Clean­ing St. Peter’s no easy feat

Regina Leader-Post - - Religion - By FRANCIS X. ROCCA Re­li­gion News Ser­vice

re­li­gious na­ture of the build­ing.

A sign at the en­trance now re­minds vis­i­tors that they are step­ping into a sanc­tu­ary, and the basil­ica’s recorded

VAT­I­CAN CITY — As the tomb of the first pope and the prin­ci­pal church of most of his 264 suc­ces­sors, St. Peter’s Basil­ica is Ro­man Catholi­cism’s great­est shrine. It’s also a trea­sure trove of artis­tic riches, with works by such artists as Michelan­gelo, Raphael and Bernini.

At over 600 feet long, with a dome 450 feet high, it is one of the big­gest churches in the world. And with mil­lions of vis­i­tors per year, it is one of the busiest tourist at­trac­tions any­where.

Keep­ing the mother church of Catholi­cism run­ning — and tidy — is, not sur­pris­ingly, a monumental task. Yet it’s a job en­trusted to a corps of just 75 men. Whether the job is re­mind­ing vis­i­tors to doff their base­ball caps, or dust­ing a cor­nice 175 feet above the mar­ble floor, it falls to one of the basil­ica’s “San­pietrini.”

Un­til just a few decades ago, the San­pietrini were the lit­eral heirs of the crafts­men who built the cur­rent basil­ica in the 16th and 17th cen­turies (on the site of its fourth-cen­tury pre­de­ces­sor). The jobs were tra­di­tion­ally passed down from fa­ther to son un­til Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) im­posed an anti-ne­po­tism rule.

Now the rare va­can­cies are filled from more than 100 ap­pli­cants per year, with a pref­er­ence for those al­ready trained in a cer­tain skill, such as car­pen­try, elec­tri­cal work or paint­ing trompe-l’oeil mar­bling on plas­ter walls.

A tol­er­ance for heights is also re­quired, in or­der to main­tain the basil­ica’s hard­est-to-reach cor­ners.

Twice a year, work­ers clean Bernini’s 90-foot-high canopy over the main al­tar, us­ing a cen­turies-old method that has earned them the nick­name “The Fly­ing San­pietrini.” Tied to small wooden seats hang­ing by hemp ropes, they are grad­u­ally low­ered to the floor, dust­ing off the twist­ing bronze col­umns and spray­ing them with a wa­ter­proof­ing so­lu­tion on their way down.

“It’s a tra­di­tion, but it’s also the only way to get the right re­sult,” said Marco Panci, a vet­eran San­pietrino. “With mod­ern ma­chines it’s just not the same.”

When they are not busy with clean­ing or re­pairs, San­pietrini take turns at sur­veil­lance work, keep­ing watch at the en­trance and through­out the vast basil­ica. This as­sign­ment has be­come more ar­du­ous in re­cent years, with a steep rise in the num­ber of vis­i­tors fol­low­ing the Ju­bilee year of 2000 and the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.

“We no longer have any more dead pe­ri­ods,” said Car­di­nal An­gelo Co­mas­tri, pres­i­dent of the Fab­brica di San Pi­etro, the Vat­i­can of­fice that runs the basil­ica. He is also the basil­ica’s arch­priest and the pope’s vicar gen­eral, or act­ing bishop, for the Vat­i­can City State.

An av­er­age of 20,000 peo­ple per day pass through the main part of the church, Co­mas­tri says, ris­ing to 30,000 in the peak pe­ri­ods of Christ­mas, Easter and the sum­mer tourist sea­son.

The grot­toes be­neath the basil­ica used to re­ceive only a few hun­dred vis­i­tors per day. Now, as many as 18,000 pass through in a sin­gle day, many of them to visit the tomb of John Paul II.

With the as­sis­tance of paid and vol­un­teer aux­il­iaries, the San­pietrini strive to man­age th­ese throngs while keep­ing up a po­lite and wel­com­ing de­meanor. But they in­sist on stop­ping any be­hav­iour that they deem in­ap­pro­pri­ate for a house of wor­ship.

The most com­mon in­frac­tions, es­pe­cially in warmer months, are in the cat­e­gory of dress.

“Short shorts, un­der­shirts, sleeve­less blouses — they can’t come in,” says Luca Lan­dolfi, the rank­ing San­pietrino with the ti­tle of in­spec­tor. Peo­ple nor­mally com­ply, but at least once a day some­one re­fuses to be turned away. Only in the most trou­ble­some cases does Lan­dolfi need to call in the Vat­i­can’s po­lice force, known as the gen­darmerie.

The vig­i­lance con­tin­ues in­doors. Pick­pock­ets and purse snatch­ers are al­ways a po­ten­tial dan­ger. Thieves have tried to walk off with some of the gilt bronze can­dle­sticks that adorn the basil­ica’s two dozen al­tars.

Sev­eral times a year, men im­per­son­at­ing priests or bishops try to say Mass in one of the chapels. (The San­pietrini keep their pho­tos and in­for­ma­tion on file.) Once, a man dis­robed and stood with arms out­stretched in front of the main al­tar. A num­ber of peo­ple have cho­sen the basil­ica as the site for their sui­cides.

Most no­to­ri­ously, in 1971, an Aus­tralian named Las­zlo Toth used a ham­mer to van­dal­ize Michelan­gelo’s Pi­eta. The re­stored sculp­ture of the Vir­gin Mary cradling her dead son is now shielded by bul­let­proof glass.

“This is, how should I say it, a res­o­nant place. So peo­ple do things here, think­ing that it will am­plify what they do,” Panci said. “The eyes of the world are upon us.”

Such cases are ex­cep­tional, of course. The great­est ev­ery­day chal­lenge, ac­cord­ing to Co­mas­tri, is “trans­form­ing tourists into pil­grims.” Un­der its chief of staff, Amer­i­can-trained art his­to­rian Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella, the Fab­brica has been work­ing to stress the au­dio guides are be­ing re­vised to place greater em­pha­sis on the re­li­gious in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the art and ar­chi­tec­ture.

“ ‘Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not pre­vail against it,’ ” Co­mas­tri said, recit­ing the Gospel pas­sage of Je­sus’ prom­ise to St. Peter. “We want the tourist or pil­grim to en­counter th­ese words, at least, and bring them home as a me­mento.”

Getty Images

St. Peter’s Basil­ica at the Vat­i­can is kept clean and in good re­pair by only 75 men.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.