Sistine Chapel and Other Roman Landmarks Damaged by Tourists

The crush of tourism is imperiling many Roman landmarks, writes Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Franco S. Origlia / Getty Images

Rome may be one of the most popular travel destinations on the planet, but that doesn’t mean tourists are appreciated.

There is nothing worse than visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome on a hot summer day, when the smell of sweat is overwhelming and the sticky skin of someone’s shoulder rubbing yours is unavoidable. More than 20,000 visitors pile through the chapel, one of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpieces, every single day. But they are literally loving it to death. “They fill every space and disturb the calm like drunken hoards,” Italian literary critic Pietro Citati wrote in an open letter to Corriere della Sera this week. “They are turning it into an unimaginable mess.”

The chapel is the highlight of any Vatican museum tour, but it is under constant threat from the 5 million tourists who plod through it each year. Much has been done to combat the ill effects of humans. Air conditioners to lower body heat have been installed to help protect the 16th-century paintings. Cleaners frequently scrub off a layer of filth left by the tourists. Air vents that suck out the bad breath, dandruff, and pollen have had to be improved to keep up with the crowds, says Vatican Museum director Antonio Paolucci, who says despite the threat, it would be impossible to restrict the numbers. “Restricted entry is unthinkable,” he wrote in Osservatore Romano in response to Citati’s criticism. “The Sistine is not only a place of art, it is also a consecrated chapel, a compendium of theology and a true and proper catechism in pictures. Would it be possible to limit entry to Lourdes or to San Giovanni Rotondo? “

Despite the damage already done, Paolucci believes the numbers of tourists will only increase. “With the emancipation of the developing countries, more and more people will be able to travel to Rome and will have access to this beauty, visiting the two places that are symbols of the capital of Christianity: the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel,” he says.

By restricting the number of tourists trotting through the sacred chapel, the Vatican may save the art, but they would lose millions of euro each year. Other museums in Rome like the Borghese Galleries require reservations and set strict time limits on how long visitors can spend inside, which causes many visitors to skip the museum altogether–something Paolucci doesn’t want them to do.

Tourists to Rome are not only destroying the Vatican’s most prized site; they are also dirtying the city’s outdoor treasures. In an attempt to control the raucous crowds of ill-mannered tourists that descend on the city, Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno has just introduced a new punishment for those who picnic on the city’s best known outdoor sites. Starting in 2013, tourists will face fines of up to €500 if they are caught snacking on the Spanish Steps or eating ice cream near the fountains of Piazza Navona. Dubbed a “sandwich war,” the move to fine those who feed in public has angered many snack vendors who make a living on street food. It will also be illegal to drink alcohol on the open piazzas and smoke cigarettes in some city squares. The move follows similar laws that prohibit outdoor snacking in Venice, Bologna, and Florence, but the fines in Rome are considerably higher than any other city.

According to the city ordinance, it will be forbidden to “stop to eat or drink in zones which have a particular historic or architectural value,” which, in a city like Rome, could be just about anywhere.