The day I got the key to the Sistine Chapel

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

After being landlocked for the past 18 months, it was a particular thrill to set off to film in three European capitals: Berlin, Paris and Rome. As always, it is my duty to supply and prepare my wardrobe for each documentary, having been given a list of the things we shall be doing so that I can be suitably dressed for each occasion. Conscious of the ‘waste not, want not’ attitude which has intensified as the planet warms, I have devised a sort of dressing-up box of old clothes which can be re-worn (‘your chance to see again…’) and made slightly different by adding a scarf or rolling up the sleeves or trouser legs, or occasionally wearing the garment inside out.

It is far easier to dress for Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan than for Paris. In vast landscapes, bright colours mean you can be spotted as you round up yaks or cross a rope bridge, and cameras love colour. In Paris, however, black is de rigueur, and even my gold earrings and dark-green shirt, much praised in Azerbaijan, were judged to be rather common. Grey is as loud as you should go, colour-wise. To go into the burnt-out interior of Nôtre Dame, however, to see the repairs being carried out meant a full disposable haz-mat suit and hard hat, as there may have been lead dust lingering. The nave of the great cathedral is almost invisible under the mass of scaffolding which protects and supports what remains of the roof. Miraculously, all the stained-glass windows, the organ and the stonework were unharmed. Philippe Villeneuve, the architect in charge of the restoration, identifies so strongly with the cathedral that he has Violet le Duc’s spire tattooed on his arm. He is determined that it will be reopened in time for the Olympics in Paris in 2024. The Parisians have decided that it should be exactly as it was before the fire.

Tempelhof, the massive airport in Berlin, was designed in 1936 to be the gateway to the new Third Reich capital of Germania. History changed those plans for ever, and gradually the great runways and vast terminal were emptied of passengers and aircraft. After much debate about whether it should be scrapped altogether or transformed into flats and factories, Berliners voted to leave it just as it is. Its disturbing past is now flattened by the wheels of skateboarders and rollerbladers, bicycles and pushchairs. People picnic in the rough grass beside the main runway and larks sing overhead.

In the eastern outskirts of Rome, a disused salami factory has been turned into the strangest museum of art imaginable. Refugees and migrants from Morocco, Romania, Ukraine and Eritrea were squatting illegally in the ramshackle remains, in danger of being evicted. The anthropologist and curator, Giorgio de Finis, saw that art would legitimise the space, and over time more than 200 artists arrived to paint the walls and create installations. If anyone tried to drive the immigrants out, they would have to destroy valuable artworks. Some of the inhabitants of the Museum of the Other and Elsewhere, MAAM, have been there for 35 years. I spoke to two Sudanese refugees in their cold and tiny room, their humble belongings neatly arranged, tea offered, a friendly welcome extended. They love it although it is bitter in winter and stifling in summer. They share a standpipe with the other residents and count themselves fortunate to be there. Mohamed said he plans to go back to Darfur eventually but he had to escape to save his life.

As I knelt to fill my water bottle from one of the 2,500 free water fountains in central Rome (there is one at almost every street corner) an old woman approached, being helped along by a carer. By old I mean I thought she was on the wrong side of 95 at least. She said the kindest things to me in broken English, about how much she loved the travel shows and the entertainment I had provided over the years. ‘I hope I look like you when I am your age,’ she said, and smiled as she trundled off.

To the Vatican Museum, long before dawn: rain coming down sideways gleamed on the cobbled streets. Gianni Crea, the Keeper of the Keys, would allow me to unlock the great doors long before the public was let in. There are 2,787 keys to the Vatican treasures and there are five copies of each: all save one. There is only one key to the Sistine Chapel and it is kept in a sealed envelope, in a locked safe, in a bunker behind locked doors. We followed his torch, jingling and rattling like Mr Bojangles as we scurried along the seven kilometres of indescribably rich corridors and galleries, me holding the precious Sistine key in its envelope. Finally, he told me to open the envelope and take out the key and open the Chapel: two turns to the left. We went in. His torchlight swished over Michelangelo’s miraculous paintings in silence. I was born under a lucky star.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments