Every so often economics really is the “dismal science”, as Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle put it. Such has been the increasing state of misery as many businesses remain blocked by government public health orders all over the world. Some national coronavirus lockdowns won’t see any untightening until at least early June.
The Vatican is no exception to these hard economic times. Its greatest single source of revenue is the Vatican Museums and its attached Sistine Chapel. According to the Museums’ website, entrance remains closed until further notice.
The Museums’ continued closure was unexpected, as the Italian website Il Fatto Quotidiano recently but mistakenly announced their immediate, cautious reopening along with other important museums and churches for worship as part of the Italy’s Phase 2 roll out that began on Monday, May 18. Re-openings must follow strict sanitation guidelines, including the use of masks, providing hand sanitizing dispensers at entrances, enforcing social distancing, and limiting capacity quotas per hour.
Indeed, St. Peter’s Basilica punctually reopened for visitors and worship on Monday, yet the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel right next door have not. There is no official explanation for the decision.
The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, seen all over Rome, remains unlit at night. This is a sign that the Vatican City State is trying to save money while contemplating an uncertain economic recovery plan. It is the world’s smallest country but with a fairly robust financial portfolio. Yet it has in no way escaped the ongoing health and economic calamity.
While the normally packed Museums are still locked, the Vatican’s economy is becoming ever more precarious. This is because the Museums are such a significant source of revenue for Vatican coffers. They draw in 6 million yearly visitors and generate at least $120 million in ordinary ticket sales alone. Millions more can be collected via the sale of VIP packages, souvenirs, and other add-ons, such as early entrance fees and audio guides. The Holy See absolutely depends on the Museums for providing financially backing of its main institutions.
For example, the Holy See’s overall budget counts on the Museums for footing the costs of the 3000-plus people on the Curial payroll; its Propaganda Fide Missions and attached seminary; its multilingual secretariat, the Gendarme police force, governorate, and nunciatures. Of course, Vatican Museums revenues finance the upkeep of its priceless artistic treasures, Rome’s four archbasilicas, the papal gardens, as well as the summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, which was recently incorporated into daily tour packages.
The Vatican does have other sources of income. However, most have been halted by closed souvenir shops and the shuttered elemosineria papal blessing service. What’s more, there have been very few customers to serve inside its first-rate pharmacy, supermarket, and two post offices.
There is a steady income stream from the Vatican’s commercial real estate assets which, for now, have not suffered on bad-rent. Some donations still trickle into Peter’s Pence, which pays for the Papal Household and the Swiss Guard. While some international Catholic foundations have remained committed to their 2020 pledges, private philanthropists are withholding major donations until stock markets and businesses re-stabilize.
With zero revenue over nearly some three months and with billions of dollars of art treasures to curate in its nine miles of corridors and 1400 rooms, the Vatican Museums have a major economic challenge on their hands. What can they do to recover $12 million of lost monthly revenue with no tourists able to visit some of the world’s most celebrated art, including the inimitable Sistine Chapel, until further notice?
When asked whether there was there any revenue coming in at this time, he said the Museums are receiving funds from its Patrons “for a multiple array of ongoing restorations, from paintings, to statues, to tapestries.”
Lixey said that the only other source of commercial profits right now might be from “some royalties” of Vatican Museums books. He confirmed that, during the lockdown, the Museums are not collecting fees for any online or private personal tours.
Lixey also said that his office, while waiting to reopen, has found innovative methods of maintaining relations with its philanthropists at a time of enforced social distancing.
Although the Vatican Museums’ website already offers stunning views of its galleries by way of “virtual 360-degree online browsing”, Lixey said what is missing is a “real face, a human touch”, the hallmark of his work with Patrons. So, Lixey offered what the Museums’ Patrons most appreciate: a team of art historians who can, in real time, guide online viewers through the Museums’ galleries and focus on a particular topic, “such as the Year of Raphael”.
Lixey explained that his office does provide Museums’ Patrons with a digital “social hang out”, where they can see each other and be taught “greater insights about an artist or particular work of art” by those who know how to do it best “in an engaging way.”
“We had 320 Patrons and friends join us on our last episode of a four-part lecture series on Raphael… and we expect it next week to double in attendance,” he said. “Additionally, we are also using virtual conferencing [platforms] to allow our Museums director, Barbara Jatta, to be in touch with our Patrons to update them on situation here in the Vatican.”
When it was possible for donors to visit the Museums, one of the most popular VIP fee-based services arranged by Lixey’s office was a private visit of art restoration facilities. It was confirmed that this unique tour will not resume, like all other public visits, until the Museums officially reopen, which is expected sometime in June. Nevertheless, Lixey said Museums’ expert art restorers are still able do their jobs: “The Museums’ [laboratories] partially opened this week to a crew of employees…who are working in reduced shifts so as to maintain proper distances.”
It is not known whether the Vatican Museums are advancing novel forms of fundraising, even at a grassroots level. Yet Lixey said he was confident the Museums’ Patrons who have “perhaps even a greater passion for the restoration of art” would continue with their regular giving, particularly for the famous Bramante Courtyard now in its third phase and costing “a colossal 7.7 million euro [$8,400, 000].”
“With one’s own eyes,” Likey said, “you can see the before and after” of repairs. Art is “brought back to its original beauty” which inspires faithful philanthropy. “It is breathtaking,” he said.
“This is a window we would like to make even more accessible, and to younger generations. We are exploring how this might be accomplished [by] recording a minute every day of a piece to capture each step of the restoration process, and then putting it all together, for a more in depth analysis,” he said.
Lixey said he was not able to comment regarding new tours or activities offered to generate additional revenue once the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel finally reopen to the public. He did say, however, desperate measures would not be taken to sell off assets or priceless art to stay afloat financially.
“First of all, how do you sell the Sistine chapel? Frescoes don’t easily come off a wall!” he said. “Once I heard that when Pope Francis was asked why the Vatican doesn’t sell [some] of its art collection and give the money to the poor, and his response was: ‘Even the poor have a need for beauty!’”
Lixey questioned the point of auctioning off a Michelangelo sculpture or Caravaggio painting that would end up being “locked away from the eyes of the world” and perhaps even be “badly preserved in someone’s private home!”
“I am confident that if [our Patrons] knew we were in a serious financial crisis, to the point of needing to sell off the collection, they and other world philanthropists would come forward to help us continue to make one of the greatest collections of the world accessible to the world,” Lixey said.
Lixey said he thinks many people living outside the pope’s walls have the “false impression” that the Vatican lockdown is banking its recovery on “huge financial reserves.” Far from it. The Museums’ hefty daily revenues, not endowments, serve to finance not just the above-mentioned vital institutions, but many free Vatican services that pilgrims take for granted every day, like entering St. Peter’s Basilica and attending papal audiences. “What other association or entity does that?” remarks the Patrons Office director.
Time will tell if the Vatican ‘must continue to dim its lights’ for much longer in order to recover lost revenues. Even if the Museums do reopen in June, their cash registers will surely benefit from only a meager portion of their usual high volume initially. Global travel restrictions, no doubt, will hold and continue to invoke sober expectations for the usual high season of summer tourism.
It is a good thing Rome is the Eternal City. This economic crisis is bad, but it will never outlast the city itself. The Urbs Aeterna has seen plagues, foreign rulers, and all sorts of invaders, including this coronavirus, come and go. Rome has always stood the test of time. She has always entrusted the longevity and economic well-being of her divinely protected institutions to Hope and Providence, a spiritual lesson for all those suffering financial hardship in the here and now.
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