Trapped in the Vatican Museum

On a humid and rainy Saturday afternoon in April, my cruise tour group stopped at the Vatican Museums to enjoy their incomparable art and classic architecture. 

The Vatican Museums

That weekend happened to comprise the perfect storm combining three important Italian holidays with the beginning of the busy tourist season. 

The week-long festival celebrating the April 21 founding of the Eternal City by twins Romulus and Remus merged with the April 25 celebration of the liberation of Italy at the end of WW II and Labor Day on May 1 creating a hectic week of holidays for Italians. 

The Vatican city-state was awash with sightseers.

The Papal Gardens

Along with hundreds of other tourists, I trooped along a prescribed route through the Papal Gardens, exhibits of Egyptian and Etruscan artifacts, the hall of medieval tapestries, the magnificent art of Rafael, DaVinci, Giotto and Caravaggio, and entered the long and narrow third floor Gallery of Maps

The Gallery of Maps

The extensive walls of this 400 ft. by 20 ft. passage are lined with 40 elongated frescos depicting the provinces and surrounding seas of the Italian peninsula. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII, the vibrant maps were created between 1580  and 1583 by Friar Ignazio Danti. Overhead, the radiant vaulted ceiling displays an array of non-geographic frescos framed in gilt.

There's something amazing to see in every room in every direction!

Slowly moving through the hall, my group and 1,500 other visitors were suddenly unable to move forward, creating a ripple effect along the gallery. Everyone stopped walking because the mass of people ahead had also stopped. It was impossible to reverse direction given the multitude behind me. 

Also impeding progress was scaffolding in the hall’s center. Thinking the pause was temporary, everyone stood quietly, waiting to proceed again.  

After 15 minutes with no activity, a vocal buzz permeated the room. Flashes proliferated as art lovers took photos with cell phones or cameras. Outside, a strident thunderstorm pounded, producing more humidity. 

It would have been reassuring if security guards or docents were present―there were none in sight―to explain the reason for the long delay.  

One would not expect the Vatican Museums with their wealth of irreplaceable treasures to be unsafe, but I thought that there appeared to be no fire escapes nearby and if there was a fire, we would have to bolt through windows from the third floor and hope to land on the lawns below. 

I saw no fire extinguishers and I was certain there were no sprinklers nearby which could destroy the precious art. My solution was to keep calm, enjoy the maps and eavesdrop on conversations surrounding us.

During the wait, many people checked e-mails and made phone calls from a global inventory of electronic devices. 

True to their perceived cultural characteristics and national reputations, the Italians chatted loudly with their companions as if nothing was amiss. 

Used to tight spaces, the Japanese were stoic, silent and quietly pushed onward to no avail. 

The Brits complained while the Germans efficiently opened windows and made floor space for people feeling faint or needing to sit. 

Continually questioning what was happening, I heard Americans threaten to sue the Vatican. 

I have a fascination with maps and can gaze at them endlessly which kept me preoccupied during the 90 minutes we were trapped. 

I applied my high-school Latin by reading the inscriptions and notations on the maps, still confused by those pesky “Vs” which are really “Us.” 

Eventually the human log-jam unclogged and sluggishly we continued. 

My group members had dispersed throughout the crowd. With the imminent closing of the museums at 6:00 p.m., we were anxious to conclude the tour and not miss the bus back to the cruise ship docked 70 miles away at Civitavecchia. 

Hardly noticing the subsequent chapels, rooms and libraries dedicated to various popes, or the gallery of modern religious art, I wearily climbed up and down stairwells through the remainder of the museum.

At last my group reached the final stop. The Sistine Chapel, while breathtaking, was anticlimactic after the uncomfortable and interminable delay. I was surprised that the famous Creation of Adam fresco, by reputation larger than life, was the same size as the other eight mid-ceiling frescos of Genesis; I looked up to quickly appreciate its universality, then exited with considerable relief.


With great relief I exited into the Vatican courtyard.

Later I learned that 26,000 entry tickets were sold that day. 

As the afternoon progressed, the throngs pouring through the exhibits stopped to admire the Sistine Chapel at the route’s terminus, and that is what created the acute holdup throughout the anterior passageways. 

After returning home and relating this claustrophobic experience to friends, several described a similar experience in the Vatican Museums. 

Bottom line – it’s all about the money.

Here’s my tip to avoid such an exasperating experience: if possible, plan to visit the Vatican mid-week and in the morning, preferably during the off-season between October and Easter. Avoid religious holidays! 

For a more informative, less stressful encounter, consider purchasing a book about the Vatican exhibits. 

Story and photos by Cam Usher

If you liked this story, read about Cam's other adventures: Edging Into Belarus and Unholy Day in the Holy Land.

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