Meet the man with the keys to the Vatican


Gianni Crea is intimately familiar with the contours of history.

Almost every morning for the past six years, he’s opened the doors to the Vatican Museums.

He’s experienced the stillness of the Sistine Chapel at dawn, studied the shadows of Caravaggio, and admired the textures of ancient Egypt.

“Yes, I’m a key keeper, head key keeper, but I’m still a doorman that opens a museum,” says Crea, a devout Catholic.

“But I open the doors to the history of art and the history of Christianity—and it’s the biggest and most beautiful history that exists in the world.”

Crea has worked in the Vatican for 20 years and as head clavigero for six.

“When I hold these keys, worn by the passage of time, from this moment I become responsible beyond just myself,” he says.

His mornings begin at 5:30 a.m. in a secure bunker that holds 2,797 keys.

Crea and his team of 10 clavigeri—five each on the morning and evening shifts—open and close 300 doors every day, mobilizing about 700 employees along with them.

They traverse a 4.6-mile route through the museums which see up to 28,000 visitors per day.

“I know the smell that is waiting for me when I open the first door is the smell of history—the smell that men before us have breathed in.” It’s the very same ground that they have walked, loved, and cried on, he says.

Hardwired for Art

The Vatican Museums house, protect, and restore tens of thousands of priceless works that span ancient to modern times, but perhaps none are more iconic than the seat of the papal conclave.

Crea still remembers being overcome with emotion the first time he accompanied an older key keeper for the opening of the Sistine Chapel in 1999.

“They’re so beautifully rendered in their details—the movements, the twisting, the musculature,” Crea says.

“There is something there—something so special, so magical.”

Striking in their totality, Michelangelo’s frescoes blanket 12,000 square feet of the chapel.

Scenes from the Book of Genesis and more than 300 figures reveal the intricacies of the human form.

Crea has seen people of all faiths moved by its beauty.

In fact, some scientists propose that we are hardwired to have an emotional response to art, a principle that philosophers have strived to grasp for centuries.

“The painting will move the soul of the beholder when the people painted there each clearly shows the movement of his own soul,” wrote Florentine artist Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, nearly a century before the completion of the Sistine Chapel.

“We weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with the grieving.”

Today, neuroscientists are studying the biological basis of this repsonse in their labs—a relatively young field known as neuroaesthetics.

According to limited neuroimagining research, when we view images of bodies in motion or even perceive the movements required to make brushstrokes, our own motor systems are activated—this is known as the mirror neuron system, which is involved in social communication, empathy, and imitation.

Other studies have found that the regions of the brain implicated in emotion processing are used when we look at art, suggesting an innate relationship between aesthetic judgement and emotion. Continue reading

  • Image: National Geographic
  • The interview was conducted in Italian through a translator.
  • Alberto Bernasconi is an Italian photographer based in Milan. Follow him @alberto_bernasconi.


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