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The Vatican Museums: Heavenly Art, Hellish Experience

The Vatican Museums is one of the most sublime treasure troves of art in all the world, spanning centuries of human creativity and spirituality. Twenty thousand pieces (of the seventy thousand works in the collection) are on display in fifty-four galleries that make up the Museums.

The rich collections of the Vatican Museums include not only exquisite paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and frescoes — with Michelangelo’s magnum opus on the Sistine Chapel ceiling holding its rightful place as the showstopper in this giant spectacle — but also precious artifacts from ancient civilizations near (Etruscan) and far (Egyptian).

The buildings that house the Museums are themselves works of art. These architectural marvels from the Renaissance and Baroque periods provide an opulent framework for the masterpieces exhibited in their halls and rooms. It’s a splendid cocktail in which container and contents rival one another in gloriousness. Sounds heavenly, right?

Sadly, the experience of the Vatican Museums in recent years has become considerably less than divine. What should be a gratifying walk through time and culture has become an agonizing journey into hell, as the confluence of two problems has reached epic proportions. 

The Vatican Museums: An Unsustainable and Chaotic Situation

In the words of licensed guides, excessive crowding has rendered the Vatican Museums a “purgatorial madhouse”, especially in the aftermath of Covid. This “unsustainable and chaotic” situation has been approaching a crisis point during the past year, with some prominent guides refusing to conduct tours of the Vatican Museums any longer, citing “frustration and resentment at every step” as an insurmountable obstacle to providing a satisfactory visitor experience inside the gallery. Assuming, of course, you can even get into the gallery. Which brings us to the second problem.

The latest nightmare, perhaps even bigger than the bedlam of bodies in the Vatican Museums, is the inability to get tickets. If you’ve contacted us for a tour of Rome this summer that includes the Vatican Museums or tried to book tickets through the official Vatican website, you know that no tickets are available for June and July. Tickets for these months have been sold out for some time. In fact, they all disappeared within minutes of going on sale. It’s nothing short of a ticket calamity.

What’s going on here is computerized scalping. Unauthorized resellers are purchasing all the tickets using bots at the moment they go on sale. Mere mortals are no match for the speed of these cyber procurement specialists. DriverInRome can attest to this through our own experience. The member of our staff who is responsible for securing skip-the-line tickets for our clients is ready and waiting to pounce when sales open at the stroke of midnight, night after night. But in the time it takes to put the first batch of tickets in her cart and start the purchase procedure, the available tickets for the entire day disappear before she can complete even one transaction.

 In essence, this technological Mafia has created a monopoly on the secondary market. And we know what happens when there’s a monopoly; the one who holds the goods calls the shots.

Problems at the Vatican Museums: Ironies and Solutions

Ironic, isn’t it, that the sacred has fallen prey to the immoral? And that an entity as powerful as the Catholic Church has been reduced to a seemingly impotent bystander in such an illicit money grab? As stark as the ironies are, it’s the visitor who ultimately takes the hit, literally paying the price for these unethical practices. The cost of tickets on the secondary market can easily be twice that of the official price, sometimes even more.

In November 2023, the Vatican issued a statement saying it was implementing measures to combat this problem of the secondary market, declaring that “the automatic purchase of tickets, including through bots, will now be impeded with the introduction of nominative tickets and ID checks.” As far as we can tell, it doesn’t appear these measures have been very successful.

Perhaps you’re wondering why a legislative solution is not implemented. There is a law in Italy that prevents scalping but it only applies to events with more than 5,000 spectators. Despite the fact that three to five times more people pass through the Vatican Museums on any given day, it doesn’t fall into the same category as concerts and sporting events. Getting a new law passed would be a tortoise?paced fix to a hare?speed problem.

Going back to the issue of overcrowding, in the same Catholic News Agency release of November 2023, the Vatican announced that it would limit guided tours to a maximum of twenty persons. But with tens of thousands of visitors passing through its halls every day (about 20,000 visitors per day was the average in 2022), this new ordinance might be difficult to enforce.

From Calamity Comes Opportunity: The Capitoline Museums

While it might be disappointing to learn that the Vatican Museums have become such a mess, opportunity arises from the calamity: a chance to discover some of the other incredible museums and galleries in Rome. Many of these are just as worthy of a visit as the Vatican. Really.

We are recommending the Capitoline Museums to all our private clients now. It’s a beautiful gallery, also the oldest public collection in the world. Tickets are reasonably priced and available. Above all, it’s a way more enjoyable gallery experience. The scene is not wall-to-wall people; you can wander about as you please. The galleries occupy two splendid palazzi bordering the handsome piazza (redesigned by Michelangelo during the Renaissance) at the top of the Capitoline Hill.

From the viewpoint of this writer, visiting a gallery without being stepped on, elbowed, or feeling like part of a herd of cattle is preferable to visiting the second-most-visited gallery in the world. Because as heavenly as some art may be, it just isn’t worth going through hell to see it.

DriverInRome is a family-run operation based in Rome with more than 35 years of experience in the passenger transportation sector. In addition to The Eternal City, we serve the ports of CivitavecchiaLivornoNaples, and Messina.

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