There’s only one way to see the Sistine Chapel. And that’s alone. Yes. Forget the muted illumination, almost unbearable Roman heat, packed crowds and time limits by day. Join an exclusive after hours tour of the Vatican Museums when they’re virtually empty and you’ll get to experience Michelangelo’s masterpieces in all their glory as only Presidents and Princesses do, says UV editor Ramsay Short.
Francesco, the guard of fake watches our small tour group, is giving me the evils. I think it’s because I’m surreptitiously trying to take iPhone snaps of The Creation of Adam – lit perfectly by 7,000 new LEDs placed high up on the chapel’s walls – when he’s categorically told me not to.
Don’t be so stuffy I think. I’m in the epic Sistine Chapel with only Francesco, a guide and three other souls – practically alone with Michelangelo’s masterpieces. Sure there are rules, but this is a once in a lifetime thing.
Still, gazing upwards I quickly realise photographs are pointless and pocket the phone. The Last Judgement cannot be digitally reproduced, there’s no magic in the Creation of Adam on a screen – Michelangelo’s figures are dynamic, alive, and you can only truly experience that in the flesh.
Despite being a regular Roman pilgrim I’ve never visited the Vatican Museums. The queues outside – upwards of 17,000 visitors a day – and the crowds inside, hold no attraction. There’s no thrill, no moments for sublime contemplation with security hurrying you along the corridors of priceless antiquities, frescoes and tapestries in order to make way for the next tourist pressed up behind you. I’d rather spend the €16 entrance fee on a good bowl of pasta all’amatriciana and a cold Peroni.
This though, an out of hours, front-row, private guided tour of the one of the world’s greatest works of art, as well as access to normally off-limits sections of the museums (Bramante’s jaw-dropping spiral staircase, Pope Nicholas V’s chapel in the Raphael rooms), is worth hefty price tag. This is the way to see the Vatican Museums. No queues, no people and the Sistine Chapel for a full 30-minutes – something normally reserved for royals or celebrities, isn’t just the highlight of any Rome trip. It’s a highlight of life, full stop.
And the new tech – high spec lighting and air conditioning – introduced to the chapel in 2014 just adds to the experience. The LEDs balanced on a gilded rail-like structure not only make everything brighter but also protect the frescoes by using up to 90% less electricity than before. Michelangelo’s nudes seem almost three-dimensional, the colours vivid and pure. The air-conditioning system regulates the temperature and humidity in the chapel dependent on the number of people, keeping visitors comfortable and filtering out the dust dragged in and carbon monoxide exhaled.
I wander over to a corner of the chapel near the altar and look up at the ceiling with awe. I take out my phone to check the time but suddenly Francesco’s running up behind me. I take a selfie just for the fun of it with me, Michelangelo and Francesco waving his hands and mouthing, “No pictures.”
HOW TO: UltraVilla experts provide a range of exclusive and private premium experiences. Check out Homebase Abroad, Unique Properties and Events and The Best In Italy for the best in luxury Italian properties and access to personal after hours tours at some of Italy’s most beloved museums, including the Vatican Museums in Rome and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
WHERE TO STAY IN ROME: Try the stunning and gloriously-designed Via dei Prefetti in Rome’s Centro Storico.