be moved by what you see and feel here. There’s nothing quite like watching people’s faces as they open doors and open their minds.
GetYourGuide will be offering free tickets to turn on the lights at the Vatican Museums on certain dates on a first-come, first-served basis, and you’ll want to check their website for announcements.
While this once-in-a-lifetime experience is just business as usual for Crea, he swears the job never gets old. “There is always something new to learn from these iconic historical figures and these stunning works of art and architecture,” he admits. “I wonder how it was possible to create all this beauty so many centuries ago. It’s a mystery to me. I still can’t unlock that one.