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Visiting the Sistine Chapel is one of the must do’s for any visit to Rome. Unfortunately it is usually crowded, particularly from Easter to November. Moira McCrossan found a tour company that promised to avoid the crowds and went to investigate.


St Peter's Basilica, Rome

We arrived at the offices of italywithus bright and early as directed, full of excitement at the promised tour – early entry to the Vatican museums and in particular to the Sistine Chapel, before it opens to the general public. Our guide, J was the best. He gave us names, dates, anecdotes and insights into the politics of the times, all seamlessly woven into a fascinating tale.  We shared our tour with a couple from Florida and none of us asked a question that J couldn’t answer, his knowledge seemed to be encyclopaedic.


J Tour Guide Italywithus

.When we entered the Sistine Chapel, we were almost alone as only a limited number of early bookings are accepted. There were a couple of guards and one other small group. I have visited the Sistine Chapel before and was not disappointed, even though it was packed with visitors, but to see it almost empty was a new experience.

The classical proportions of the space, the sweep of beautiful frescoed gold and silver curtains along the walls and perfect views of all the pictures without obstruction was truly awe inspiring. For a few minutes we just sat in silence gazing around us at the whole magnificent chamber. It feels intimate compared to the great basilicas and the riot of colour everywhere draws the walls in.

Yet at the same time, the vast grandeur of Michelangelo’s great wall of the last judgement and the tour de force that is the ceiling are unmatched in any basilica. Then for the next two hours J told us all about it, moving us to the best viewing points for each picture and particularly for the ceiling, pointing out the dark parts of the pictures left unrestored, detailing for us the political manoeuvrings between Rome and Florence, explaining the hidden messages some less than flattering to certain individuals, showing us where the stove is placed when the chapel is used for papal elections and alerting us to the fact that the locked door to the adjoining room was about to be opened so that we could catch a glimpse of it.


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We were able to see the frescoes around the walls as linked sequences showing, on one side, episodes from the life of Moses and on the other similar images of the life of Jesus. J explained to us the political significance to Pope Sixtus IV of showing the historical roots of the papacy right back to Jesus and Saint Peter and beyond to Moses. This was reinforced by the portraits of the early popes, executed by the same artists. The artists Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Roselli and Signorelli were all from Florence, which was the centre of artistic endeavour in Italy at the time. They were engaged as part of the reconciliation between Lorenzo de Medici and the pope and although they were paid they were not willing participants. The frescoes are full of portraits of real people, including the artists themselves, which J pointed out to us. There were another four of these frescoes but two were covered by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and the other two were lost when the back wall of the chapel collapsed in the 16th century. They were replaced but by inferior works; even the curtains have no depth or flow to them.


From the Sistine chapel, he guided us through the vast luminous corridors of the Vatican museums, with their marble floors and frescoed walls.

Ceiling in Vatican Museum

I hadn’t realised before that the decoration of the ceilings is in fact all painted, an amazing trompe l’oeuil of ornate plasterwork and brilliant colour. Particularly fascinating is the Galleria delle carte geografiche, a corridor  of maps of Italy, painted in the 16th century, by Ignazio Danti for Pope Gregory XIII.


We spent some time identifying places we’d visited, including Capena, on the ancient maps.

Map in Vatican Museum

The sheer opulence and magnificence of the place is stunning, particularly when it is almost empty of visitors. There must be more renaissance great masters in the twenty eight rooms of the Vatican pinacoteca (art gallery) than anywhere else in the world. I also loved the little exhibits of humbler folk, like the 3rd century, hand-painted notice from a wall establishing Aurelia Cyriace’s property rights. J steered us through the highlights of the seven Museums of the Vatican in just under 4 hours, which passed in a flash. As we left, through the new and very grand entrance hall, he explained the geography of the museums, using the detailed model in the hall. Finally he took us over to a corner to find the lift, which is the grandest that I have ever been in.

St Peter's Basilica, Rome, interior

After the grand tour of the museums, J accompanied us to St Peter’s, pointing out the open window’s of the Pope’s apartments on the way. Again we were astonished at J’s knowledge. He had endless facts and dates and stories at his fingertips. He has actually studied original documents in the Vatican library and he possesses the rare gift of bringing the past to life for others. We felt as though we had spent a morning time-travelling through renaissance Rome, meeting all the characters, made real to us through their own words and actions or those of their friends and enemies.

St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Rome









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