What Is Carefully Hidden

Did you hear about the man caught flashing the Chapel? To be precise, the Sistine Chapel. 

Why would anyone commit such a lascivious act, especially in one of the holiest places on earth?

The punishment was severe…they erased the photos from his phone and kicked him out!  

Of the 4 million people who visit the Chapel every year, many are guilty of furtively flashing. Others try taking photos without a flash (modern camera lenses have excellent low light sensitivity). But photos without flash are prohibited too! 

If you’ve been there, you’ve heard it.  If you plan to go there, beware.

Signs with big Xs abound. Security guards sternly shout… “No photos! No video!”

But why? It’s long been assumed that camera flashes damage art, particularly the patina that can form with age (I checked – there is no scientific evidence to support this claim). 

Presuming flashes really are damaging to art, why prohibit flashless video and photos in the Chapel? The real reason stems from the restoration that began in 1980.

When Vatican officials decided to restore Michelangelo’s art, the price tag was steep. They needed financial help.

Nippon Television Network Corporation (of Japan) offered  $3 million (it cost $4.2 million by completion). In return, Nippon secured exclusive rights to all photos and video of the restored art. They produced art books and documentaries for sale.

But in 1990 The New York Times discovered that Nippon’s exclusivity deal expired in 1997. So tourists should have been able to take flashless video and photos since then. 

Yet Vatican security guards still bark “No photos! No video!” at visitors all day, every day. But why? The answer shouldn’t surprise you…it’s all about the money.

The “photo flashes damage the art” justification is a false front…a red herring.

A strictly enforced photo ban exists in many historically significant places worldwide. The Taj Mahal in India, the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in France, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Alamo in Texas, to name a few. 

What do they all have in common? A gift shop that sells photos… the ones you are prohibited from taking. Photo bans are not about protecting art, they are about making money.

Some might argue that prohibiting photos prevents copyright infringement, but copyrights typically last for the artist’s life plus 70 years. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel over 500 years ago, so it’s fair game for a photo. This is true for the majority of “photo banned” historical sites.  

When the Eiffel Tower is lit at night, it is considered an “art installation” and therefore copyright protected from taking photos. But the tower’s image should have been public domain (not copyright protected) since 1993, 70 years after Gustave Eiffel’s death.  

However, in 1990 a French court ruled that a “special lighting display” affixed to the Tower in 1989 (marking the centennial) is protected by copyright. This was a creative workaround to extend the Eiffel Tower’s copyright expiration. 

My point? It’s the old cliche, “Things aren’t always what they appear to be.” 

Here’s another example of when things aren’t always what they appear to be…

When home prices soared after the Fed lowered interest rates because of COVID, this became one of the many factors that stoked high inflation levels throughout the economy. So about a year ago the Fed started dramatically raising interest rates to curb homebuyer demand and ameliorate the fast rising home prices. 

But the solution didn’t work like it had in the past. So many homeowners had purchased or refinanced homes at a super low interest rate (around 3%) that many who would have normally sold their home to move up, down, or across town decided they didn’t want to give up a 3% rate for a 7% rate. 

So, while higher interest rates did reduce buyer demand (and increase homebuyer cost), it also prevented homeowners from selling, which actually reduced the supply of homes for sale more than buyer demand. 

The result? Home prices are soaring. Indeed, the solution for inflation in real estate was not what it appeared to be.

We live in a sometimes illusory world, with many things that are not what we think they are.

For instance, a firefly is actually not a fly…it’s a beetle. A horned toad is actually not a toad…it’s a lizard. And remember in grade school when your teacher used to refer to your writing utensil as a “lead pencil”? Most people don’t know pencils are not and never were made with lead. They are filled with graphite.

So maybe from time to time it’s best to remember these sage words from Phaedrus:

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many, and the intelligence of a few perceives what is carefully hidden.”