The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial
Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.
Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”
Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘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,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”
Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘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. 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. 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. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.’”
A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?
When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?
To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?
Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up’”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.
His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?
The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)
If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.
Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:
00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”
01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:
“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”
01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:
“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared.
“It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves.
“And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”
01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:
“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”
Interviewer Sonny Quinn: – “He made a film…”
Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”
SQ: “He was close enough so he…”
TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”
SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”
TH: “During the cleaning?”
SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”
TH: “Ya, so?”
SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”
TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”
For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.
For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.
We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.
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Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – A suitable Case for Treatment?
A director of the National Gallery, Sir Philip Hendy, once joked that the (helpful) consequence of successive picture restorations was the eventual recovery of a perfectly preserved, pristine white under-painting. After several further generations of modernist stripping and purging, even the restorers have taken fright. Now – and perhaps feeling licensed by the indulgencies and frivolities of post-modernism – they are discovering the delights of “putting back” what their (sometimes very recent) predecessors should never have taken off. After a century of pictorial reductionism, the latest pioneering “recoverist” restoration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic, has been heavily trailed in the press. In celebrating their own attempts to reconstitute what had been wrongly discarded, today’s restorers seem little aware that they, too, are entering methodological quick-sands.
James Keul writes:
The Thomas Eakins picture The Gross Clinic is arguably the most important American painting of the 19th Century. In spite of – or perhaps because of – this exalted status it has had a difficult and complicated history. Aside from suffering the “theme park” indignity of being relegated to a mock-medical tent when first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, and an initial rejection by contemporary critics, it has been humiliated further through its subjection to no fewer than five major restorations in its relatively short existence of 136 years.
The painting has been relined three times – one of which nearly caused it to tear in half. (Why should a modern canvas require relining even once, let alone three times?) It was dramatically altered in 1925 by the removal of dark glazes that Eakins had applied with the specific artistic intention of toning down areas that were meant to recede. As recently as 1961, an overall varnish was applied that has since darkened enough to be used as one of the justifications for the most recent restoration of the painting last year (- but see photograph and caption comments at top right). The days when museums could credibly refuse to admit that paintings were damaged by past restorations have passed and it has become increasingly common to see labels next to paintings admitting such unfortunate occurrences. At the Metropolitan Museum’s 2008 exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, for example, numerous paintings were accompanied by specific acknowledgements of past restoration-induced injuries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s decision to restore the Gross Clinic is another example of this new trend – but one, as will be seen, with a crucial difference.
It is almost inevitable that each new generation of restorers views itself as superior to its predecessors. Perhaps restorers today are more cautious than those of a half-century ago and it is encouraging to see that with the benefit of hindsight many earlier harmful practices have been abandoned. With new developments in x-radiographs, infrared reflectography, chromatography and other specialized equipment, restorers certainly have a lot more technical (if not artistic) information at their disposal, but the question remains: what does this mean for the art itself?
In the case of the 2010 restoration of the Gross Clinic, it meant that Mark Tucker, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a team of restorers, including a Mellon Fellow in Conservation, felt sufficiently confident in this new technology to undertake the task of repainting large portions of Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece in an attempt to bring it back to the way Eakins had intended it to be seen. At best, however, this could only have been a partially realisable goal. Attempting to return a painting to its original condition is, on its own, an area of great debate. With age, paintings acquire patinas and, as with all objects, time takes its toll. What makes this restoration the more troubling is the fact that the latest restorers in the chain are not trying to bring it back to its (supposed) original condition, but rather to a specific condition that is represented in photographs from a period more than thirty years after the painting was completed and after the painting had already been lined with an ironed-on backing canvas – a procedure now widely acknowledged to risk adversely effecting a painting’s appearance.
Our concerns about the questionable nature of this enterprise have been compounded by the explanations that have been offered to us concerning its execution. Mr. Tucker informs us, for example, that, in order to maximize the accuracy of the placement of his own “in-painting”, tracings were made on clear Mylar film from an enlargement of a photograph of the painting taken in 1917. Some of these tracings were cut out, “producing something that looked like a stencil”, and were used to “place small temporary reference marks that were useful in attaining an appearance in the restored damages that is as faithful as possible to the early images of the painting”. [Emphasis added.] Inferring what an artist wanted his work to look like decades or even centuries after it was made is problematic enough, but attempting to recreate one particular historical state of the painting based on black and white photography is problematic to say the least.
In addition to the inherent problems presented by using photography for this purpose at all, because no colour reproductions of the painting exist prior to the 1925 restoration, determining even the proper colours becomes itself a major issue. When asked how the freshly added colours were determined, Mr. Tucker replied that their colour choices were:
“based on a determination of the pigments present in a preserved area of the original surface, on a direct visual match to the colour of the best preserved areas of the passageway, and on close consideration of the relationship between the colours present on the painting and the tones recorded in the 1917 photograph”.
This attempt itself raises concerns. Because pigments vary greatly depending on their source, how can one be sure that the pigments used by today’s restorers will be the same as those used by Eakins? Any artist who has bought raw umber from different manufacturers will immediately notice differences in colour “temperature” and value from one brand to another. If the latest restorers were to say that it does not matter since the colours used were matched to the adjacent colours that had survived on the painting, the question would arise: what, then, was the point of even “determining” the pigments that the artist had originally used?
There would also be a question concerning the reliability of the tones present in the period photograph that was chosen as a point of reference.The restorers have informed us that they also used a drawing made of the painting by Eakins himself as a source of reference. But, aside from questions concerning the level of its accuracy to the original painting, the fact remains that the drawing is a different work of art from the painting and whatever its accuracy might be (see comments right), it is clear that on close examination it differs greatly from the picture today in terms of pictorial/tonal values. To use some combination of the testimonies of a drawing that does not match the painting and a period (1917) photograph whose reliability cannot be assumed, in order to infer some compromise position on the artist’s original intent as a basis for present “in-painting” (- which is, properly speaking, re-painting) leaves a great deal of room for error and artistic interpretation on the part of the restorer, and possible historical falsifications.
On the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website, under a heading ‘compensation for loss’, the recommended practice states that “If compensation is so extensive that it forms a substantial portion of the cultural property, then the compensation should be visually apparent to all viewers”. Though only a recommended practice, it is indicative of the importance of authenticity. This recommendation was not followed in the case of the Gross Clinic. The “in-painting” on the occasion of the last restoration was an attempt to recover an original condition that had been lost, and to match it perfectly (- that is to say, deceivingly) to the surviving surrounding passages. If a group of school children were to go to the Philadelphia Museum today and look at the Gross Clinic, they would not be able to tell where Eakins’ work ended and where Mr. Tucker’s began.
The video which accompanied the recent Eakins exhibition and which covers the history of the painting by examining the evidence left by its various restorations, states that this is the third painting by Thomas Eakins from their collection that has been “renewed” with repainting (- the other two being his Between Rounds and Mending the Nets). As a society, we must think about what we want to see when going to museums. Is it the image that is important, or is it the authenticity? For sure, the picture will have changed significantly since it was painted (more by restoration than by time), but attempting to bring back something that has been lost is simply not possible. While Thomas Eakins’ painting might look closer to the original now than it previously had, it is by no means an original picture today. Rather, it is a reconstruction of what today’s restorers take to have been its likely original condition, had so many bad things not been done to it by their predecessors. We trust that future visitors to the museum will be fully informed of the eventful “conservation history” of this painting.
James Keul is a painter and the executive director of ArtWatch International
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