Judgement day for tourism

Peter Walker calls for a solution to the bedlam at tourist spots such as the Sistine Chapel
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The Independent Online
It is impossible to know how many millions of people have stood beneath the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 485 years since it was painted by Michelangelo. So many millions, you think, that some people must have died there, on the spot, and perhaps even one or two were accidentally born there. But it's not the sort of place where you imagine anyone has ever been conceived. That, however, seemed to be the fixed intention of a young German couple I recently saw there, standing entwined directly under the Expulsion From Eden. And nobody turned a hair. That is because, in all the crush and the uproar and the shouts of rage from the Vatican guards trying to keep order, nobody noticed.

We are used to the idea that mass tourism degrades its objects of desire. We would all like to have wandered alone through, say, the Parthenon, or Stonehenge, or Chartres cathedral, but we accept that we cannot dismiss the crowd, because we are the crowd. In the Sistine last month, however, for the first time I saw a place where tourism, the destructive force, has reached critical mass, where the object of its attention is not just degraded but eclipsed, where there is almost no point in being there.

In the final approach to the chapel, a recorded voice politely reminds visitors that the Chapel is consecrated and that photography is forbidden. But most people hardly hear that. After all, they are on the threshold of the sublime, which is no time to be listening to recorded messages. And there, suddenly, it is stretched out above you, the whole tale from The Creation to The Last Judgement, magnificently unfurled from one man's mind and magnificently cleaned by a Japanese television company. But there is only a minute or two to register this before other impressions crowd in: first, the noise. There are, perhaps, a thousand people there and they cannot help whispering, then talking; the laughing and the tumult rises and rises.

"Silenzio!" shouts an imposing figure, a tall man with a moustache, red face, wearing a police-like uniform. He is one of three guards on duty. For a short time, perhaps a minute, the noise subsides, then rises again.

"Silenzio!" a second one shouts, and "No photo!"

Flash! go the cameras. Flash! Flash!

"No photo!"

Flash, Flash, Flash! The guards rush this way and that, ejecting those they catch in the act. "No photo. You took photo. Out."

One man refuses to go quietly and answers back in a storm of Japanese. The two sides glare at each other, with clenched fists.

"Silenzio!" shouts a third guard across the room. "Silenzio!"

At first I thought that there was a language difficulty here, that the Japanese, in particular, did not understand that snapshots were forbidden. But watching more closely, I saw they were playing a cat-and-mouse game. Michelangelo is now immensely celebrated in non-Christian Japan and no one is satisfied with a mere postcard. They want him trapped and carried away in their own Nikons and Minoltas. One young man beside me kept his camera hidden under his jacket. When the guards were busy elsewhere, he whipped it out: Flash!

"No photo, no photo, no photo," cried the moustachioed guard, pounding our way with a terrible look in his eye, not unlike Charon wielding a paddle on the wall above him. It is 10.30 in the morning and all the time more people are coming in, the tumult is rising again. The German couple are grazing and nibbling at each other's cheeks and neck. Her hands caress his buttocks. His hand rises to her breasts... At the far end of the chapel, a group of teenage girls have taken over the seats along the side and are sitting on one another's knees, rocking up and down, chewing gum and biting the ends of their own hair, all of them pinkly aware of some French boys who are eyeing them up. One boy does a chimpanzee impression and gibbers.

"Our kids - if they use our toilet in the hotel - we go and use theirs," says an American voice in my ear. He was about 60 and talking to someone behind me. "I said to them: 'That's the way it is, kids. That's the way it's gonna be'."

That's the way it is, kids. That's the way it's gonna be. What I saw in the Sistine is now the way it is, wherever tourists gather. And as I said, we cannot dismiss the crowds. But this chapel is a special case. First, it is a single, confined space which was not designed for the great crowds which can be accommodated in the Pantheon, for instance, or the Parthenon, or be swallowed up in the gloom of a Gothic cathedral. Secondly, the principal attraction is a series of paintings of immense gravity and subtlety. The interpolation of pagan Sybils with Jewish prophets, for instance,demonstrates that. But in the atmosphere of a fairground and a bun fight, it is impossible to get any sense of solemnity.

So what can be done? Ban amorous Germans? Ban French teenagers? Should tickets be sold a week ahead, to weed out the impulse visitor? One sadistic colleague suggests a compulsory hour-long lecture without slides, before entry. In Latin. If cameras are not to be used, then they should not be allowed into the chapel: the temptation is clearly too great for the trigger-happy. Perhaps there should be sanctions sterner than shouting and the occasional ejection. After all the Vatican is a sovereign state and can make its own laws. The more I think of it, the more I like the idea - piles of confiscated cameras mounting in the guardroom, lines of convicted tourists hoeing the papal vegetable gardens under a merciless sun. Or should just the chapel be shut up forever, like the caves of Lascaux?

Whatever the solution is, the bedlam below the Sistine roof surely can't go on. I couldn't help wondering what Michelangelo himself would have made of us all on that day. Among the 300-odd figures in the frescoes there are three crowd scenes, though they did not in the end give us much help. First, there are The Elect, whom we did not greatly resemble. Second, there are The Damned, and, well, we weren't that bad. Thirdly, there is Mankind Escaping the Flood. But that was not much use, either. In 1997, in the Sistine, mankind is the flood.

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