Some 5.5 million visitors toured the Vatican Museums last year, and the numbers continue to grow. "The popularity of Pope Francis has reverberated onto the museums," Antonio Paolucci, the museums' director, told journalists.
Now, for the first time, digital technology is taking visitors not only through the museums, but also further inside the Vatican than has ever before been possible.
In six 55-minute DVD documentaries, viewers are shown the spiritual, historical and artistic tapestry of the world's smallest independent state. "The access offered in the series is unique," said the popular Italian broadcaster Angelo Angeli, host of the series. "We were able to show places that have never been filmed."
"Alla Scoperta del Vaticano" ("Discovering the Vatican") was co-produced by CTV, the Vatican's own television-production studio, together with the Italian national network RAI and is being distributed by La Repubblica, a Rome daily newspaper. The first of the half dozen weekly installments goes on sale in Italy on Wednesday.
Viewers can see the parchment scroll, preserved in the Vatican Secret Archives, on which the trial of Galileo Galilei is recorded. They can wander through the 55 acres of garden inside the Vatican City walls. They can visit its center for art restoration, and watch a solemn ceremony of Swiss Guards.
Close-up camera views of Michelangelo's "Pieta'" permit a more complete vision of the sculpture than is usually possible because the sculpture has been protected behind a glass wall since an attacker damaged it with a hammer in 1972. Well over 30 minutes are devoted solely to the Sistine Chapel, filmed with advanced technology that again represents a first for filming within the Vatican. Given the pressure of real-life crowds, normal visits there are limited to just 20 minutes.
"Filming inside the Vatican was not always easy," Angeli told reporters at a news conference Tuesday inside the Vatican Museums. "We were filming one night until 10 p.m. when we were called and warned jokingly that if we didn't stop we'd be arrested by the Swiss Guards."
Earlier the same day, his TV crew had picnicked by one of the 100 fountains in the Vatican gardens. "To learn that there were so many came as a surprise," he said. "And so was seeing that the Bancomat has instructions in Latin."
CTV spokesmen said plans are underway for an English-language version of the DVDs, although a release date has not been set.