Drunken hoards of rowdy tourists have made Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel an "unimaginable mess" and access to the artwork should be restricted, an Italian writer has said, prompting furious discussion among Catholics.
Writing in Corriere della Sera, Pietro Citati said the artwork was threatened by the "flocks of drunks" which cram in to see the Vatican's treasures.
He said: "For several years I had not seen the Sistine Chapel, and last year, in November, entering St. Peter's Square, I went back to contemplate there once again. It was an unthinkable disaster.
He described the great hall as filled with "heavy jackets, coats, hats, balaclavas, raincoats, umbrellas. The heavy breathing caused halos, vapours and mists that hung up in air, clouding the Last Judgement, the Creation of Adam and the Sibyls.
"Meanwhile, every 10 minutes a loud voice called for silence… it made it impossible for any form of contemplation."
He scornfully described the tourists who "filled every space that could be filled, crowded like herds of drunks. In the confusion, no one saw anything."
He suggested that the numbers be slashed by a quarter or a fifth in order to survive the "monstrous condition" of the current state of affairs, which endanger the frescoes.
Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci wrote in the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano that the Sistine Chapel faced the same difficulties as all museums that masses of tourists want to visit, but said setting a limit was unthinkable.
Paolucci said the days where only the elite could see "cultural masterpieces" were long gone. "The days when only Russian grand dukes and English lords or [American art expert] Bernard Berenson could gain access to the great masterpieces are definitely over."
"We have tripled the number of guards and for the past two years we have been carrying out a study to examine how to better ventilate and control humidity.
"With the development of the economies in emerging countries, the number of people that will be able to afford the trip to visit Rome and view this beauty and the two symbols that are the capital of Christianity, the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel, will increase."
The opposing views has caused fierce debate on Catholic forums and blogs, many of them backing Citati's call for a limit on tourists.
Writing on Catholic Answers, one said: "If the acts truly are ruining the Chapel, and the guards' best efforts are truly not helping, then it seems to me extremely irresponsible and negligent to keep it open.
"I would say a better idea would be to take in medium-ish groups one at a time, absolutely demand low voices and no cameras, and remove persons who violate these rules. Perhaps even fine them."
Another said about a recent visit: "It was heartbreaking to go through the sistine chapel and hear all those cameras all around us, most of them using flash.
"It was terrible. I was so impressed by the art, of course, but that spiritual joy was all but extinguished by all those people talking and all those cameras.
"The guards were doing all they could and I stepped up to several people and asked them to stop, but it made no difference.
"I would be happier by far if they just closed the place to tourists, even if it meant that I could never see that beautiful place again."