The chapel that for centuries was regarded as the “private” chapel of the popes and their household, or “famiglia”, has finally undergone a major restoration and will be opened by Pope Benedict XVI on 4 July. “This chapel is the core of the Catholic Church’s identity, to an even greater extent than the Sistine Chapel”, explains the Director of the Vatican Museums Antonio Paolucci.
Since Paul III (previously Cardinal Alessandro Farnese) commissioned Antonio da Sangallo to build the chapel in 1537-42 and Michelangelo to decorate it (1542-50) with frescoes (the last he ever completed) showing the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of St Peter, it has been focus for alterations and “improvements” by numerous popes (including the addition of the notorious drapes, or mutandoni – large pants – concealing St Peter’s nudity and the nails in his hands and feet).
Starting with Gregory XIII Buoncampagni (see the Buoncompagni dragon above) who commissioned Lorenzo Sabatini and Federico Zuccari to complete the decorations, 25 years after Michelangelo’s last works, and ending with Paul VI Montini who altered the position of the altar in the 1970s.
The restoration of the chapel has cost 3.2 milion euros, a sum provided by the largely American membership of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, and has taken 5 years. Headed by the art historian Arnold Nesselrath, the team of restorers would have willingly returned Michelangelo’s Crucifixion to its original state. As the Vatican’s own chief restorer Maurizio De Luca admits:
“Those nails are like three cockroaches. I believe that when something is ugly, it should be removed.”
But the Vatican has expressly forbidden any changes.
Peter’s fierce expression is firmly focused on the door into the chapel, as if to warn future occupants of his temporal seat on earth that they will be under strict control, or angrily questioning whether the pope and the church hierarchy (namely the cardinals who would have been allowed into this sanctuary of sanctuaries) were worthy of his martyrdom.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the chapel will ever be open to the public. There are currently no plans to include it among the other areas of the Vatican and Vatican Museums that can now be visited – even though the Sistine Chapel is linked to the Pauline Chapel through the Aula Regia. However, the Vatican has promised a degree of “elasticity” in granting special permits to academics, researchers and other specialists. I rather wish my visit to Rome had been a couple of weeks later, as I would love to see the chapel.