The Vatican Museums are one of Rome’s top sights—on par with the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Housing the papal collections since the 15th century, the complex actually comprises 24 museums and numerous galleries and chapels. It’s one of the world’s most popular destinations, with an average of 6 million visitors per year. And because it’s so massive and crowded, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, as I did when I visited with my family on my first trip to Rome in 2008. After a couple of hours of shuffling past ancient statues and Renaissance paintings, I started to wonder if I was ever going to make it to the Sistine Chapel. When I finally did, it was so crowded that I couldn’t really appreciate it.
So when I was invited by global booking platform GetYourGuide to join an exclusive 6 a.m. tour of the Vatican Museums with the head clavigero (key keeper) Gianni Crea this summer, I knew I had to do it, even if it meant a dreaded 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.
I arrived just as the small group was entering the museum through a side door. We were met by Crea, who has been the Vatican’s head key keeper for 10 years and has worked at the Vatican for almost twice as long. During a brief introduction, he explained that there are 2,797 keys for the Vatican Museum’s various buildings and doors, all of which are numbered and held on large key rings kept in a climate-controlled bunker of wall safes with a special ventilation system that prevents them from rusting—all except for the key to the Sistine Chapel. That key, as he showed us, is stored separately in an envelope that gets sealed and signed every night by the clavigero and the museum’s administration. It’s kept in its own safe and has no duplicate.
I asked Crea how old the oldest key is and he took a hefty specimen from the 1700s off one of the oversize key rings he was holding and handed it to me, later instructing me to use it to open the door to the Museo Pio Clementino founded by Pope Clement XIV in the 18th century and later expanded by Pope Pius VI.
As Crea led us through the empty hallways, dozens of keys jangling on the large key rings he carried throughout the tour, he let each member of the group use one in turn to open the galleries and turn on the lights. Along the way, he pointed out highlights like the Belvedere Torso, an ancient sculpture that inspired Michelangelo and many other artists.
We continued to the Statues Courtyard. As we gazed at the ancient Greek sculpture of Laocoön and his sons, Crea explained that when it was found during the 1500s, it was missing its right arm, so a contest was held and a new arm was created for it by artist Jacopo Sansovino, but it was placed in the wrong position. When the original arm was later discovered, it turned out to have been positioned exactly as Michelangelo—who witnessed the statue’s unearthing—inferred. Unbeknownst to most museum visitors, the replacement arm is hidden behind the sculpture, attached to the pedestal. Crea let us walk behind the statue—something visitors are normally prohibited from doing—to see it.
As we continued our tour, Crea paused momentarily to point out a sculpture with what he said might be “the best ass” in antiquity before bringing us to the original Bramante Staircase, which is normally off limits. There are two staircases known as the Bramante Staircase in the Vatican Museums, but the one that most visitors see is actually a more modern version designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. Donato Bramante created the original spiral staircase in the 1500s in a double helix shape that allowed people going up to take one path and people going down to take another, so they never crossed. It’s more of a paved ramp that allowed the pope to ascend in his carriage.
We continued on, passing through a few other galleries before arriving at the Gallery of Maps. I strolled slowly through, admiring the 16th-century geographical paintings showing Italy’s different regions, taking stock of places where I’ve been and where I want to go.
We then arrived, via shortcut, at the Sistine Chapel. Crea put its key—the only one without a number—onto one of his massive key rings and said that whoever found it amid all the others could open the door.
Once inside, we were left alone to admire Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the early morning light—an awe-inspiring experience. I also got to go inside the very off-limits room where the newly elected pope changes into his papal garments for the first time. The small antechamber was brightly lit but sparsely furnished, though it’s dubbed “the Crying Room” because of the emotive power it holds.
As we finished the tour and were led to the courtyard for breakfast, the museum’s first visitors were arriving. Afterwards, Crea brought us up to one last off-limits area—a terrace with views of the dome of St. Peter’s and the courtyard below. For a moment, I felt a bit like Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza. It was a poignant reminder that just beyond—and sometimes inside—Rome’s most crowded and chaotic sites, there are gems hidden in plain sight.
How to tour the Vatican without the crowds
I was a guest of global booking platform GetYourGuide, which is celebrating its new collaboration with the Vatican by giving away a limited number of tickets to the 6 a.m. tour with Gianni Crea via a series of contests. The next date for the tour will be September 14, 2022, and there will be a final tour offered on October 19, 2022. To enter the contest, go to GetYourGuide’s landing page on September 9, when the instructions will be posted. A limited number of tickets will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you don’t win the contest, the closest you can get to this kind of exclusive experience without forking over hundreds of euros is the Vatican’s “Prime Experience,” which gets you a guided tour at 8 a.m., one hour before the official opening time. It costs €63 and includes breakfast. It must be booked in advance via the Vatican Museums’ website.