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One of a very few...

Posted by Mary-Frances Walsh on 12/12/2014
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Art Travel, Europe, Italy, Rome, Vatican, St Peters Basilica, Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

sistine chapel girlWe received this charming photo from the grandparent of a child who had visited the Sistine Chapel on a Tauck after-hours Vatican tour visit with her family. Absorbed in the moment, she is taking in Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes above, while listening to Tauck’s local guide share their stories. To me, her image portrays what it means to be “present” in the magic of a special place. For Arthur Tauck, her image posed this question: “Will she ever understand how special it is to be alone in such a sacred place? She is one of a very few.”

Tauck’s after-hours visits to the Vatican Museums take place in Vatican City, a tiny urban enclave surrounded entirely by the city of Rome. Home to about 800 people (mostly diplomatic personnel – and the Pope since the late 14th century), Vatican City is one of the world’s smallest sovereign states. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

st peters piazzaIts massive square, the elliptical St. Peter’s Piazza, was re-designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor-architect who dazzled Rome’s art world in the 17th century. The square is bordered on two sides by curving colonnades topped with 140 statues of religious figures – all created by Bernini and his students. At its center towers an Egyptian obelisk, said to have been moved to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD. Able to accommodate tens of thousands, the piazza is one of the world’s great public spaces and leads directly to St. Peter’s Basilica.

pieta baldachin 2Italy’s largest church, St. Peter’s Basilica is known for its masterful monuments. They include Michelangelo’s Pietà (sculpted at the age of 25) and his vast dome (one of the tallest in the world), as well as Bernini’s baldachin, the 60-foot-high cast-bronze canopy above the altar. Lavishly decorated, the basilica was also built to accommodate crowds that number in the thousands. Both the square and the church are freely accessible to the public.

Thousands come here to visit the Vatican Museums, a vast complex of galleries founded in the early 16th century. Expanded over the centuries by private donors and individual popes, the museums feature thousands of works of art and are considered to be among the world’s greatest collections. There are Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, Roman antiquities, Greek vases, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance paintings by Raphael, Giotto, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, van Dyck, Leonardo da Vinci and more, thousands of classical statues, ancient maps, chandeliers and candelabras, and mosaics.

The museums’ pièce de résistance, the Sistine Chapel, is the final room entered by visitors. Inside, the ceiling rises some 67+ feet above the floor, which means looking up at the height of a six-story building to take in Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes. He painted them while standing up on wall-mounted scaffolding of his own design. This meant having to crane his neck and shoulders to look up at the ceiling from a few inches away, making the four years of their creation, 1508 to 1512, very demanding ones.

Michelangelo was at first reluctant to accept the commission to paint the chapel ceiling, as he thought of himself as a sculptor rather than a painter. He chose the subject matter of his frescoes on his own, and some would say that he incorporated the power of his sculptures in the painted images. But they were not the images of the 12 Apostles that Pope Julius II originally had in mind.

sistine chapel

Instead, Michelangelo chose to portray the stories of the Creation of Heaven and Earth, the Creation of Adam and Eve, their Fall from Grace, and the story of Noah and the Great Flood – stories from the book of Genesis. In nine central panels, completed when Michelangelo was in his 30s, he ingeniously painted ideally beautiful, strong and heroic figures, as well as moldings and architectural elements that appear to be two-dimensional. All of his sketches were done by hand and they required him to master the art of perspective – to make the figures appear correctly (on curved ceilings) when viewed from the floor below. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes remain among the most famous images in Western art.

giudizio universale2Then, some 25 years after the ceiling frescoes were completed, Michelangelo was brought back to the Sistine Chapel (this time by Pope Clement VII) to paint again. Here on the wall behind the altar, in his Giudizio Universale, he painted scenes of God’s final judgment of humanity. Figures rise to heaven or descend to hell, depending on their fate.

Five million visitors per year, and in summer as many as 20,000 people per day, visit the Sistine Chapel. So it is indeed a very special experience to experience this magical place after-hours, when the crowds have gone.

sistine guide 2I spoke with Mike McGarry, a Tauck employee who had visited the Sistine Chapel on his own in 2001 and again on an after-hours visit this October. He describes his first visit as a “blurred memory” of passing through the museum galleries and suddenly finding himself in the Sistine Chapel, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow visitors. Talking and taking photos were prohibited. “This time, I was able to savor the whole thing – like the door that locks when the College of Cardinals occupies the Sistine Chapel where they gather to elect a new pope. I don’t even remember seeing it the first time around.”

Mike appreciated being knowledgeably directed by Tauck’s local guide through the museum’s galleries – focusing on major works that otherwise might have been missed. “Our guide was fantastic; he had been taking Tauck visitors through these galleries and the Sistine Chapel for 20+ years. His stories brought it all to life. I didn’t realize the importance of Michelangelo to the Renaissance art world, and that he had lived into his 90s at a time when his contemporaries were living only to their 30s. It awed me.”


Many others have shared similar reactions, for example:

I was astounded that we could break the no-talking, no-photos rules in the Sistine Chapel. Having a knowledgeable guide stand next to you and interpret the ceiling, panel by panel, with no crowds or pressure to move along quickly… Is there a shorthand classification for this experience? – Arnie Weissmann, Editor in Chief, Travel Weekly

The private tour of the Vatican Museum / Sistine Chapel… was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was crying and speechless. – Tauck Traveler Review

I had never traveled to Italy so I had many (most memorable moments). The private tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel would definitely be at the top of my list. – Tauck Traveler Review

Look into the [Sistine Chapel’s] history and Michelangelo's life before you go. We tour members were the only people in the room! We sat on ancient wooden benches running along the side walls and just took in the wonder and awe of this famous place. We were not rushed at all. Our private guide was incredibly informed and added so much. – Tauck Traveler Review

The absolute highlight of our tour was visiting the Vatican after closing hours, where we really had time to appreciate all the artwork as explained by the local guide. This feature of the tour was worth the whole trip. – Tauck Traveler Review


After-hours visits to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are a Tauck Exclusive, available on the tours listed below that visit Italy. It is essential to note, that while Tauck works hard to secure an after-hours visit on every departure of these tours, the availability of after-hours visits is in the hands of a higher authority – the Vatican. On the rare dates when the Vatican cannot accommodate our groups, we make every attempt to secure a guided visit early in the day, ahead of the crowds.

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