Here Is the Real Reason Why Photos Are Banned in the Sistine Chapel

It is not about flash photography

Jason Ward
Jan 11 · 5 min read
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Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

In 1512, Pope Julius II held a special vespers service. It was an evening event that was held to inaugurate the Sistine Chapel after Michelangelo had finished four years of toil painting frescos on the ceiling. It is now the most visited room in the world.

If you have ever visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, you will have heard the guards saying, at regular intervals, “No photo! No photo!” There are signs everywhere forbidding both photography and video and this is enforced every few seconds by the staff.

I have personally been told off there when I checked my phone and a largely disinterested guard just tapped me on the shoulder. I had been pre-emptively warned. I was one of 6 million visitors that year and from what I saw, nearly everyone else was snapping a picture and then being told off.

So what is the point of the ban?

Most people think it came about to limit the damage done by flash photography. That is not the case. It is actually down to a deal with a camera company and then kept in place for several valid reasons. Let me explain.

It started in 1980 and the restoration of the chapel

In 1980, the Vatican decided it was time to undertake a comprehensive restoration of the Sistine chapel and Michelangelo’s art in particular. It was a huge undertaking that would take 14 years.

It also came with a hefty price tag that forced them to seek outside financial assistance. So they let corporations bid for access.

The winning offer came from the Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan (NTV). They offered $3 million (which eventually increased to $4.2 million) and no one was able to match them. In fact, at first, the deal was ridiculed by many.

However, in return for funding the project, Nippon TV got exclusive rights to all photography and video relating to the work. This meant the process of restoration itself and all the final restored art. A photographer called Takashi Okamura was commissioned and he set about recording it all.

No other photographers were allowed.

When Nippon started to share the high-resolution photos showing the detailed processes going on behind the scaffolding, the ridicule soon dried up. The pictures were spectacular.

Since making the deal, Nippon TV has made over a dozen documentaries, including a few in English, and coffee-table books of the art, translated into several languages. Although NTV has never announced if they made any profit, it seemed like they had made a good deal.

The exclusivity deal has long since ended

As reported in the New York Times, the deal only lasted for the restoration period for each section and the three years that followed completion. The final phase, the “Last Judgement”, finished in 1994. The exclusive NTV rights ended in 1997.

There is nothing underhanded going on from Nippon’s side. In fact, they originally stated that the photo and video ban didn’t apply to ‘ordinary tourists’. However, at the time, authorities understandably instigated a broad policy of ‘No photos or videos’. They worried a cunning professional photographer could sneak in and get off some snaps.

Once the exclusivity period ended, Vatican officials decided to keep the ban in place. Why?

The main reason for the ban is simple. There are too many people.

In 2012, an Italian literary critic called Pietro Citati caused a storm when he wrote an open letter to a major newspaper denouncing the crowds. He argued that the chapel and its art was supposed to be a place of quiet contemplation. The hordes of tourists disrupt that. If they were armed with cameras, it would be worse.

He has a point. In the popular summer months, around 30,000 people visit the chapel every day. The temperature can reach 40 Celsius and that can lead to safety issues. Only the Sistine Chapel itself is air-conditioned and it is claimed that at least 10 visitors faint a day just while queuing to get in. Others have been injured and several have had panic attacks.

As anyone who has been to a gallery that allows photography will testify, people snapping pictures get in the way and block things up. With that many visitors, it makes sense to keep people moving.

The main reason people think there is a ban is down to the damage flash photography does to art over time. Which is another valid point. While it is pretty easy to turn off a flash, there are a surprising amount of people who ‘forget’, even though a flash wouldn’t make any difference in a room that size.

But the mere presence of that many people brings other problems that damage the art. Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in an article in the Vatican newspaper:

“Pressure caused by humans such as dust introduced, the humidity of bodies, carbon dioxide produced by perspiration can cause unease for the visitors, and in the long run, possible damage to the paintings.”

There are dehumidifiers, filters and climate controls in the chapel but the increasing numbers mean they are struggling to cope. It is the sheer numbers that are causing the problems and allowing photography would exacerbate the problem.

So will the ban stay in place?

It seems very, very likely. There have been numerous calls demanding a limit to the numbers for over a decade. Promises and plans have been made but so far, it has not happened. With the crowds comes a need to stop photography. It just makes sense.

I went to the Sistine chapel years ago, on a cold January morning and it was crowded but bearable. It was also as incredible and beautiful as I had hoped. There is no need to take a picture, just pause and admire the work. You will never be able to capture it with just a holiday camera or phone.

Then, on your way out, don’t forget to visit the souvenir shop. They have some lovely pictures in there.

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Jason Ward

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Freelance Writer, Author. Lives in Asia. www.jasonwardwriter.com Or email: thewordofward@gmail.com Top writer in Reading, History, Culture, Books, Future

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