I Explored the Vatican's Secret Spaces Before Dawn With the Head Key Keeper — and Soon You Can, Too

·6 min read
Interior of the Vatican Museums
Interior of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

After a bit of fumbling with the key by flashlight, I managed to open the iron gate, yet still found myself standing in pure darkness. My guide went ahead as I slowed my step, befuddled by where I was. From somewhere in the distance, he flipped the switch and I gasped. I was surrounded by the Vatican's Gallery of Maps, an impressively ornate room with 40 large maps of Italy — some measuring up to 15 by 16 feet — dating back to 1582.

I had been here once before, in 2019, on a regular tour, and was instantly taken by the grandeur of this hallway en route to the Sistine Chapel. Back then, I briefly paused to look up, and was immediately enveloped by tour groups, as one leader — who was waving a little flag and rotely doling out facts to his group via microphone — ordered me to keep moving. But today, it was just a small group of us, with no one pushing me along. After all, I had unlocked the door.

Interior of the Vatican Museums
Interior of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

This beyond-VIP access was the brainchild of the man who literally holds the 2,797 keys to the Vatican Museums, Gianni Crea. Crea has been the head clavigero, or key keeper, for nearly 25 years. Every morning, he goes through the spectacular routine of unlocking the doors and turning on the lights to the Catholic church's tremendous art collection of 20,000 pieces, and he thought it was a shame not to share the experience.

The museum quietly started offering a predawn tour a few years back, reserved for an exclusive crowd because of a steep price tag and limited dates. But now, tour booking platform GetYourGuide is making the tickets accessible to the public by offering the Turning the Lights on at the Vatican Museums experience for free on select days.

A ring of keys inside of the Vatican Museums
A ring of keys inside of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

Between eight and 10 tickets will be available in pairs on a first-come, first-served basis starting on Monday, May 30, with more being offered each month from June through October 2022 (tours will be held on June 14, July 12, Sept. 14, and Oct. 19). While those require getting to Rome independently, the company is also giving away one 48 Hours at the Vatican grand prize, which includes a pair of tickets to the experience plus a €3,000 voucher (about $3,215 USD) for flights and accommodations and another €1,000 (about $1,071 USD) to use on additional GetYourGuide activities.

"When people get into the museums on these tours, they are just amazed and can really focus on the art without the crowds," Crea told Travel + Leisure through a translator. "Art has the power to unify everyone, regardless of religion."

Interior of the Vatican Museums
Interior of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

During the experience, Crea leads a small group — usually no more than 10 people — through dark halls, as he hands keys to each person, letting everyone unlock a few doors and light up a few rooms in the quiet museum before the first tourists arrive. To add to the exclusivity, he even takes the group beyond normal barriers.

On our tour, he dropped the velvet rope around two of the museum's most famous works — "Belvedere Torso," from the 15th century, and "Laocoön," thought to be from about 40 to 30 B.C.E — and let us take a spin around each. (Fun fact: There's a surprise on the back side of the latter that few get to see.) He also led us to secret areas typically closed off to the public: the Bramante Staircase, the storied spiral stairs from the 1500s, as well as above the Pinecone Courtyard to a terrace, which he called his favorite spot since there are stunning views of St. Peter's Basilica's dome, the Vatican Gardens, and Rome.

Interior of the Vatican Museums
Interior of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

But the true highlight of the tour is Crea himself, who so nonchalantly goes about his job, but possesses a smirk as he hands you the key, knowing what you're about to do is going to knock you off your feet while he leans back and watches with a joyful twinkle in his eye.

Despite that ease, his mind is always at work. To get the position as head key keeper, Crea had to learn to recognize each of the 2,797 keys by sight and know which door it opens (he claims he always had a photographic memory). He now manages a team of 11 clavigero, himself included, five who work the morning shift and five at night.

Crea started his career by working for the Carabinieri, the Italian police. "I left because I fell in love with a girl," he said. "My dad wasn't happy and asked, 'What are you going to do with your life now?'" He got a job at St. Peter's Basilica and then worked his way over to the Vatican as a custodian/guardian, eventually becoming a key keeper for a decade before earning the head spot — only the seventh in the position in history.

It's a role that comes with privileges and weighty responsibility. It wasn't until three years in that he saw the key to the heavily guarded Sistine Chapel. There only exists one copy of the old-fashioned key, and it's kept in an envelope that's sealed every night and signed and countersigned by the key keeper and the Vatican's management office.

A ring of keys inside of the Vatican Museums
A ring of keys inside of the Vatican Museums

Theo Klingenberg/Courtesy of Governatorato S.C.V. – Direzione dei Musei

With that burden, the key was soon placed in my hand, and I became the sole bearer of access to the room containing two of the world's greatest works of art, Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" and his Renaissance frescoes on the ceiling. Unlike my last visit, where I struggled to find a spot to stand and look up at the art, I quite literally held the key, with no one rushing me while I explored every corner of the chapel. I showered Crea with questions, and he answered everything with such passion, including giving me a full rundown of how they create the smoke that rises out of the window when a new pope is chosen.

"Even people who are not religious at all, coming into the Sistine Chapel, there's something so magical about the place," said Crea. "There's something so moving about the place that they experience the spirituality in the history."

Even after his decades behind the scenes of the Vatican Museums, Crea is still in awe of all the art and history that surrounds him, and hopes that what he starts here will be mimicked by other museums around the globe. He said, "To see their faces filled with joy and pleasure — this is what makes me feel happy when I close the last door that gives access to the museums."