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21 January 2013

The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In

The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting (see right and our posts of 1 April 2011 and 12 November 2012). That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering (see Appendix below). An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling (see caption at Fig. 4). As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors (see Fig. 1), these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.

Ironically, the “cleaning” of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skilfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated “conservators” of all that is valuable – even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics. A grandly titled “Laboratory for Scientific Research” had been created at the Vatican in 1922 on the “latest ideas” but during the 1980s Italian restorers admitted that running technical “tests” before restorations was professional “window-dressing” because it was always known in advance which materials were to be used.

Some restorers sincerely believed in the scientific hocus pocus that supposedly had trumped anachronistic and unacceptably “subjective” aesthetic responses. The appointed chief restorer of Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gianluigi Colalucci, was one such, insisting that: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science”. At that time the Vatican’s curatorial and administrative authorities may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which every restoration of a great work of art is an accident waiting to happen: a collision of sublimity and incomprehension made tangible. In 1993, at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the JamesBeck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, we asked:

If authentic painting by Michelangelo has been lost in the course of a scientific restoration, many questions need to be answered. Did a blunder occur because of or in spite of the use of a scientific approach? Has too great a dependence on scientific data undermined crucial powers of aesthetic discernment and judgement? Is the scientific method of restorers rigorous or slipshod? Is the scientific status of modern conservation legitimate or bogus? Do restorers always follow their own ground rules?”

In the last twenty years it has become clearer that the claimed scientific underpinnings of picture restoration methods were spurious and that an appreciation of the workings of art and its internal relationships is not to be gained through some analysis of material components in a laboratory, however highfalutin and expensive the “investigative” or “diagnostic” apparatus may be. Beyond its conceptually simplistic and aesthetically impoverished terms of reference, the very reporting of “scientific” conservation methods has lacked both critical rigour and methodological consistency. In practice conservation science has provided a flag of convenience under which fundamental artistic questions can be evaded while ever-more ambitiously grandiose, lavishly funded and spectacularly transforming projects are launched. The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments.

In 1964 Dr Deoclecio Redig de Campos, the Vatican museums’ curator and director of restorations, launched a cautious cleaning of the 15th century frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio, Rosselli and Signoreli on the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel’s north and south walls. After 15 years, that programme led to the cleaning of two minor 16th century frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and van den Broecke on the east wall. By that date, direction had passed to Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, the new curator (and soon to be, with Colalucci, the co-director of the Nippon Television Corporation-sponsored restoration of all of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes). As we reported in “Art Restoration”, Mancinelli decided that “Redig de Campos’s cautious policy of removing only part of the layer of grime and foreign substances…was not appropriate in this situation.”

What Mancinelli deemed appropriate was that the minor frescoes should be cleaned with the new aggressive cleaning compound AB 57, even though this would obliterate original painting applied a secco by the artists onto their frescoes when dry. Curiously, Mancinelli’s justification for this removal of authentic and historical material was primarily aesthetic. That is, he held that a cautious cleaning and repairing of the damaged original secco paints would give only “disappointing results” compared with what might be attained by what he termed “a more radical cleaning”. We should be absolutely clear: “radical” was a euphemism for stripping the paintings down to their bare fresco surfaces in order to introduce heightened (but inauthentic) colours. Although the programme was to prove unethical by restorers’ own professional codes, Mancinelli persuaded the authorities that the visual “gains” to be had by trading original material for chemically brightened colours on those two minor works would outweigh even a directly consequential need to “return to the side walls and [do] a more thorough job there too.” (Just as the slowest ship determines the speed of a convoy, so in decorated chapels the most brightly scrubbed surface sets the overall level of cleaning. Michelangelo’s fate was sealed.)

While restoring the east wall works in 1979, a single test of AB57 was made on one of Michelangelo’s lunettes (see Fig. 8 and, for the consequences, Figs. 4-7). Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in 1982 “the results were so encouraging that it was decided to take on the whole ceiling. By the summer of 1980 the work had begun.” As Pietrangeli told Patricia Corbett in the May 1982 Connoisseur, once AB57 was shown to deliver chromatically transformed frescoes, “No one was able to resist the temptation”. In 1987 Dr Walter Persegati, the Vatican Museums secretary and treasurer, said in the Bible ReviewThese tests brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited…It was decided that the procedure developed for the cleaning of the van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce was applicable to Michelangelo’s frescoes. Therefore, we decided we had to do it.”

Note that because it had been decided that it could be done, it was “therefore” also decided that it should be done. In Part II we investigate the means, the methods and the artistic consequences of that novel application of a new cleaning agent to the very old, very precious decorated surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. In doing so we also show why the Vatican’s curators were right to be scared.

Michael Daley

APPENDIX

“A major purpose of the conference was to underline a basic truth: the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” ~ Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, reporting the proceedings of the “London symposium on the conservation of wall-paintings” in the November 1987 Burlington Magazine.

“There is therefore much concern about the future of the frescoes, given that no protective layer has been applied in this campaign (the controversial use of paraloid was abandoned at an early stage of the cleaning of the lunettes). The Vatican has decided to seal the windows and introduce an air-conditioning and filtration system. Doubts were expressed at the conference. Could the threat from faulty air-conditioning be worse than the threat from atmospheric pollution and mass tourism? ” ~ Caroline Elam, editor of the Burlington Magazine, reviewing the 1990 symposium on the Sistine ceiling restoration held in Rome to give preliminary consideration to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”.

“A ‘drunken herd’ of ‘unruly’ tourists is damaging Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel paintings, one of Italy’s leading arts figures claimed as the pope prepared to mark the 500th anniversary of the iconic frescoes’ creation.
Some 5 million people visit the chapel every year – sometimes as many as 20,000 in a single day — and an increasing number of experts are now arguing that mass tourism is damaging the paintings.
Despite a major, 14-year-long restoration project in the 1990s, they claim that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by visitors dramatically changes the Chapel’s humidity and temperature – factors to which frescoes are particularly sensitive…”
~ Claudio Lavanga, NBC News, 31 October 2012.

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Above, Fig. 1: Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian (Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy).
On 12 November 2012 Art Daily cited a disturbing Associated Press report on the Sistine Chapel:
“The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks.
Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper
La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings.
‘In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,’ Paolucci told the newspaper.
‘Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,’ he said. ‘This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.’
Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid ‘serious damage’ to the chapel.
Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes.
The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.”
Above, Fig. 2: Some indication of the extent to which Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” has departed from its original self may be gauged from this 1549 copy by Marcello Venusti which was made not only within Michelangelo’s lifetime but also met with his approval.
Above, Fig. 3: Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement, as shown in the Guardian on 29 September 2012 (“Vatican in row over ‘drunken tourist herds’ destroying Sistine Chapel’s majesty”, Photograph: Alex Segre / Alamy/Alamy). The Guardian reported:
“In an article in Corriere della Sera, Pietro Citati, a leading literary critic and biographer, has demanded that the Vatican limit access to the chapel, claiming it would save the frescoes from damage and restore some decorum to the consecrated site.
Describing a visit, Citati claimed that ‘in the universal confusion, no one saw anything’ and ‘any form of contemplation was impossible’. The answer, he said, was to reduce the number of visitors drastically.
‘The church needs money for its various activities, but these monstrous conditions are not possible,’ said the writer, a close friend of the late novelist Italo Calvino.
The manager of the Vatican museums, which include the chapel, fought back on Friday in the pages of the Holy See’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano.
‘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,’ wrote Antonio Paolucci. ‘We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture,’ he said. ‘Limiting numbers is unthinkable.’”
The Vatican was recently reported to be $19m in the red [Ed.]
Above, Fig 4: In 1988, when the controversy over the Sistine Capel restorations was its height, Bible Review carried an account by Jane and John Dillenberger, professors of visual arts and theology. It derived markedly in its (uncritical) sentiments from from the Vatican Museums’ secretary/treasurer Walter Persegati: “We learned from Dr Persegati that the Vatican is installing an air system that will protect the cleaned ceiling by making sure that no contamination, human or other, reaches it. The system provides a warm cushion of air just below the frescoes that will be a barrier to keep the chapel’s slightly cooler air containing dirt and dust away from the paintings. This cooler air will circulate throughout the chapel, but just below the warmer cushion of air.”
Above, Fig. 5: A detail – before cleaning – of one of the ancestors of Christ depicted by Michelangelo on the lunettes (the sections of wall that surround the tops of the Sistine Chapel’s arched windows).
Above, Fig. 6: The detail of the ancestor of Christ shown above, after cleaning.
Above, Fig 7: The complete figure shown above at Figs. 5 & 6, as published in a December 1989 article, “SALVIAMO ALMENO il Giudizio Universale”, in the art magazine Oggi e Domani by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti. As a young man Crocetti had worked on a restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 1930s and was one of the earliest critics of the last restoration. His photo-comparison shows the figure before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) and therefore pinpoints the indefensible inversions of value that occurred, where what was once darker than becomes lighter than, and vice versa.
Above, Fig. 8: A test cleaning strip made on one the lunettes, to show the effects of the cleaning gel when left in place for varying lengths of time.
Above, Fig. 9: The figure shown above, as published in Charles de Tolnay’s 1945 “The Sistine Chapel Ceiling”. In the section on the volume’s illustrations, the brilliant Michelangelo scholar and Columbia University professor wrote: “Because of the war it was not possible to procure the same quality of ink for the reproductions as that used in the first volume, and therefore the chiaroscuro lost something of its softness.” Tolnay died in January 1981. Soon after, Fabrizio Mancinelli claimed that his cleaning had led to the “surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and still more of glue varnishes”. Mancinelli died some years ago and can therefore no longer defend himself, but his attributing of Michelangelo’s brilliant sculpturally informed chiaroscuro to the arbitrary centuries-long cumulative effects of smoke and glue, must stand as one of Scholarship’s loopier contentions.
Above, Fig 10: The head of Michelangelo’s painting of the Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
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