The management of the Vatican needs to catch up with the world

Compared to other tourist attractions, the Vatican is badly-run Photo: Pier Paolo Cito/AP/Press Association Images

Sunday’s Observer carried no less than two articles about the Vatican in its foreign news section. The first deals with the much heralded trial of the Pope’s butler, which is no more interesting than any other trial to do with domestic pilfering. Among the things that the accused has confessed to taking, though, is a sixteenth century copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, which he lifted from the Pope’s desk. One would like to know what it was doing on the Pope’s desk in the first place. Was it a present? After all, what do you give the Pontiff for his birthday? Is the Pope a bibliophile? Did Paolo Gabriele think that it was valuable, or that no one would notice its absence?

But more to the point was the following article, culled from the Italian press, about overcrowding in the Sistine Chapel.  You can read the original complaint, in Italian, here.  This is a matter that deserves comment.

The Sistine Chapel has long been one of the main tourist attractions of Rome. It is the one thing that everyone wants to see. When I lived in Rome, I frequently showed visitors around, and despite all I told them about the terrible queues and the long walk, few were to be put off. The Vatican Museums (please note the plural) represent a very fine collection of antiquities, but most of these are ignored by the tourists, who enter the Museums at the entrance near the Ottaviano tube station, and then charge down long corridors to get to the Chapel – and then make the very congested way back through the long galleries of the Papal library. In their hurry to get to the Chapel they usually ignore the Egyptian Museum, the Etruscan Museum, the Bracchio Nuovo (which contains some marvellous sculpture) the Borgia Apartment (with its ceiling decorations by Pinturicchio) and the undercroft of the Chapel itself, which contains the modern art collection brought together by Paul VI (which includes at least one Francis Bacon), as well as the picture gallery, which contains three Raphaels.

So not only do those wanting to see the Chapel have to make this long walk, they also get in the way of the people wanting to see the other things the Museums have to offer. Would it not be better to separate the Chapel from the rest of the Museums? After all, one suspects that most of the people visiting the Museums are there only for the Chapel.

If that cannot be done (and one fails to see why it can’t) why can’t the Vatican Museums open for a little longer, which might well reduce overcrowding? Have a look at the opening hours, from the Museums’ own website.  It shuts at 6pm, but “exit from the rooms half an hour before closing time”. (It does not say when the last tickets go on sale.) The Museums open on the last Sunday of the month, only; on other Sundays they are shut, as well as on feast days – and the Vatican has a lot of feast days. There is no late evening opening.

For purposes of comparison , look at the opening hours of the Louvre in Paris.  It is shut one day a week, on Tuesdays, but it does have late night openings on two evenings a week. And it shuts for far fewer public holidays. The British Museum does without a weekly day off, and has one late opening a week. It is closed four days a year.  Incidentally, the Vatican Museums close for twelve days a year apart from Sundays.

Nor is this not an Italian thing, because the Capitoline Museums, which are of tremendous interest incidentally, close for only three days a year, and have longer opening hours than the Vatican Museums. 

Never mind the butler, and talk of the Vatican not being fir for purpose; the sad truth of the matter is that the management of the Vatican Museums needs to pull its socks up, and catch up with the rest of the world. Fast.