Sistine Chapel hit by pickpocketing epidemic
Tourists looking heavenwards make easy targets
Its frescoed walls and ceiling by Michelangelo make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, but the Sistine Chapel has also become a haven for pickpockets, guides have warned.
Thefts in the 15th century chapel and in the adjoining Vatican Museums have led some tour guides to threaten to call a strike in protest, a month after a similar gesture by their counterparts at the Louvre.
Thousands of tourists visit the chapel inside the Vatican each day but as they crane their necks upwards to marvel at Michelangelo's magnificent ceiling and frescoes by Botticelli and Pinturicchio, they make easy pickings for light-fingered thieves.
Visitors mesmerised by the Renaissance master's depiction of God giving life to Adam and other Biblical scenes often pay little regard to their wallets, purses and bags.
"It is very hard to control so many people and there are not enough guards," Federica D'Orazio, a tour guide, told The Daily Telegraph. "In my opinion there are just too many people – I don't think the authorities should let in so many."
Professional tour guides – some of whom have been pick-pocketed themselves – are so fed up that they are considering mounting a one-off strike to highlight the problem, just as their counterparts at the Louvre did last month.
The museum in Paris was forced to close for a day after staff staged a walkout, complaining that pickpockets, some of them children, were becoming "more aggressive" and targeting both visitors and employees.
"There is a Facebook page for guides in Rome and a lot of people are talking about a walkout," said Ms D'Orazio.
Within the Vatican, it is not just the Sistine Chapel that is being targeted, but also the adjoining Vatican Museums, St Peter's Basilica and St Peter's Square.
"Petty crime, a lack of decorum, neglect ... our job is becoming harder by the day," said one guide on the Facebook forum. "The only thing to do is to organise ourselves and do something on our own initiative – no one will solve our problems for us."
Francesca Duimich, the head of a union of tour guides, downplayed the risk of being pick-pocketed in the Sistine Chapel.
"But certainly where there is a crowd, there can be a problem," she said.
"People need to be careful of pickpockets in Rome, as they would be in other cities." She said the "real problem" facing the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums was that they were being overwhelmed by visitors.
"During the high season you might have 27,000 people going through the Vatican Museums. "That is an excessive number, the experience becomes like a survival course for tourists. The museums should open earlier and close later, or open on more days of the year."
Beyond the stone walls of the Holy See, pickpockets are also active in tourist hot spots such as the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain.
The number 64 bus is particularly notorious – it runs between St Peter's Square and Termini, Rome's main station, and is often packed with tourists.
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