ROME – Two acts of vandalism inside St. Peter’s Basilica last week have created a stir in the Eternal City, prompting some to ask whether further protections and security measures for other treasures akin to the glass in front of Michelangelo’s famed Pieta are needed.
Several guides who regularly take pilgrims and tourists to admire the priceless art and artifacts, and to pray before the saints entombed in the basilica, are resisting the idea, saying such barriers risk compromising the sacred nature of the space.
On Wednesday a man described as “unstable” was reportedly arrested by Vatican police after tossing a candelabra off the main altar in St Peter’s.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that a man climbed over the ropes surrounding the main altar at the center of the basilica, which sits beneath the famed leafy canopy sculpted by Italian Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and above what are believed to be the bones of St. Peter, and threw a candelabra to the floor. He was later arrested and questioned by Vatican police.
Two days later, a similar event took place in which a man climbed onto the platform near the main altar and began smashing a crucifix sitting on top.
Agnes Crawford, a British native who’s been a tour guide in Rome for the past 18 years, was leading a group inside St. Peter’s when the incident took place. Images posted to her Twitter account show the dented base of the crucifix with its top, which had been broken off, laying on the floor.
While I was finishing this afternoon’s tour in St Peter’s a man climbed onto the high altar and started smashing the central crucifix against the marble. I kept my clients at a judicious distance until he was removed. Then obviously I took some photos. pic.twitter.com/13KyL6lW3L
— Agnes Crawford (@understandrome) September 6, 2019
Speaking to Crux, Crawford said she was standing near the entrance of the basilica around 6:00 p.m. near closing time when she heard banging from the opposite end, where the main altar is located.
“This guy climbed onto the altar and started smashing the crucifix and the candle sticks,” she said, explaining that while many began running toward the scene, she advised her group to stay back until the situation was resolved.
“What struck me as quite bizarre was that quite a lot of people, before realizing what was happening, were rushing to take photographs. If I see a guy who’s clearly losing his mind, the last thing I want to do is get closer,” she said.
Describing the man as a bit “out of his mind,” Crawford said he was shouting something “incomprehensible,” but was otherwise calm and did not resist when security officials came to take him away.
“I didn’t find it alarming at all. It was just sort of weird,” Crawford said, adding that with so many people coming in and out of the basilica, “it’s surprising that things like this don’t happen more often, because there’s something about big churches which does attract quite strange people.”
However, the fact that this was the second act of vandalism in a week is alarming, she said. Despite the oddness of it, Crawford said she is not in favor of tougher restrictions.
“If you think in the grand scheme of things, these sorts of things happen very, very rarely,” she said, adding that “I think that places being accessible is very good.”
“If every time somebody tries to do something, you put up fences and walls and glass barriers, then everything becomes hermetically sealed, when the vast majority of people are perfectly reasonable,” she said.
St. Peter’s, which welcomes millions of visitors a year, “is primarily a church, it’s not primarily a museum, and it would be rather sad if everything becomes sanitized,” she said, insisting that more vigilance is needed, not blockades or restrictions.
Other regular Vatican guides voiced similar fears that the sacred artifacts in St. Peter’s would be seen only behind a wall of glass, like the one now surrounding the pieta following an incident in 1972 when a deranged man attacked the sculpture with a hammer.
Celebrated art historian, author and lecturer Elizabeth Lev, currently on a speaking tour in Asia, told Crux she was “shocked” to hear about the vandalism. Though this type of incident is nothing new, it’s particularly saddening when it happens in a place of beauty and prayer, she said.
“Rome’s monuments have been scarred many times over the centuries – Bernini’s fountains, Caravaggio’s paintings and Michelangelo’s statues have all suffered harm,” she said, explaining that what’s tragic for her about this week’s episodes is that an apparently mentally ill man, “instead of finding solace in the beauty of the basilica, was spurred to violence.”
“It’s always a little soul-crushing when one thinks that a space which is intended to reflect the best of humanity, its redemption, and friendship with God, can become a place where the worst comes to the fore,” she said.
Lev said she was surprised that the men managed to get all the way up to the main altar, as it’s cordoned off and usually under the watch of several security guards, yet she’s not in favor of adding more barriers.
“The knee-jerk response to this kind of thing is to add more barriers and enclosures, which would be unfortunate,” she said, because “St. Peter’s Basilica is not a museum, it is a living place of worship, and it would make the pilgrims and visitors feel more detached from the spiritual nature of the site.”
Mountain Butorac, who lives in Rome and runs The Catholic Traveler tour company, told Crux that his first reaction was “immediate disappointment that things will change,” that there will be more security and more restrictions.
“I don’t want everything behind glass and ropes,” he said. “Why punish everyone for the acts of a few?”
“In the U.S. we still have to take off our shoes at the airport. It doesn’t solve anything,” he said, explaining that in his view, to hide the treasures of the basilica behind glass and ropes “takes away from the beauty.”
Butorac believes it comes down to being more vigilant and attentive.
“These are our churches. Maybe (it’s) not the most prudent advice, but if you see someone jumping on an altar or trying to tip statues, don’t wait for someone else to stop the person, step in and do something,” he said.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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