I met Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There he pointed out to me why the Jesus of The Last Judgment was the best part of the whole Chapel, all of which was of course “bellissima”: “It’s in the way he’s holding up his hand – he’s giving us a special sort of greeting”, he said.
A small, curly-haired boy of about six, Michelangelo was paying his first visit to the Vatican Museums, or the “Michelangelo Museum”, as he called it. He said that he was happy to be there at last, because, as his mother explained, it is usually too crowded and hot for the family to make the trip. But this evening was an opportunity to visit it without the usual inconveniences of a tourist-packed museum, for the first ever nighttime opening of the Vatican Museums in their five-century-long history.
It was a night to give the Museums back to the people of Rome, according to Prof. Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums. And indeed many Italian families with children, as well as other Romans and pilgrims from all walks of life, attended the historic event on Friday evening, 24 July.
Mothers explained the paintings to their little ones whilst elderly couples strolled along, taking it all in. Many paused at the arched windows to admire the view of the subtly illuminated gardens and of St Peter’s dome at dusk. One woman enjoying the evening breeze at a large window even removed her heels, in a simple gesture that hinted at the true sense of the evening – to make the Romans feel at home amid their own city’s world-renowned cultural heritage.
Paolucci inaugurated the evening by accompanying Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, newly appointed General Secretary of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Mauro Cutrufo, Vice-Mayor of Rome, through the first leg of the tour. The Director proudly pointed out the highlights to his special guests, inviting them to look more closely and even encouraging them to touch certain statues.
Visitors were offered a special itinerary that included the Octagonal Court, the Upper Galleries of the Vatican Museums – displaying Candelabras, Tapestries and Maps – the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael rooms), the Sistine Chapel and the Galleries of the Apostolic Library.
That evening, one entered the Octagonal Court to strains of Renaissance dance music played on authentic wooden instruments from the same period. In their playful renditions – resounding throughout the courtyard against the basso continuo of the fountain’s rushing water – the two musicians, Tullio Visioli and Fabio Refrigeri, recreated the atmosphere of the Papal Courts of the past. It was in this evocative setting that Prof. Paolucci commented to Archbishop Viganò on the beauty of the “museographic composition – embracing sky, statues and music”.
Inside, the sculpted detail of the men and women immortalized in marble emerged with new clarity in the marked shadows. Their faces, lining the Museum’s impressive corridors, seemed to take on an almost suspicious air in the evening light, as if to wonder what the visitors were doing there after hours.
There was in fact something about walking through the halls in semi-darkness that almost felt like sneaking around in a secret, forbidden place. Paolucci had indeed wanted to let the public in on this “secret” for some years now, so as to make them aware of the immense beauty of the “culture on their doorstep”, he said.
“It often happens that citizens of cities like Paris, Rome and Florence feel deprived of their museums”, said Paolucci. There has been a worldwide movement to make the museums of these famed cities more readily accessible for their respective citizens, he explained.
The response was overwhelming. Over 2,600 people entered the Museums in the first 40 minutes. Those who bought tickets online beforehand numbered about 4,000, and more than 3,000 reservations were booked through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, which had joined in the initiative.
The prospect of opening the Museums in the evening is also practical, as explained Fr Bruno Silvestrini, an Augustinian friar and parish priest of St Anna’s Church which stands just inside the Vatican City walls. “For all those who work, it’s a chance to be able to see the Museums peacefully and in new colours”, he said, having been pulled momentarily from his animated explanation of the surrounding artwork to a group of his colleagues from the Vatican. “This is so beautiful, especially during the summer period, when the light of dusk is still streaming in”, he said. “Everything is illuminated in a different way; it allows the visitor to discover these works of art in a new light. I think that it must definitely be repeated”.
Indeed the common sentiment at Friday’s event was the hope that it would continue in the future, and Paolucci expressed every intention of making it a regular occurrence from this September onwards. Plans are also underway for similar events to take place throughout the city of Rome to include weekend nighttime openings of sites such as the Colosseum, the Forums, the Capitoline Museums and the Ara Pacis Museum.
Mr Enzo Mattina was quick to point out however that, more than these, the Vatican Museums are what draw visitors to contemplate the religious elements of Roman culture. Originally from Naples but a resident of Rome for about 40 years, the elderly Mattina could be found that night strolling arm in arm with his sister, Elena.
“We were captivated”, he said of the guided tour given by the Museums that they had taken. “Italians travel around the world, but they also need to realize what’s sitting right here in front of them”, he continued. “Trying to speak about the art in the Museums would be ridiculous. No description would suffice. There are no words”.
Thus the historic nighttime opening resulted in what might even be called an indescribably memorable evening for visitors of all ages. As the end drew near, Paolucci, now free of the press, took in the scene of enchanted visitors on an adjoining candlelit terrace. From it the imposing, illuminated cupola of St Peter’s – yet another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces – glowed like a moon over water.
Perhaps the great artist’s legacy will inspire another. Because little Michelangelo told me when we met: “My teacher said that I’m very good at drawing and that I too could become an artist someday”.
“Do you think you’ll be remembered in the same way this Michelangelo is now?” I asked as we gazed up at The Creation of Adam. He responded confidently and thoughtfully: “Yes, I really think so!”.
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