The Twilight of a God: Virtual Reality in the Vatican
It seems that there is to be yet another make-over at the Sistine Chapel. It seems that, for the Vatican, you can never have too much colour, or too bright a supply of lights – or too many paying visitors – in the Pope’s private chapel. It seems that aesthetics are now under the control of technicians and bean-counters. Michelangelo is to suffer further indignities. The recent falsification of his work by “restoration” is now to be artfully compounded by bespoke hi-tech boutique lighting.
On 7 November, the Times’ business section broke the news that the Sistine Chapel is about to be illuminated by no fewer than 7,000 new LED lights (by courtesy of technical wizards at Osram and EU Research funding). Their purpose is to “enhance” the experience for visitors (see Fig. 1, “Judgement day for a bright idea”). In the FT Weekend Magazine it is claimed that the 5m tourists who now pack into the chapel each year will “have a far better view” (Mind/Science: “Illumination: New Light on Michelangelo”, 30 November 2013). This is on the grounds that, while the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”, the replacement will facilitate “a completely new diversity of colour”. This diversity is to be the product of artificially selective sources of lighting, quite unlike anything found in nature and unlike previous systems of artificial light used in churches and chapels.
There are two things wrong here. The first is that Michelangelo’s colours have already been forced chemically into a false chromatic intensity by the misconceived and radically intrusive restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s. As we have repeatedly demonstrated (see bottom right), the homogenised applications of solvents-saturated cleaning gels stripped away the artist’s own tonal modifications of colour and intensification of shadows, even though there was abundant evidence that this part of the frescoes was original work that had been recorded during the artist’s own lifetime and throughout the frescoes’ history. (On the aesthetically destructive impact of the cleaning method, see Figs. 3 and 4.) Second, this proposed attempt to flood the Chapel with artificial light constitutes a bizarre “own-goal” act of revisionism on the part of the Vatican.
That is, the defence offered at the time of the controversial restoration was that the new and startling colour effects (which many critics likened to Disney animation stills) had been calculated by Michelangelo himself so that his images would cut through the gloom of a smokey chapel. On that initial rationale there can be no aesthetic or historical justification today for flooding the Chapel with artificial stage-lighting that is to be ten times more powerful than the existing artificial lights.
In the December 1987 Apollo, the Vatican’s official spokesman/consultant on art historical matters, Prof. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, conceded that the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes, half visible but so familiar (at least from reproductions), into blazing, colouristic pyrotechnics… is attracting the most public attention and controversy.” Nonetheless, she insisted that Michelangelo had “modelled his forms by means of colour” – this, despite the fact that his contemporaries had been united in the contrary conviction that he had done so by his unprecedented powers of light and shade. One apologist declared in December 1987 that all previous Michelangelo scholarship had been prey to what he dubbed “the Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy”. It was further claimed that the revolutionary chemical excavation of the “New Michelangelo” was “one of the great revelations of our time” and that it required nothing less than the rewriting of art history.
Given this recent history, might Prof. Brandt – or any of the restoration’s supporters at that time – ever have imagined that within a couple of decades the Vatican would conclude that the chromatically brilliant “New Michelangelo” would require artificial lighting ten times more powerful than that installed at the time of the restoration? If that seems inconceivable, let us turn the question round. Has there been in recent years any loss of chromatic intensity in the bare, stripped-down fresco surfaces that were left exposed for the first time in their history to the air-borne pollution of Rome? If not, why, as the FT reports, was it thought necessary to analyse Michelangelo’s surviving pigments so that each one of the 7,000 new lights might be individually attuned to a spectrum that suits the said, specific pigments precisely as and where they are encountered on the present ceiling – and in the present “twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”?
This proposed adjustment of lights for the purpose of chromatic enhancement rather creepily resembles the use of projected light to simulate the original condition of colours that had faded in Rothko’s Harvard murals. The authors of a paper delivered at the 2011 Lisbon ICOM conference on this particular usage on modern paintings, concluded that theirs is: “A novel restoration technique that uses colored light from a digital projector to compensate for color alteration… To the authors’ knowledge, this approach has not been used previously for the restoration of paintings.” So we ask again: Has the Vatican been monitoring the colours of Michelangelo’s frescoes since the last restoration? If it has, have any changes and deteriorations been detected – and is this lighting system designed to compensate for them? Could the Vatican be attempting to launch by stealth what will be the world’s first non-secular virtual restoration?
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The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity
When news broke of the 81 years old painter Cecilia Gimenez’s disastrous restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, the world fell about laughing (see Figs. 2 to 5). The distressed restorer has taken to her bed as people queue to see the now infamous monkey-faced Christ and, wishing to preserve the hilarity, over 5,000 wags have signed a petition to block attempts to “return the painting to its pre-restoration glory” – as if such an outcome might credibly be in prospect.
With one honourable exception (Fig. 1) commentators failed to grasp that while this debacle is an extreme case it is not an aberration within modern art restoration practices. To the contrary, adulterations of major works of art are commonplace, seemingly systemic products of a booming, insufficiently monitored international art conservation nexus. In our previous post it was shown both how a steamboat painted by Turner sank without trace during two top-flight restorations at the US Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and, how Renoir’s oeuvre is being traduced across museums. Here, to show that it is not just in sleepy Spanish churches that paintings are risk, we reprise a few of the professional art world’s own most radically controversial – and officially sanctioned – restorations.
The Observer columnist, Barbara Ellen, having good sport with the Spanish Incident (see Fig. 2), hoped a wave of copycat vigilante restorations (“Let’s nip into the Louvre and give the Mona Lisa something to smirk about”) would not ensue. Her nightmare has been “virtually” realised – Fig. 3. When saying that Ms Gimenez perhaps had not realised “that, as a rule, professional art restorers don’t start work with a bucket of Flash and some Brillo pads”, she assumed too much. While Brillo pads were skipped at the Sistine Chapel, bucket loads of oven-cleaner-like substances were repeatedly brushed onto and washed from Michelangelo’s Ceiling frescoes to the artistically injurious consequences described below and at Fig. 23. As we reported on April 1st 2011 – and that was no joke – the Vatican’s restorers’ own account of their experimental fresco cleaning method read as follows:
“…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
“First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours.
“Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
“In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…
“Final treatment: the thorough, complete and overall application of a solution of Paraloid B72 diluted to 3% in organic solvent, removed from the surface of the pictorial skin by the combined action almost simultaneously of organic solvent and distilled water, which coagulates the surface acrylic resin dissolved by the solvent.”
A quick rinse with Flash might have been kinder.
There are three component parts in the professional restoration armoury: taking material off; putting material on; and, defending and promoting the said removals and additions with techno/aesthetic reassurances. Notwithstanding all supposedly science-validated self-justifications (reports on restorations are invariably written by the restorers themselves), the proper and appropriate test of a restoration is aesthetic appraisal of the resulting changes. It is reassuring that so many recognise that the transformation made to the Spanish painting shown at Fig. 5 constitutes a gross artistic injury. Perhaps the less extreme but also gratuitous injuries recently inflicted by restorers at the Louvre on the Veronese figure and face shown at Figs. 6 to 10 (and here reported on December 28th 2010) might also be acknowledged as the very crime against art and history that they constitute.
As shown at Fig. 10, even when the Louvre’s restorers were caught having secretly re-repainted the already repainted and publicly criticised Veronese face, the museum maintained a brazen official insouciance. The authorities do these things because they can and, presumably, because they do not know better. They ignore criticisms because they can and again, presumably, because they do not comprehend their force and their gravity.
In Figs. 11 to 26 we show the variously unfortunate consequences of restorers taking off and putting on material. (Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every unhappy restoration is so in its own way.) It is widely recognised in the art trade that pictures untouched or rarely touched by restorers enjoy better conditions than many-times restored works. For that reason, a high premium is placed on such rare but fortunate works. This reality notwithstanding, nothing seems capable of restraining the tide of restorations.
In Figs. 11 and 13 we see two successive restorers at work on the same figure in the same mural, Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, in Milan. It is a long-standing complaint that restorers thrive by undoing and redoing each others’ handiwork. In Fig. 11 the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli is removing paint with a knife. His restoration, the first post war intervention on the notoriously unstable mural, was highly acclaimed at the time. His philosophy had been to remove earlier restorers’ repaint where it concealed original paint-work by Leonardo, but to leave it in place when covering only bare wall (- see our post of February 8th 2012). In Figure 13 Pelliccioli’s former student and assistant, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, is seen repainting Leonardo’s mural (- or, as restorers prefer, “reintegrating” the remains of original paint with fresh additional paint). Given that an estimated 80 per cent of Leonardo’s work had been lost and that Barcilon had aimed to remove all previous restorers’ handiwork regardless of whether or not original Leonardo paint survived underneath, she had to do massive amounts of repainting during her agonising two decades long restoration (see our post of March 14th 2012).
In Figs. 12 and 14 we see how dramatically differently two professionally linked Italian restorers, working just one generation apart, left the very same principal figure in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. (What might be expected to survive or emerge from the next two restorations?) Like the 81 years old Cecilia Gimenez, Barcilon exercised artistic licence – albeit to a far lesser degree – during her painterly interventions on Leonardo’s remains. Where the cuff of Christ’s right sleeve had originally hung below and behind the table, for example, she painted it resting upon the table. To Christ, she too gave a new face and expression. The sole commentator to have recognised such continuums between extreme and lesser restoration injuries, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, Alasdair Palmer, wrote: “while the gulf between what modern restorers do and the dreadful hatchet-job done by Cecilia Gimenez is large, it is not always as vast as restorers would like us to believe”. He noted that while Pinin Brambilla Barcilon had done some magnificent work in recreating what she took to be Leonardo’s original picture, “it wasn’t a restoration because most of the paint applied by Leonardo had long ago disappeared”, and he cited an art historian who holds precisely that “The Last Supper is now a first-rate example of Barcilon’s work. It is not a Leonardo”. Palmer further notes that some of the most severe critics of recent restorations are other restorers:
“‘A great deal of restoration is incompetent,’ maintains Bruno Zanardi, professor of the theory and practice of restoration at the University of Urbino, and one of Italy’s most distinguished restorers. ‘Many of those who are let loose on great works of art do not know what they are doing: they have not been properly trained, and do not understand how fragile old pictures are.’”
To French and Italian transgressions many British and American ones might be added. At the National Gallery, London, it has been officially acknowledged that changes are made to pictures “primarily for aesthetic reasons”, and that while these aesthetic changes rest on the judgements of individual restorers whose “different aesthetic decisions” may result in pictures which “look very different”, all such results are considered “equally valid” (see “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”). In Figs. 15 and 16 we show a detail of the National Gallery’s Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. During its restoration (which, like that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Capel Ceiling, was a televised and sponsored event) the then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, took the opportunity to improve and, on “experts” advice, to change the surviving design of the Turkish carpet. In doing so, he paid scant regard to the aerial perspective that had previously been found in the picture. Ignoring the shadows that had previously been cast on the carpet, Wyld introduced a crisper, cleaner, flatter, more “on the picture surface”, altogether more abstract, modernist and, therefore, ahistorical version of Holbein’s original depiction.
More egregious were the changes made to Holbein’s anamorphic skull (Figs. 17 and 18). The cleaning exposed many losses of paint on the skull which bewildered the restorers and caused them to introduce – for the first time, to our knowledge – a piece of painted “virtual reality”. As we put it in a letter to the Independent (“Virtual reality art”, 29 January 2000):
“When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull.
“This bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ on to an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer ‘more scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s image had originally been generated.
“The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual cracks.”
In Figs. 19 and 20 we see the liberties taken by Wyld’s predecessor, Arthur Lucas, on Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. Lucas boasted to art students at the Slade School of Art that “there is more of me than Titian in that sky”. In thrall to new technologies and materials, Lucas took the trustees’ permission to reline the canvas, as authority for ironing the picture on to a double board of compressed paper. Such boards are today found to be unstable and will doubtless serve to licence further “urgent” conservation treatments.
In Figs. 21 and 22 we again show the startling changes made to a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the course of two restorations. During the first, as seen on the right of Fig. 21, a general weakening of values occurred. The woman’s necklace, for example, was dimished. As seen on the left in Fig. 22 , during a further restoration, part of the necklace disappeared. Rather than paint it back in, the restorer painted out the surviving section, as can be seen on the right.
When specific bits of paintings disappear restorers often claim that they were only additions made by earlier restorers. If such claims sometimes provoke scepticism, in the case of overall losses and degradations restorers usually offer no defences, seemingly hoping that curators, trustees, art critics, scholars and members of the public will be delighted or distracted by brightened colours and lightened tonalities. In Fig. 23, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, we see both the general lightening and brightening that attends an aggressive cleaning and losses of specific features and pictorially strategic values. Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based painting but because the Vatican’s restorers held this to be either dirt or earlier restorations, it was all removed. Michelangelo had redrawn and remodelled the drapery seen on the left hanging from the figure’s right shoulder. It was washed off. The removal is shown to be an error by the testimony of earlier copies of the ceiling. (Rubens had copied the drapery as it was found before the recent cleaning.) Michelangelo sought to enhance sculptural effects to his painted figures by adding shadows that were seemingly cast by the three dimensional bodies he had depicted with contrasting brightly lit forms and dark, shadowy recesses and nooks. The latter, too, were lost.
Back at the National Gallery in London, we see in Fig. 24 similarly catastrophic general losses (in the course of another single restoration) of tonal gradations and modelling. In the case of the horse’s right nostril, we see the loss of the very aperture which formerly had carried air to the creature’s lungs. Alasdair Palmer points out that a comparison of the National Gallery picture with its sister panel in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shocking to behold. It is the more unforgivable because the National Gallery restoration was prompted by an earlier one of the Florence picture that had not flattened and weakened the horses.
The National Gallery’s great Velazquez, “The Rokeby Venus”, suffered dreadful injuries in 1914 at the hands of a suffragette (Fig. 25). That damage was as nothing when compared with subsequent injuries inflicted by restorers who here too (Fig. 26) were blind to artists’ manipulation of space; creation of atmosphere; rendering of form through calibrated tonal gradations. Before the gallery’s restorers had done their Cecilia Gimenez-esque worst, there existed a parity of brilliance in the two figures, with both displaying the seeming self-illumination of divinities. What sense of that miraculous evocation survives today? Little wonder that the previous owner of the picture made a scene at the National Gallery on sight of its “restoration” and protested that, had he known how it would be treated, he would never have sold it. His grievous personal loss-through-restoration was of a single picture. What price the world’s continuing collective losses at the hands of restorers?
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Misreading Visual Evidence ~ No 1: David Hockney, an art historian and an x-ray photograph
It was recently claimed that “fresh insight” gained on Caravaggio’s painting technique supports David Hockney’s theory that the artist used a primitive form of photography to create his paintings (“Exhibition sheds new light on the art of Caravaggio”, Daily Telegraph report, March 11th). Diagrams, mirrors and light boxes displayed in an exhibition at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, were said to “show” that Caravaggio “may indeed have” used a camera obscura to project figures on to a canvas so that they might be painted directly, with “extraordinary realism” and without any need for designs or preliminary studies. Showing that someone may have done something cuts no ice when logic, logistics and the laws of art all combine to testify against the Hockney hypothesis.
“Insight” itself is a weasel term and is not the same thing as evidence. The art historian supporting Hockney’s thesis, Dr John Spike, offered the observation that “Gallileo was developing the telescope and they [artists] were all fascinated by optics” as if by way of some circumstantial corroboration. Whether or not they were so fascinated, we should note the absence of evidence and consider the logistical difficulties that they would have faced if attempting to work on the basis of the Hockney Hypothesis.
Are we really to suppose that all the figures and animals, and babies, and flying angels, writhing serpents, crucified men and beheaded victims depicted in Caravaggio’s paintings in arrested moments of extremis, were actually copied directly, literally, from life? More specifically, are we to suppose that various combinations of human, bestial and divine creatures were first assembled and then simultaneously posed in full costume for as long as it took the artist to convert their projected photographic image into his painted pictures? (See illustrations on the right.)
Or should we believe that each figure was individually copied down, in full costume, exactly as seen when projected through a pinhole onto a wall in a darkened room? If so, was each painted figure subsequently “overlapped” and partly obliterated by the next in the sequence? Is there any material evidence of such overlaps? If not, we would have to assume that Caravaggio painted directly onto only that part of the projected image that would remain visible when the next figure was copied in. Timing is an important separate consideration: whether the models were depicted in entire groups or individually, how long would they have been expected to hold their usually animated and dramatically expressive poses (see right) in a compositionally perfect position in relation to other figures not yet posed or painted?
There is another crucial consideration: were Caravaggio’s famously dramatic and theatrical lighting effects copied directly from nature onto the canvas via an image of a multi-figure tableau projected through a pinhole? Consider the exponentially increasing practical difficulties an artist would have to overcome when attempting to work in such fashion. Caravaggio would not only have had to paint at speed to avoid his models wearying and slipping out of pose, he would have had to have done so at a speed that would not allow the brilliant light source illuminating his figures to move – and to have done so when working not in front of his painting but to the side of the image projected upon it so as not to block it with his own shadow. Has any artist in history so handicapped his own labours?
Would the light source deployed on Caravaggio’s frozen models have been the sun? If so, at what time of the day did he work? At noon, with the sun’s all-bleaching brilliant light at its zenith, producing unhelpfully top-lit figures? Or in the mornings and evenings when low, acutely angled, less bright but faster moving and changing? Did Caravaggio not only anticipate photography, but Impressionism too? Or, would his groups have been lit for long periods by a fixed battery of brilliant theatrical lamps?
When it is claimed that Caravaggio had achieved the extraordinary realism of his paintings 200 years in advance of the invention of the camera, on the same logic it should further be claimed that he anticipated and emulated the achievements of the cinema. It took the full resources of modern cinema and means of lighting for Luis Bunuel to be able to compose and momentarily arrest a multi-figured tableau in mimicry of Leonardo’s The Last Supper in his film Viridiana. Is there any evidence that such human and technical resources were available to Caravaggio? Is it believed that Caravaggio had invariably worked in this manner? Or that he did so on some occasions but not others? Has any material evidence been found in Caravaggio’s paintings that reflects such radically different patterns of working methods?
The real problem with the Hockney thesis, however, is not the absence of supporting evidence but the existence of contra-evidence. The Telegraph report is illustrated by a photograph of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew, and by an x-ray photograph of the two figures at the picture’s right-hand side. Those photographs (see above right) constitute a material record of both the paint that is visible to the human eye and the hidden earlier underlying painting. The caption claims that “x-ray analysis shows the style of the artist and supports the idea that he used a primitive form of photography in his work”. It is hard to see how this might be so. X-rays are notoriously difficult images to read with confidence because while they show all the successive states of a painting simultaneously they do not pick up all pigments and materials equally.
Nonetheless, the x-ray photograph that is shown adjacent to the two figures helpfully permits direct visual comparisons. The most striking feature is that the underlying paintwork exposed in the x-ray is not identical with the paintwork that is visible to the human eye. Had Caravaggio worked in the manner being claimed, an x-ray would reveal no differences – no revisions, no “pentimenti”, nothing other than what was already visible on the picture’s surface. But the x-ray evidence here is doubly injurious. Firstly, it shows major changes to the pose of the figures – Christ’s raised arm is higher in the x-ray than in the painting while, conversely, his hand droops dramatically. Secondly, the image is sufficiently intelligible to establish major discrepancies of artistic style.
In the space of the figure (St Peter) standing in front of Christ, the type of drapery seen in the x-ray photograph is manifestly different from that now seen in the visible paint above it. One observer (Giorgio Bonsanti) attributed the underlying drapery, on the basis of an earlier x-ray, to the figure of Christ – see right. Certainly as drapery it is greatly more accomplished artistically – more “Raphael-esque” – than the comparatively stiff, angular, “bent-tin” draped material seen on the St Peter. Most damagingly of all, this underlying painted drapery is not just finer it is of a type found only in art and never in nature. It is not some literal mechanical transcription of an actual draped garment, but a conjuring of spirited flowing, wind-filled forms that arc around the body and derive from the laws of drapery that were first understood and devised by the God-like artists of antiquity and then later rediscovered and emulated by the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. The living sculpture drapery revealed by the x-ray could not have been taken down from a static figure because it was an invention, a product of art and imagination that served the great powers of composition, design and expression – it conferred grandeur, grace and dynamism to the theatrical stage-right entrance of Christ. We might reasonably agree with Giorgio Bonsanti (see right) that Caravaggio, having first created this great glory, then opted to suppress his own magnificence of drapery so as to have the secondary, Christ-obscuring figure of St Peter serve as a dull mundanely reproachful foil to the wealthily and vibrantly attired group of figures to his left. On the basis of this clear hard embodiment of artistically purposive thought and revision – to the point of artistic sacrifice – it can hardly be concluded other than that Caravaggio was a great inventive, self-critical self-revising showman of an artist and not some secretive shortcut-taking literalist.
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