Sistine Chapel, the Ride? See Inside Michelangelo’s Masterpieces in Rome’s High-Tech Theatrical Production
Can an immersive theatrical experience breath new life into Michelangelo's masterpiece?
Visitors to the Eternal City can add a decidedly 21st-century attraction to their list of must-see Roman tourist attractions. Just down the street from the famed Vatican Museums, within view of St. Peter’s Square, you can now buy tickets to see Giudizio Universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, a high-tech blend of live theater and cinema that gets up close and personal with the Renaissance master and his famed frescoes.
The hour-long production is the brainchild of director Marco Balich, who has previously orchestrated opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics, including the 2006 games in Turin, Italy. To put together this production, a process that took four years, he secured a private investment of €9 million ($11 million) and booked the city’s former symphony hall for a year.
Given Balich’s background, you’d be right to expect over-the-top spectacle—it wouldn’t be inaccurate to compare Giudizio Universale to a Disney theme park show. The symphony hall is the biggest theater I’ve ever seen, with a whopping 1763 seats. There’s a stage, but the show also extends to the walls and ceiling, with 270 degrees of video projections that transport the audience down the street to the Vatican, and inside the paintings themselves, which come alive through the combined power of animation, dance, and stagecraft.
Giudizio Universale is a story of artistic genius, of Michelangelo’s unmatched vision and creativity. First, we see him at work on the David, coaxing the life out of a block of marble—literally a living, breathing material through the magic of set design. (The Vatican is fully on board, providing the high-resolution images of the Sistine Chapel at a reduced rate in recognition of the show’s educational value, and overseeing the production to ensure historical accuracy.)
An actor has been hired to play the artist, but to call this acting would be something of a stretch: In order to accommodate international audiences, the play is staged in nine languages. The cast mostly points and gestures at the sets and video projections as a prerecorded audio track narrates the action. (The voice acting cast is headlined by Susan Sarandon and Pierfrancesco Favino.)
It is Pope Julius II who convinces Michelangelo to turn his attentions to painting, taking him to the Sistine Chapel to see the murals that have already been painted on the walls by the likes of Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
It’s a cleverly designed art history lesson—one that might even get visitors to the actual chapel to stop craning their necks for a minute to appreciate the other Old Masters who graced the Vatican with their considerable talents at eye level.
The play goes on to consider each panel Michelangelo painted on the chapel ceiling, the scenes of creation and the great flood appearing on screen and acted out to dramatic effect by dancers performing amid elaborate stage sets.
When Pope Clement II calls again on Michelangelo 30 years later, the artist tries to demur. “I am too old to paint,” he insists.
“No, Michelangelo,” Clement responds. “You are exactly the right age to paint the Last Judgement.”
Ultimately, the artist embraces the challenge. The show ends with an extended animation of Michelangelo’s massive mural. The angelic chorus swells—the theme song, based on 13th-century sacred music, is written and recorded by Sting, backed by an 18-member choir—as contorted human forms writhe in despair as they are cast into Hell, while others rise to join Jesus in paradise.
“Here on this wall, I leave everything,” Michelangelo proclaims. “My life, my heart, my legacy, my tribute to the absolute.”
Giudizio Universale ranks somewhat lower on the scale of human achievement. Somewhere between a proper play and a planetarium show, the production attempts to pioneer an entirely new form of entertainment—or “artainment,” as the show’s production company, Artainment Worldwide Shows, is christened. I’m not entirely sure it succeeds.
Certainly, this could be an attractive point of entry for a specific kind of tourist with a passing interest in art history. For scholars and experts, the appeal would be minimal, but I can see this serving as an amuse bouche ahead of a first-time visit to the Vatican itself, especially for children who might need the added stimulation of the stage to be convinced to engage with a work of art.
Visiting the museums is an incredible experience, but after being funneled into endless rooms of marble statues, paintings, and crowds of tour groups, it’s easy to feel tired and overwhelmed by the time one reaches the Sistine Chapel. Seats along the chapel walls are at a premium amid the sea of people, packed shoulder-to-shoulder and avidly whispering, forcing the guards to call for silence every few minutes. The paintings are sublime, but it is, in a word, stressful.
So why not recreate the experience—with special effects—giving audiences the chance to better appreciate the majesty Michelangelo’s masterpieces from the comfort of cushioned chairs? Seeing the stage production first might even give you an added appreciation for the original, helping you interpret the scenes up above and imagine what the great artist was thinking.
That being said, I can’t imagine this production succeeding outside of Rome. (The ultimate goal is to bring it to other cities, although no specific plans have been announced yet.) As a technological marvel, Giudizio Universale does rival the glory days of the Catholic Church for pomp and circumstance. But for all its charms, the play pales in comparison to Michelangelo’s original frescoes.
Where the Vatican of old was the world’s greatest patron of the arts, responsible for the creation of some of art history’s most famous masterpieces, Giudizio Universale, for all its bells and whistles, cannot stand on its own. It may deliver on its promise to reveal Michelangelo’s secrets, but without him, it is nothing. If you really want to experience the Sistine Chapel, you’re still going to have to see the real thing.
Watch the promotional video for the show:
See more photos of the show below.
Giudizio Universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel is on view at the Auditorium Conciliazione, Via Della Conciliazione, 4, Rome. General admission is €16.20–34.56 ($18.80–40.11).
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