The important thing holder of the Sistine Chapel opens after locking
VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Sistine Chapel reopened to the public last week for the first time since the coronavirus shut down in November. For Gianni Crea, however, the doors to Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes were never really closed.
Crea is the “clavigero” of the Vatican Museums, the main key guardian whose work begins at 5am every morning. He opens the doors and turns on the light through 7 kilometers (4 1/2 miles) of one of the world’s largest collections of art and antiques.
The Associated Press tracked Crea on his rounds on the first day the museum reopened to the public and escorted him before dawn in the “bunker” on the first floor, where the 2,797 keys to the Vatican’s treasures are kept overnight in wall safes . As the keys dangled and jingled from huge key rings that he wears around his wrist, Crea snaked through the map gallery, past the famous marble statue “Laocoön and his sons” and finally to the Sistine Chapel.
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There, by a tiny wooden door, Crea pulled a white envelope from his suit pocket, tore it open, and pulled out a small silver brass key.
With a small flashlight he put the key in the keyhole, turned it gently and creaked the door to reveal the still dark chapel where popes are made during the secret ceremonies that bear her name – “Conclave” – of the crucial role that keys play in them. Cardinals are essentially “locked up with a key” in the Sistine Chapel and the nearby Vatican Hotel for the duration of the ceremonial vote to elect a new Pope.
For this reason, the key of the Sistine Chapel is of particular importance and is treated with its own protocol: after the room has been closed for the day on which the last visitor leaves, the key is put back in a new white envelope, sealed, stamped and replaces it in the bunker wall safe, the coming and going of which is properly recorded in a thick register book.
Crea fondly remembers the day on which, three years after his 23-year service, he was finally allowed to open the door to the Sistine Chapel on his own. The privilege in the two decades since has given him the opportunity to visit Michelangelo’s “Last Temptation” and scenes from the New Testament and the Old all alone in the empty silence of dawn.
“All statues, all rooms have a unique story, but of course the Sistine Chapel always gives you a special emotion,” said Crea.
Although the public was locked out of the Vatican Museums for 88 days, Crea and his team of 10 key custodians continued their routine of opening and closing doors as the exhibition spaces had to be cleaned, dusted, and maintained by a small army of museum workers. Restorers took the opportunity to carry out maintenance work that would otherwise be impossible if the nearly 7 million annual visitors passed the museums during a normal year.
But 2020 was anything but normal. Only around 1.3 million visitors came to arrange visits to Italy’s two COVID-19 lockdowns. To maintain socially distant protocols, up to 400 people can now be admitted every 30 minutes, with timed tickets purchased online in advance.
Crea, who admits he sometimes misplaces his own house keys, will make sure the doors are open to them.
“It is a unique emotion, an incredible privilege for me and my colleagues to have the opportunity to show visitors from all over the world these extraordinary works of art that are part of our history,” he said.
Nicole Winfield helped.
Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/coronavirus-pandemic.
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