AP PHOTOS: Sistine Chapel key-keeper opens after lockdown

The Sistine Chapel reopened to public opinion last week for the first time since its November coronavirus closed

Crea is your”clavigero” of the Vatican Museums, the main key-keeper whose project starts each morning at 5 a.m., opening the doors and turning on the lights during 7 km (4 1/2 kilometers ) of one of the world’s best collections of art and antiquities.

The Associated Press followed Crea on his rounds that the very first day the museum reopened to the general public, joining him before sunrise from the downstairs”bunker” where the 2,797 keys into the Vatican paintings are stored in wall safes overnight. Since the keys dangled and jangled from giant keyrings he wears around his wrist, Crea wound his way through the Gallery of Maps, beyond the famed marble”Laocoön and His Sons” statue and eventually to the Sistine Chapel.

There, at a small wooden door, Crea drew a white envelope out of his suit pocketripped it open and pulled out a small silvery-brass key.

Using a little flashlight to guide his way, he slid the key into the keyhole, flipped it gently and creaked open the door to reveal the still-darkened chapel where popes are created during the secret ceremonies which draw their own name –“conclave” — by the crucial function that keys play in them. Cardinals are essentially locked away”with a key” in the Sistine Chapel and the nearby Vatican hotel for the duration of the solemn vote to select a new pope.

Because of this, the Sistine Chapel key is of special importance and is handled with its own protocol: After the room is shuttered for the day when the last visitor leaves, the key is put back in a new white envelope, sealed, stamped and substituted at the bunker wall protected, with its comings and goings duly noted in a thick registry publication.

Crea recalls fondly the day that, three years in his now-23 years of support, he was finally allowed to open the doorway to the Sistine Chapel alone. The privilege in the two decades since has given him a chance to see Michelangelo’s”Last Temptation” and scenes of the New Testament and Aged all alone, at the vacant quiet of dawn.

“Each of the statues, all the rooms have a exceptional history, but obviously the Sistine Chapel always provides you a specially emotion,” Crea said.

Even though the public was closed from the Vatican Museums for 88 days, Crea and his group of 10 key-keepers maintained up their routine of opening and shutting doors, since the exhibition rooms needed to be cleaned, dusted and maintained with a small army of museum employees. Restorers took the opportunity to perform maintenance work that would otherwise be impossible when the almost 7 million annual visitors pass through the museums during a normal year.

However, 2020 was anything but ordinary. Just around 1.3 million visitors came, arranging visits around Italy’s two COVID-19 lockdowns. Now, to maintain social-distancing protocols, up to 400 people can be admitted every 30 minutes, with timed tickets purchased in advance on line.

Crea, who admits that he sometimes misplaces his own house keys, will make sure the doors are open for them.

“It is a exceptional emotion, an incredible privilege for me and my coworkers to have the possibility of exhibiting these extraordinary art works, that are a part of our history, to visitors from all over the world,” he said.