On tour with the keyholder at the Vatican Museums

VATICAN CITY -- It’s one of the busiest tourist sites on Earth, but at 5 a.m., Gianni Crea has it much to himself.

His job here is as ancient as his tools; He’s a clavigero, or key man. He and his team are responsible for opening 300 doors at the Vatican Museums every morning.

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Gianni Crea with just some of his keys

CBS News

There are nearly 2,800 keys in his charge. He’s the first in the famed Gallery of Maps.

“Yes, it’s emotional to be in the museum all alone,” he said. “I’m privileged in this job.”

The doors he opens reveal masterpieces from artists such as Pinturicchio, Raphael and Van Gogh.

“I have the chance to appreciate some of the most important pieces of art in the world,” he said.

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Crea opens door 401 with the oldest key on his ring

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Sometimes the doors themselves impress. Crea showed off the oldest key on his ring, from the 1700s. “Key number 401,” he explained.

The most important key, though, does not have a number and it’s kept inside a sealed envelope. As the lights came on inside the Sistine Chapel it was clear that, for him, this is far more than a job.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s incredible,” he marveled. “I cannot say anything because this artwork speaks for itself.”

As the sun rose, Crea let CBS News peek at Bramante’s spiral staircase. The doors were open and the museum ready.

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A sunrise look at Bramante’s spiral staircast

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But does his job ever get mundane?

“No, absolutely not,” he said. “Every day I discover something new here, a work of art, a painting, something.”

The Vatican Museums see more than 6 million visitors a year, but no one gets to see it quite as Gianni Crea does.