Gone were the crowds -- but the lucky few who ventured to the reopened Vatican Museums on Monday were treated to centuries' worth of sumptuous artworks, including inside the Sistine Chapel.
After closing for 88 days since November due to coronavirus restrictions, the collection of museums -- spread over seven kilometres (4.3 miles) within the Vatican -- opened its doors to a mostly local public, capitalising on the empty galleries and a dearth of tourists.
"Today is a celebration," said Director Barbara Jatta, who welcomed photographers and television crews inside.
Jatta had expressed much the same sentiment in June, however, when the museums reopened after being shuttered in March as the pandemic struck Italy before engulfing the rest of Europe.
As the heavy museum doors swung open Monday morning, first in line were tour guides Martina Sorrenti and Vincenzo Spina, who, in normal times, spend five days a week inside guiding visitors.
Art-deprived, they were headed first to the Laocoon, the ancient marble masterpiece discovered on Rome's Esquiline Hill in the 16th century, depicting two serpents coiled around the muscular body of Laocoon and his two sons.
"In past years, the museum was our second home. Today, we're going to rediscover a place we haven't forgotten but has become a little dimmed in our memories," said Spina.
Afterwards they planned to head to the Colosseum, another top site reopened to the public on Monday after Italy's government loosened Covid-19 restrictions in much of the country, including Lazio, the region that includes Rome and Vatican City.
- Art without the tourists -
Museum staff kept busy during the hiatus with restorations, regular artwork maintenance and improvements to the facilities.
Jatta recommended a stop inside the recently restored Borgia Apartments, a suite of vividly frescoed rooms used by pope Alexander VI of the powerful Borgia family before his death in 1503.
"You enter into a marvellous 15th century ambiance," said Jatta. "Beforehand it was covered up with a tarp and you couldn't see what was there."
Directly upstairs in the rooms adorned by Renaissance master Raphael and his students, two priests from the order of St. Vincent de Paul appeared starry-eyed.
"I had to seize the opportunity," said Sanon Bertin, who has lived in Rome for six years but never before visited.
Fellow clergyman Richard Corbon agreed it was a unique opportunity to view art in an environment "free of the pressure of tourists".
"I almost have the impression there are more employees than visitors," Corbon said.
As for the Sistine Chapel, its vault and altar wall -- frescoed by Michelangelo -- normally inspire hordes of tourists to crane their necks and brandish their selfie-sticks. But on Monday it was practically empty.
The vast chapel is also looking fresher than it might usually at this time of year, since the shutdown allowed staff to carry out its annual deep-clean a month early.
Revenue from the museums, which employ 700 people, are crucial for filling the coffers of the Vatican State.
The museums averaged about 23,000 visitors per day in 2019, said Jatta, who said she hoped to have "a few thousand" daily in weeks ahead.
"Right now is the moment to come and see the museum of the Pope," she said.