Turning the Lights On at the Vatican Museums

An unforgettable experience with GetYourGuide

Ever wondered what it would be like to have the Sistine Chapel to yourself? Or imagined walking the halls of the 500-year-old Vatican Museums without its 6 million annual visitors getting in the way? See them like never before as you join clavigero Gianni Crea (head key keeper) to unlock the doors of history before any other visitors arrive.


An unforgettable experience

Almost every morning for the past decade, Gianni has led the team with the massive task of opening up the 24 interconnected galleries, museums, and chapels that make up the Vatican Museums. With a small group, join him on his morning routine to open the doors to some of the world’s most renowned artworks. Hear the sounds of the ancient locks turning as you hold the keys, see the historic rooms go from dark to light as you flick the switch, and discover the Vatican Museums and their treasures in a way no other visitor can. As you explore, listen to Gianni’s experiences and anecdotes of his time as head clavigero, as well as the stories behind some of the 20,000 pieces on display. In the calmness of dawn, you have the chance to see the most impressive spaces as well as those not open to the public.

Meet Gianni Crea

Gianni has been head clavigero for 10 years, almost half of his time working in the Vatican. He leads a team of clavigeri whose seemingly simple role of opening (and closing) over 300 doors every day carries immense responsibility and baffling coordination — there are almost 3,000 keys to navigate in the process. A devout Catholic, he considers his position as the guardian of the Pope’s collections a unique privilege. Here, he discusses his experience, from the emotions he felt unlocking the Sistine Chapel for the first time to what visitors can expect when they join him on his morning routine.

Nothing can happen in the Vatican Museums before you unlock it. What does your morning look like?
"At 4:45 AM, I am already inside. That is when my colleagues and I start the day, getting the keys ready and preparing for the Vatican Museum's first visitors. For this special tour, I am ready at 5:55 AM to take them to open up the doors to the museums’ incredible, unique beauty."

How do you find the motivation to get up so early?
“In Italian, we say ‘Il buongiorno si vede dal mattino,’ which roughly means ‘a good day starts with the morning.’ It doesn't bother me at all to get up early, because I know that I have the fortune and joy of being able to open up the Pope’s museums for visitors from all over the world.”

How many keys are we talking about?
“There are exactly 2,797 keys. Each one is numbered and stored inside a bunker of wall safes, with a special ventilation system that ensures they don’t rust. They include a special set used during the papal conclave — twelve keys that seal all the doors from the museums to the Sistine Chapel — when the College of Cardinals meet to elect a new Pope. And then, there's the most important key, the one to the Sistine Chapel itself. Every night, it is stored inside an envelope that’s sealed, countersigned by the clavigeri and the management office, and stored in its own safe.”

How did it feel the first time you were entrusted with this sacred key?
“I am aware of how much responsibility has been given to me. Above all, I know the importance and value of it, from both a historical and Christian point of view. It’s an enduring feeling, and a responsibility that never gets boring. Closing or opening the Sistine Chapel is always a new, different emotion, but I’ll never forget the first time. It’s a special feeling to share what I have lived for over 20 years with the people who visit.”

Do you enjoy having it to yourself too?
“For my colleagues and I, it’s a unique feeling to have the possibility to stand alone for a few minutes inside the Sistine Chapel. When I guide visitors around the museum, I am fascinated to see their emotions, their amazement of going through door after door and finally ending up inside the Sistine Chapel, looking up at ‘The Last Judgment’ and Michelangelo’s ceiling. To see it in person is immeasurable.”

How does it feel to be the guardian of this sacred place of art, culture, and history?
“I know that I am opening the most important Christian museum in the world, but art has the power to unite people regardless of their faith. It becomes, in addition to being a thrill, an honor that goes beyond words. Whether it’s painting, sculpture, or music, creative forms of expression have always existed in the Church and allowed even those who could neither read nor write to understand the Word of God. This is what we find inside the Vatican Museums.”

What can visitors expect when they join you?
“You can almost smell the history that surrounds you, you hear the jangle of the keys echo as you walk down the empty halls, and feel a sense of excitement or anticipation at what might be behind the next door. Just to be immersed in the majesty of these centuries-old buildings leaves you feeling something deep within yourself, a sense of peace or serenity maybe, it’s unique for every person.”

What is your favorite space?
“Well, besides the magic of the Sistine Chapel, the Nicchione Terrace gives me the chance to admire most of Rome, the dome of St Peter's Basilica, and the Vatican Gardens. It’s perfect for my colleagues and I to visit as a final check at the end of the day — you can see across the museums the Sistine Chapel to check if all the lights are off. The original Bramante Staircase, usually off-limits to visitors, has spectacular views too.”

After all these years opening doors, unveiling secrets, are there any questions that remain unanswered?
I still ask myself, ‘How was it possible to achieve all this beauty, to create this so many centuries ago?’ That I still can't figure out. Wherever you look, you see iconic historical figures and such beautiful works of art and architecture, and you remain in disbelief.

Do things always go smoothly?
Of course not! It’s like a house, you always find something out of order, whether a bulb is out or a leak has appeared. Our task becomes timed a little like a soccer game: the opening is standard, it has to start on time, but the closing can often go into extra time as we make sure everything is safe, secure, and prepped for the next day’s visitors.

How does the feeling of closing the museums compare to the morning?
When all visitors have gone and I lock the last door, I feel satisfied about the part I played in allowing them to see these historical beauties, seeing the joy on their faces as they discover five centuries of collections of the Pope.

Will you ever leave this job?
I’ve no plans to. I’ll be here until I retire… as long as I don’t leave someone locked in.

© Copyright – Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei