A while back we wrote about the iconic tourist destination that you’re not allowed to take pictures of. Well, at least, not at certain times. There’s another classic place where you can’t take any pictures at all, for a somewhat, but not completely similar reasons.
The Sistine Chapel is home to what is easily considered some of the greatest works of art ever produced. Aside from The Year Of Covid, roughly 4 million people visit the historic landmark, with frescoes by Botticelli, Raphael and other masters of the Renaissance period. Most famous of all, of course, are Michelangelo’s famous frescoes on the ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar.
The Sistine Chapel has a few rules for entry. Not surprisingly, you’ll have to pass through a metal detector before admission, and no smoking is allowed. You have to dress what they consider to be appropriately (that means no shorts, short trousers, short skirts, sleeveless shirts or bare shoulders). You must maintain absolute silence. You can’t use a laser pointer or personal loudspeaker. Animals are not allowed inside, except for guide dogs for the blind (and they have to have a muzzle and a lead). Umbrellas, luggage, suitcases, rucksacks, tripods and stands for photography, video cameras, banners and signs must all be left in the cloakroom.
Cell phones are also banned inside the Sistine chapel. Besides the noise they can potentially make, there are also rules against taking photography.
Most people think photos can’t be taken because of the danger of the flash damaging the artwork, which is hundreds of years old. To an extent, that’s probably true. But that’s not why the rules went into effect.
The real reason actually goes back to 1980, when Vatican officials decided to begin a large scale, comprehensive restoration of Michelangelo’s art in the chapel. The cost was huge. So huge that they searched for third party to help pay for the project. The highest bidder was Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan, with a $3 million offering (costs eventually increased to $4.2 million).
In return for funding the renovation, Nippon TV got the exclusive rights to photography and video of the restored art. Along with that, all photos and recordings of the actual restoration process could only be done by photographer Takashi Okamura, who was commissioned by Nippon TV.
Many inside and outside the Vatican were not happy with the deal to start. But the Nippon photographer was getting high-resolution photos that showed a mega-detailed peek of what was happening behind all the scaffolding during the restoration, and eventually at least some of the critics were won over.
Because of that deal with the Vatican, Nippon TV got to produce several documentaries, art books, and other projects, since only they had exclusive photos and video footage of the Sistine Chapel restoration.
The thing is, the exclusivity wasn’t supposed to be for forever. Technically, photography was only banned for 3 years after each stage of the rehab was finished. So if a section was done in 1985, photos could have been taken starting in 1988.
On top of that, Nippon’s exclusivity agreement specifically said that it didn’t count for tourists…just professional photographers. But since there’s no way to tell a professional photographer from an amateur hobbyist with a “real” camera, Vatican authorities always just said the ban was for everyone; it was easier that way.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s more knowledge nowadays about how hundreds of flashes per day could hurt the art, so Vatican officials eventually just let the ban continue, even when the rules from Nippon expired.
But that’s not why or how it started. 😉
Meanwhile, nowadays cell phone cameras can take pictures without a flash and still be brilliant. I’ve read people say that they’ve taken pictures in the Sistine Chapel and the guards haven’t said a word. So there’s that.
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