A night to forget at Vatican Museums

Visitors walk on the spiral staircase at the Vatican Museums (CNS)

A couple of years ago I wrote about what I considered were the shortcomings in the management of the Vatican Museums, in particular its very restricted opening hours, which compare less than favourably to the British Museum, the Louvre and the Capitoline Museums in Rome. I have recently just been back to the Vatican Museums and made use of their latest initiative, their Friday night opening. What follows may be of interest to other visitors to Rome.

One can book tickets for the evening visit online, and the website is fairly easy to use. There is one minor catch. Each ticket costs €16and there is a €4 booking fee. This fee is not for each booking, but for each ticket: so in practice each ticket is €20.

When one arrives at the main entrance at 7pm, hoping that one has avoided the queues, one is confronted by a huge mob of people all intent on entry. The booking is timed, and a functionary of the Museums did come out and call us in, rescuing us from the crowd. Then, once inside, one queues, not for very long, in order to hand in one’s internet receipt in return for tickets. The instructions on the website stress that the tickets are not transferable, and that each person needs to bring an identity document: as it turned out, no one checked.

If one was hoping for a less crowded museum, the Museums were as crowded as they ever were in any of my twenty or thirty previous visits. The sign posting is pretty damn poor, but luckily I know my way around. The first disappointment was that the Pinacoteca (the picture gallery) was closed, because, I was told, “it only opens in the morning”. That was a considerable blow, given that it houses three Raphaels, including The Transfiguration, as well as the sublime fresco fragments from the Dodici Apostoli, not to mention Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of George IV.

Thwarted there, one made for one’s next port of call, the Bracchio Nuovo, which houses the Augustus of Prima Porta, one of the greatest Roman (as opposed to Roman copies of Greek) sculptures. That too was closed. Why? Then it was on to the Belvedere, where two very important sculptures, the Hermes and the Boxers of Canova were not on display. Again, why?

The monumental sculptures in the Sala Rotonda might have looked good in the shadowy half-light, but one would have liked to have seen them in closer detail. As for the Borgia Apartment, this was only half-closed, or half-open, but its chief glory, its ceiling decorations, were completely invisible, given that the lighting was so poor. In the Stanze of Raphael, this does not matter so much, as they are dimly lit even in the day, as is the Sistine Chapel, but not to see the finely detailed Pinturicchio ceilings in the Borgia Apartment, was very disappointing indeed.

The evening opening of the Vatican Museums, I conclude, caters not for those who want to see the breadth and depth of the collections, but those who really are only intent on rushing along the corridors to the Sistine Chapel and back. At €20 a head, it does not represent value for money. Nor is it a good advertisement for the Catholic Church. Once again, we must ask the question: what exactly is the management playing at?


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