The guardian of history
Paolo Ondarza - Vatican City
The first rays of the sun have not yet begun to lighten the midnight blue skies over the Eternal City. The sound of footsteps on the marble pavement and the jingle of almost three hundred keys break the night silence. It’s just past 5 in the morning. The day at the Vatican Museums has already begun.
The bunker and the 2798 keys
The cries of the seagulls echo off the four walls of the Pinecone Courtyard. In front of the bistrot that before long will welcome tourists from every corner of the globe, the claviger opens a door leading to the bunker where the 2798 keys that open the 11 sections of the papal Museums. A special air conditioning system protects the keys from rust. One by one, they are tested each week to make sure they still work and to evaluate their condition. There are between one and five copies of each key.
The three keys
“Three of the keys are more important than the others. Number “1” opens the monumental door leading out of the Vatican Museums. Number “401 weighs almost 500 grams (1 lb). Forged in 1700, it is the oldest and opens the entrance to the Pio Clementino Museum, the first nucleus of the Vatican Museums. Lastly, the most precious key that has no number. It was forged in 1870 and opens the door to the Sistine Chapel where the Conclave has taken place since 1492”, explains Gianni Crea, claviger since 1999.
The key without a number
It is kept inside a safe within in a sealed envelope countersigned by the Vatican Museums’ management staff. The ritual with which it is removed every morning evokes the intrigue of centuries gone. It is also the historical link that unites the clavigers – in the plural because today there are eleven of them who carry out this task – to the ancient role of the Marshal of the Conclave and the Custodian of the Holy Roman Church. It was he who, until 1966, was entrusted with the task of sealing off every access to the chapel when the cardinals were together to elect a pope.
Five hundred doors and windows
It’s dawn. The claviger begins his solitary rounds which he will repeat in reverse order at sunset. He opens the five hundred doors and windows one after the other along the entire exhibit route of the papal collections. It takes about an hour to retrace about five hundred years of history. He unlocks and opens wide the gates leading to the Pio Clementino Museum.
He passes through the oldest nucleus of the Vatican collection, passing through the Biblioteca (Library), until he reaches the Raphael Rooms. He knows all of the Vatican Museums secrets, such as the rudimentary seismograph hidden on the walls of the Room of the Immaculate Conception, painted in the 19th century by Francesco Podesti. They were needed to monitor the stability of the building in the event that there was any seismic activity.
The beam of light from the flashlight he uses to inspect every locale while it is still dark brings the immortal beauty of the frescoes and sculptures out of the obscurity into the light, revealing secrets and details that are difficult for the eye to capture in broad daylight when the museum is packed – the movement of Laocoön’s bent arm, the statue that in 1506 would form the original nucleus of the papal collections, cited almost literally by Michelangelo in his figure of Christ in his scene of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
His rounds continue – from the perfection of the Apoxyomenos to the chambers where Leonardo da Vinci stayed. An emotional vertigo, almost hypnotic, is brought on by the long climb up the spiral Bramante Staircase. From the top of this undisputed architectural masterpiece, one can overlook all of Vatican State, including the Galera (or Galea) Fountain whose canons do not spray fire, but water, a symbol of peace. The claviger then enters the Gallery of the Candelabra and the Gallery of Tapestries where he opens the windows to reveal the beauty of the botanical art in the Vatican Gardens.
Italy from the vantage point of Rome
Along the old “corridor” of the Geographic Maps, the unusual upside-down portrayal of Sicilia and Calabria, makes people’s eyes look quizzical. They are depicted this way because Rome is the vantage point for two of the 40 gigantic maps that follow one after the other for 120 metres along the longest topographical representation ever made from the North to the South of Italy, with an extreme richness of detail. It was commissioned by Gregory XIII (Boncompagni) to the best landscape artist of the sixteenth century.
A piece of the moon
Leaving doors and gates open behind him, the claviger's footsteps for a moment seem to be like the historic "giant leap for mankind" of 20 July 1969. Indeed, on display in the Lower Galleries are fragments of moon rocks from the Apollo 11 expedition, donated by U.S. President Richard Nixon to the citizens of the Vatican, along with the flag of Vatican City State carried into space by the astronauts on that memorable mission.
Basements and attics
Ancient and modern, made of iron or aluminum, forged by hand, worn down over the centuries, some of which today are even electronic, these keys even open the areas inaccessible to the public which the claviger has the duty of inspecting each day – underground storeroom that they guard, shrouded in mystery, anonymous portraits from the Roman era whose gaze is challenging those who cross it; depositories and vaults on whose wall custodians from bygone eras have left traces of their presence with graffiti and penciled inscriptions.
The last door
It’s about 7:00 in the morning. The last door to open is the most famous one. It is made of wood with an “S”-shaped brass doorknob. “S” for “secret”, or rather, reserved, closed. It is the room where the voting and the election for the Successors of Peter takes place – the Sistine Chapel.
Waiting for white smoke
Gianni Crea has witnessed two conclaves. He remembers with particular emotion waiting and watching every evening for the smoke on the Terrace of the , one of the highest vantage points in the Vatican from which it is possible to enjoy a unique view of the panorama of the Eternal City and where on holidays, the Fire Department hoists the yellow and white flag kept enclosed in a special closet.
Guardian of history
“Being a clavier is a unique job that gives you the impressing of being a guardian of history. During a Papal election, the claviger uses 12 keys to lock the entire area around the Sistine Chapel. Immediately after, scrupulously observing ancient protocol, it is his job, along with the competent authorities, to supervise the blacksmith who affixes the seals so that everything that happens within the most famous chapel in the world will remain secret. The claviger then places the keys in a metal box which remains in the custody of the Gendarmeria until a new Pope has been chosen”.
Securing the Cardinal electors
Until Saint John Paul II’s pontificate, once the cardinals had entered into the Conclave, they could go outside into the area around the Sistine Chapel only when the election was over. They housed in a state of seclusion within various rooms in the Vatican Palaces, temporarily arranged as bedrooms for the event. As soon as the extra omnes had sounded, obliging everyone else to leave, the Marshal of the Conclave would secure all the doors, windows and peepholes in the area where the cardinals were staying. When he finished checking everything, he would put the keys into a red bag where they would remain until white smoke indicated a new Pope had been elected.
The Marshal and the hanging keys
The Marshal of the Conclave was a layman belonging to the Roman aristocracy. He was invested with a fundamental role during the sede vacante (the period of time covering the death of one Pope to the election of his successor). Initially, the person holding this title came from the Roman Savelli family. It was handed down through the first-born of the Chigi family from 1712 until this practice was suppressed under Paul VI. The Marshal’s flag bears the coat of arms of the noble family of Sienese origins together with the symbol of the camerlengo and the two keys – not crossed as in the Papal coat of arms – but separate and hanging sideways.
Opening the Centre of Christianity
The Sistine Chapel is the place where the clavigero finishes his rounds. Beginning in 2017, it has been possible to accompany him by appointment. It is difficult to describe the emotion that comes with entering into the dark and, when the lights are put on, to be enveloped with such beauty. “When I began in 1999”, Gianni Crea recounts, “there were three of us. I had to wait three years before being able to open the Sistine Chapel. For a long time, I had imagined what that moment would be like, and the feeling is always indescribable. it’s still hard to believe that I have the honour to open the centre of Christianity to the tourists who come from every part of the world.
Gold and silver
On the walls frescoed by the quattrocento artists, one created by Pietro Perugino (Raphael’s teacher), is striking for its high semantic and symbolic value. It portrays the “Handing over of the keys to Saint Peter”. One of the keys is gilded and faces Christ; the other is silver. Both of them respectively symbolize the power of the Kingdom of Heaven and the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth.
The claviger of heaven
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is the mandate given by Jesus to the Apostle Peter, the keeper of heaven’s keys, “the claviger of heaven”.
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