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Cleaning St. Peter's requires a careful, acrobatic touch from select group

 

Mimmo Frassineti/RNS

Workers at St. Peter’s Basilica clean Bernini’s canopy over the altar built above the tomb of St. Peter. The Vatican employs 75 “Sanpietrini’’ to clean and maintain the church.

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 it running – and tidy – is 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.”

 

Getting the right result

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.

An average of 20,000 people per day pass through the main part of the church, rising to 30,000 in the peak periods of Christmas, Easter, and the summer tourist season, said Cardinal Angelo Comastri, president of the Vatican office that runs the basilica.

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 behavior 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.”