Vatican guide: A private tour of the Sistine Chapel

A private tour of the Sistine Chapel, and other, stranger Vatican wonders.

The Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel. Photograph by GianniG46 via Wikipedia.

The Vatican Palace has been one of Rome’s great tourist attractions since the 18th century, when the popes opened up their private art collections to connoisseurs on the Grand Tour. Even the Marquis de Sade couldn’t resist. Sade, whose rabid pornographic novels would give birth to the term “sadism,” was given a VIP visit in 1775 by his friend the Cardinal de Bernis, a libertine French cleric who was known to seduce Roman society ladies in the Vatican cellars, and who had famously shared the favors of two Venetian nuns with the playboy Casanova. A diligent tourist, Sade even attended the coronation of Pius VI. It all clearly fired his imagination. Many years later, he used the material for his scandalous novel Juliette, where the depraved heroine discovers rooms full of treasure and lurid erotica hidden in the Vatican Palace, then lures a fictionalized version of the pope to commit a string of carnal outrages with her on the sacred altar of St Peter’s.

Today, the Vatican Museums (there are 12 of them under one umbrella) are the only part of the palace open to the public, and with 4.6 million annual visitors, they have become almost unbearable to visit. By opening time, the queue snakes half a mile around the walls. Once you force your way inside, the galleries are mobbed. The Sistine Chapel is more crowded than the Roman subway in peak hour, while guards constantly hiss Silencio! and taped messages boom “No pictures!” over loudspeakers in five languages. (This is to avoid light damage to Michelangelo’s frescos, but also because the 1980s restoration was funded by Nippon TV, which still holds the copyright.)

Then, a couple of years ago, a voluble Irish expat named Helen Donegan heard that the Hollywood star Eddie Murphy had arranged a private tour of the art. How did he manage it? Thanks to a new director, Antonio Paolucci, who has eased restrictions, she got permission to conduct her own after-hours tours—for a hefty $370-a-head fee. “Of course, everything can change at the last minute,” she told me. “I mean, if the Vatican cancels on you, who are you going to complain to? It’s an absolute monarchy!”        

It sounded like a throwback to the days of the Grand Tour—and irresistibly clandestine—so I signed up to prowl the Vatican after dark.

Dusk was falling as I arrived at our rendezvous point, outside the Door of New Expectations, a strikingly ugly pair of sculpted metal portals that were installed for the 2000 Jubilee celebrations in the faded brick of the fortress walls. I glanced around at the few other tourists skulking uncertainly amongst the pigeons, before identifying our guide—Jasper, a clean-cut arts scholar from Philadelphia, who was very dapper in a gray three-piece suit. At 6 p.m. precisely, we heard metal creaking and clanking from behind the doors, as if they were being unbolted by trolls. Slowly, they swung open.

“This is the only punctual thing in Rome,” Jasper whispered. “We’ll be allowed in for two hours precisely, then the doors will be bolted for the night.”

Flanked at a discreet distance by Vatican guards, 10 of us made our way into the galleries, each one a forest of magnificent pagan artworks, our heels echoing on polished marble stripped from the Colosseum in the Middle Ages. It was a rare pleasure to wander through the 350-foot-long Map Gallery and be able to see the giant wall charts of 16th-century Italy without being butted aside by stampeding throngs. In the Sistine Chapel, the silence was sepulchral. A couple of guards sat idly in a corner. They didn’t even care that we took photos or video. (“It’s a good Catholic tradition,” one cynical Roman guide told me. “If you’re paying enough money, you can do what you like!”)

Windows offered glimpses of the rest of the Vatican Palace, where the pope and his core staff live, and whose endless rooms nobody ever seems to have counted, although the Catholic Encyclopedia reports that there are “some 1,000” of them. Back in the 18th century, it wasn’t only the Marquis de Sade who liked to fantasize about their contents, and the world’s fascination increased rapidly after 1870, when the complex became the pope’s sole residence. (For centuries, it had been only one of several papal palaces in Rome, and most pontiffs preferred to live in the Quirinal Palace on the top of the highest hill. When Pius IX lost the city to Italian nationalist troops in 1870, he retreated to the fortified Vatican, and its sprawling rooms were hastily converted to house himself and his staff. For nearly 60 years, until the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini created the independent Vatican City, no Pope even stepped outside the palace gates.)

Many of the legends about the palace had a wicked sexual element: It was believed that it hid world’s largest collection of pornography—a not unreasonable assumption, since the Papal Index banned immoral books until 1966. There were said to be underground chambers covered with erotica. It was also whispered that Pius IX, crazed by the loss of the Papal States, wandered the Vatican Museums lopping genitals from classical statues and putting them in a special cupboard. In fact, I’d heard this story from several sources in Rome—“This cupboard is very popular with the nuns,” one artist gleefully told me—with the added detail that a certain German “female scholar” had been assigned to restore the phalluses to their classical torsos, but had “mysteriously died.”

I reluctantly conceded the story about the cupboard to be an amusing myth, since most of the Greek and Roman statues I saw seemed perfectly intact, at least beneath their plaster fig leaves. But there were other, verified secret sites to be found. While Jasper gave the group an edifying commentary on art history, I lagged behind, conducting my own unsavory parallel tour.

One highlight took place within the Borgia Apartment. Its lavish walls are now hung with contemporary religious paintings, but I preferred to recall it as the location of a notorious Renaissance feast recorded in the diary of the Pope’s private secretary, John Burchard, and dubbed by some scholars as “the Joust of the Whores.”       

It was to these sumptuous chambers that the debauched Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, invited 50 of the most beautiful prostitutes in Rome in 1501. After a drunken banquet, the girls were ordered to remove their clothes and scramble naked on the floor for roasted chestnuts, a traditional Italian food for autumn, while cardinals applauded. The clergymen then stripped and turned the event into an open orgy, with prizes given “for those who could perform the act the most often with the courtesans.” 

The lavish Hall of Constantine may hide another entertaining Vatican scandal, according to the art historians Peter Webb and Lynne Lawner. In 1523, they claim, the artist Giulio Romano became so enraged about late payments for some religious murals that he drew obscene images on the walls instead—I Modi, or Postures, depicting 16 vigorous sexual positions. These were then engraved by his friend Marcantonio Raimondi, and copies were distributed around Rome, causing a sensation. This became too much for the current pope, Clement VII. He had Raimondi thrown in prison, the dirty murals were painted over, and the papal officers destroyed almost every copy of the book. (A single pirate edition, made in Venice in 1527 with verses by Pietro Aretino, was discovered in 1928 and finally published by Lawner in the 1980s as I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures.)

I had to wonder if the Vatican had considered using infrared radiation to see if anything remained beneath the Hall of Constantine murals. Jasper politely told me that had heard of no plans.