Creeeeaaaakkk . . . some of the world’s most celebrated doors have reopened. Global pandemic measures shuttered countless buildings, including those of the Vatican in Rome. But for one man, the famous Sistine Chapel and access to Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling frescoes never really closed.
Vatican City is a distinct territory located in Rome, Italy. The Catholic Church governs the quarter-mile-square area, home to the 26 Vatican Museums. The museums contain nearly 70,000 priceless pieces of art, including ancient Roman sculptures and Renaissance paintings collected over centuries.
Gianni Crea is the chief key-keeper of the Vatican Museums. Before dawn, he opens doors and clicks on lights through four and a half miles of Vatican art and artifacts.
Crea begins his rounds in a museum “bunker” that houses safes full of keys. With all 2,797 keys clattering from giant keyrings, Crea wends through marble halls and gold-leafed treasures to the Sistine Chapel. At a tiny wooden doorway, he tears open a white envelope and pulls out a small silvery-brass key.
Built in the late 1400s, the Sistine Chapel is most famous for its ornate ceiling decoration by Michelangelo. Painted between 1508 and 1512, the ceiling depicts scenes from Genesis. The chapel also serves as a setting for religious and papal activity.
The Sistine Chapel key is so important that Crea handles it with its own procedure: After the chapel closes for the day, the key goes into a new white envelope. Crea seals and stamps the envelope, and then places it in the bunker safe. He logs its every move in a register.
Crea has been making his Vatican rounds for 23 years. He worked for three years before being allowed to open the Sistine Chapel by himself. For two decades, he has had the privilege of viewing Michelangelo’s scenes of the Bible solo in the empty quiet of dawn.
“All the statues, all the rooms have a unique history, but naturally the Sistine Chapel always gives you [particular] emotion,” Crea says.
Last year, Vatican Museum visits took place around Italy’s two COVID-19 lockdowns. The buildings were closed for 88 days. But Crea’s team of 10 key-keepers kept opening and closing for cleaning and maintenance. Restorers also performed work that is impossible with nearly seven million visitors during a normal year.
These days, to maintain social distancing, the museum staggers admittance. Visitors purchase timed-entry tickets in advance.
Crea confesses to sometimes misplacing his own housekeys. But he calls making it possible for guests to view the extraordinary treasures of the Vatican Museums “an incredible privilege”—so he makes sure the doors are wide open.