Imagine to be in Rome in July 2019, on a sultry Saturday, maybe around noon. You were expecting high temperatures, but not this hot Roman summer with the almost liquefied asphalt under your feet. Today, in your travel program, you plan to visit the Vatican Museums, which means not only the Sistine Chapel and the wonderful Raphael’s Rooms, but also the prohibition of shorts and undershirts, having to enter a holy place: your body rebels against the stifling heat with rivulets of sweat that bead your forehead and descend on your chest.
Outside the Vatican Museums, a river of visitors. You smile ingenuously, because you have made the reservation, so you should enter by skipping the line. This is just a mere illusion: the vast majority of people in line have a reservation as well. Those who don’t have it are in the queue on the opposite side of your line, in a row hundreds of meters long, and will wait for hours before they can get in.
Your Tour Guide is already sweaty, tired and nervous, knowing that, for three hours, it will be necessary to fight against undisciplined tourists, wild kids and equally nervous colleagues. It won’t be a guided tour, it will be a wild boar hunt, amidst screams and curses.
Once through the gates, the delirium begins. The escalator does not work, made inaccessible by the excessive weight of the crowd. The early afternoon sun hits the courtyards, making it necessary to go in search of shade, limited to a few centimeters below the ledges. You would like to sit down, but there is no vacant seat. You would like to go to the restroom to freshen up, but the line is endless. All you can do is follow your Guide, a sort of Pied Piper who will lead you in the middle of a human race, shoulder to shoulder with dozens of strangers, in a constant river of people in which it is forbidden to stop, forbidden to take photos, forbidden to talk, and almost forbidden to live.
Art is all around you, but you cannot perceive it and enjoy it as it deserves. You curse yourselves for coming to visit Rome in summer, in full overtourism, and you wonder how it is possible to allow all of this in an oasis of wonder as the Vatican Museums should be. When you arrive at the Sistine Chapel, compressed like sardines, you run away from Michelangelo’s frescoes, of which you will not keep any memory: the only thing you will be able to remind will be the crowd, inhuman and disconcerting.
Then came the Covid, who changed the world.
Look at the picture at the top of this article, and imagine walking in the corridor photographed on the right. Here is the faint, shrill, only positive note of this pandemic that changed the universe: the accessibility of art. In 2020, the Rome Guides Association has organized guided tours of the Vatican Museums for small groups of tourists, and its Tour Guides found themselves thrown into an alternative world, almost as if they were the protagonists of a movie by Christopher Nolan: no lines at the entrance, the Museum guards smiling and friendly, very clean restrooms, a general feeling of protection and safety hovering between the rooms.
The Laocoon, the most important of the Roman antiquities preserved in the Vatican Museums, soaring alone in its niche, without being surrounded by a multitude of tourists intent on snapping selfie in front of that Trojan “bodybuilder” who did not fall into the trap of the legendary horse.
The Pinecone Courtyard is silent and lovable, with empty benches on which to sit and enjoy the architecture, without screaming children crying for the stress and under the constant and courteous vigilance of the staff.
The Animals’ Gallery, with this marble fauna that, in a personal revisitation of the film Night at the Museum, seems to come back to life to resuscitate and stare at you, grateful that finally no one is touching them with impunity, taking advantage of the situation caused by the crowd.
The three Galleries, very long and majestic, resemble an alpine tunnel, flanked by statues, tapestries and geographical maps. Tourists walk through them with dreamy eyes, having time to stop and read the captions of the works of art, and maybe tending their ears to the explanations of a Tour Guide who, a few meters away from them, is narrating the secrets of that wonderful statue of Bacchus with sparkling blue eyes. There is no constant background noise, there are only solemn, baritone or soprano voices that rise up among the marble and frescoes to reveal their history and secrets.
Then Raphael arrives, with his bright colors, his grace and elegance, and the frescoed characters come to life, being admired as models on a catwalk, without hurry and without agitation, without shouting and without screaming: Plato and Aristotle descend the steps of the Athens School, amiably discussing philosophical theses, surrounded by colleagues and admirers, without dozens of selfie sticks rising in the air to try to take millions of photos, in search of a visual memory that seems to prevail over the mnemonic one. Raphael’s angel illuminates the cell of St. Peter’s just as the emptiness and silence illuminate the rooms of the Divine Painter of the Renaissance.
The last stage is the most exciting. Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel. One of the holiest places in the world. For years, this place did not receive the respect it always deserved: last year, every single centimeter of this large room would have had the sole of a shoe stomping on the admirable cosmatesque floor. In 2020, the epidemic “made space”: the Creation of Adam or the Universal Flood have surmounted a few dozen tourists who, in religious silence and without daring to take a photo, have raised their eyes to the masterpieces of Buonarroti, and have instantly understood.
It is exactly the same feeling that we have seen in the eyes of tourists in this 2020: a devotion seasoned with fear and scare, a bewilderment that asks for explanations, a silence that enters into the depths.
In this place, the pandemic seems not to have arrived. It seems that we are outside of time and space, in a bubble that no one could ever have expected.
It is difficult to say if what is happening will teach us anything, but Rome has understood how emotionally vandalized by overtourism in recent decades has been. 2021 will be the year of slow returns, but it will take time to go back to that delirium: for the next twelve months, the Vatican Museums will be here, solid and unchanging, always with their Trojan heroes, their marble lions, their wise philosophers and their majestic saints.
Michelangelo and Raphael will be here for you. You will not have another chance to meet them alone, to be able to talk with them face to face, nose to nose, without any interference. Take advantage of it: art may not heal the world, but it can save the souls.