After hours at the Vatican Museums

There’s nothing quite like an evening book presentation inside the Vatican Museums. It’s a thrill just to walk through the darkened museum hallways at night, hours after the place has officially closed. Last Tuesday, there was the added spectacle of a thunderstorm raging outside. I headed to the conference hall, strolling past Egyptian mummies, Roman mosaics and rows of imperial busts that came to life with each flash of lightning. It felt like the opening of “The Da Vinci Code.”

The book presentation took place under the watchful eye of Augustus in armor on one side and a nude satyr on the other. As I settled in for the inevitable round of speeches, the question occurred to me: Who needs another book on the Sistine Chapel? This one was written by a German Jesuit, Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, who spent nearly 50 years investigating the religious images and symbols of the Sistine frescoes. His thesis turned out to be interesting, though: while modern experts tend to focus on the artistic vision and style of the chapel’s painters, including Michelangelo, the artists actually worked according to quite specific parameters set by papal theologians. As a result, Father Pfeiffer says, the chapel is really a study in Renaissance Christian iconography.

The bonus postscript to the speechifying was a private visit to the Sistine Chapel. As we all stood around craning our necks, Bruno Bartoloni, the longtime Vatican correspondent for Agence France-Presse and Corriere della Sera, took me aside and pointed to a spot halfway up the wall. There, camouflaged in a fresco of drapes, was a rectangular “peephole” used by popes who wanted to watch over liturgies without being seen. Bartoloni, who has visited nearly every square inch of the Vatican’s jumbled geography, said he’d once stood inside the tiny papal hideaway.

It was still raining the next day when I returned to the Sistine Chapel during tourist rush hour. I wanted to see how the Vatican was handling the increasingly huge crowds that pour into the museum. The Sistine, of course, was shoulder-to-shoulder. A U.S. couple told me they had waited an hour and a half in line just to get into the museum; now, standing beneath one of the world’s artistic masterpieces, they felt like they were riding a crowded Roman bus. I don’t think they caught many of the frescoes’ iconographical details.

Back home, they might want to check out Father Pfeiffer’s book,  “The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision.” And those who can’t afford the volume’s high price tag can always view parts of the chapel online at the Vatican’s Web site.

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