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Vatican Museums Reopen To Smaller Crowds Amid Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What would it be like to have Rome's famed museums mostly to yourself? The Vatican Museums reopened this week after being closed for three months due to the coronavirus lockdown. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the usual hordes of tourists are not there, which makes for an unusual experience.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, more than 6 million people visited the Vatican Museums every year. Waiting in line to enter could last several hours, and just getting a glimpse of the artworks often require painful jostling and rubbernecking. For the post-lockdown reopening, the media has been invited, and it seems there are more reporters than visitors. One of them is Roman Luigi Diani. His last visit was on a school trip 50 years ago.

ROMAN LUIGI DIANI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "I decided to come because there are no Americans or other tourists. I hope the pandemic never happens again," he adds, "but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Museum access is now by online reservation only for a limited number of visitors per hour. Their temperatures are scanned, and they're required to wear face masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM AMBIENCE)

POGGIOLI: This is the Hall of Constantine, one of the rooms painted by the Renaissance master Raphael, open for the first time after years of restoration. Visitors can now admire two female figures long attributed to Raphael's workshop. After careful cleaning, experts now say they're the work of the master himself shortly before his death 500 years ago.

Vatican Museums Director Barbara Jatta is here to welcome the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA JATTA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "It's a day of joy," says Jatta, "after so many days of lockdown, something no one in our generation had ever experienced." She says that while the number of daily visitors will be restricted, museum hours have been extended, including two evenings a week.

JATTA: To allow people that work to come and visit us because, of course, in the near future, probably only local people will join us.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican Museums cover seven miles. It's so quiet you can now hear your steps along the long corridors lined with ancient tapestries and maps of the world. Finally, the jewel in the crown - the Sistine Chapel. It's an extraordinary experience. There aren't more than 20 people roaming in the empty space and gazing upward, taking in every detail of Michelangelo's grandiose frescoes of the Bible and Last Judgment. It's a rewarding solitary pleasure thanks to the new world of social distancing.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.