Sistine Chapel, Restoration of
SISTINE CHAPEL, RESTORATION OF
On Dec. 11, 1999, Pope john paul ii presided at a prayer service to mark the completion of the restoration of the sistine chapel. The fifteenth-century chapel takes its name from Pope sixtus iv (1471–1484) who commissioned it and engaged notable Italian artists of the day to decorate it: Rosselli, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Early in the sixteenth century, Pope julius ii persuaded michelangelo to redo the vaulted ceiling, a project that was finished in 1513. Over the centuries, the elements, dust, and candle-smoke dimmed the colors of the frescoes and caused them to deteriorate.
An ambitious restoration program, begun in 1964, went through several phases during the pontificates of Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II, including the cleaning and repair of the fifteenth-century frescoes, which depicted scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ, the roof and battlements, and the frescoes on the entrance wall that continued the fifteenth-century cycle. In 1980 the project turned to the portraits of the popes and of Michelangelo's frescoes, successively the lunettes, the ceiling frescoes, and the Last Judgment. The final phase of the work, completed in 1999, repaired the cycle of murals by artists of the Florentine and Umbrian schools.
Means and Method of Restoration. The climax of the work was reached in April of 1994 with the ceremonial
unveiling of the Last Judgment. Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass in the chapel in honor of the event (April 8, 1994), using the opportunity to highlight the theology enshrined in Michelangelo's frescoes.
The decision to clean Michelangelo's paintings was made after examination of the lunette of Eleazar and Nathan detected tiny cracks in the color fabric of the whole ceiling. They were caused by the shrinking of the covering of glue that pulled away the layers of originally luminous color. Previous restorers had used the glue to revive the frescoes darkened by dust and soot. After research, experiment, and a trial cleaning in June of 1980 on the figure of Eleazar, the frescoed surfaces of the ceiling in the Sistine were cleaned by a method using the solvent known as AB 57, applied briefly and removed with a sponge soaked in distilled water. The few parts retouched by Michelangelo a secco (after the plaster had set, thus sensitive to water) were cleaned last with specific organic water solvents fixed with a solution of Paraloid B72. Watercolor was used for some modest pictorial restorations. Because Michelangelo had used the delicate lapis lazuli in coloring and a more a secco technique for the Last Judgment, it called for different cleaning methods, including washings with distilled water and treatments with a solution of water and ammonium carbonate. All the stages of the work were scrupulously filmed. The chapel was kept open for the public to see the progress of the enterprise since the scaffolding covered the ceiling frescoes only partially at any one time.
The program of cleaning rid the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel of the polluting conditions chiefly responsible for their deterioration. To counter continuing pollution, however, experts decided to eschew the use of resinous or other protective substances on the frescoes, to install a conditioning system with a monitored annual cycle for air filtration, and to lay dust-retaining carpeting on the stairs leading to the Chapel from the Vatican Museums.
Michelangelo's Genius Rediscovered. During the cleaning, a photogrammetic survey of the ceiling and the Last Judgment revealed fresh details about their state of preservation and shed new light on Michelangelo's technical procedures and virtuosity. About 6,000 specialists and scholars from the fields of art and culture examined the outcome of the restoration carefully. Many of them approved of the astonishing results, but some art historians reacted with strong criticism.
The cleaning of the frescoes in the Sistine, originally both chapel and fortress, revealed long-lost or unobserved details of Michelangelo's work. The architectural design of the ceiling, which ingeniously divided one dramatic scene from another, became powerfully evident. Because the myriad of figures from the family scenes in the lunettes to the protesting saints in the Last Judgment was more clearly delineated, the emotions of tenderness, fear, and fury registered in their gestures and expressions became more apparent. The meticulous painting of the ceiling histories from the first scene of the Creation to the Drunkenness of Noah was found to contrast sharply with the rapid execution of the lunettes, some of which had been left almost as studies. This discovery led scholars to deduce that for the lunettes, Michelangelo did not use cartoons and did the painting without using his assistants. Michelangelo's skilled use of traditional Tuscan buon fresco for the vault and the lunettes also became manifest. This demanding technique requires the painting of complete details of entire sections of the work onto fresh plaster. Art scholars could detect his sudden decisions to make changes in his figures by noting where he removed the frescoed plaster and applied a new layer on which to paint. The restored clarity of the Last Judgment revealed the strength and audacity of Michelangelo's brush-strokes, the mastery of his composition, the intellectual and pictorial brilliance of his balancing of mass and space, and the detailed expression of his mischievous or macabre humor.
The restoration and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel opened the way for many years of further study and appreciation. Worldwide attention focused on the need to reassess Michelangelo's place in the development of Renaissance painting and of his aims and achievements as a colorist and draftsman. He was perceived as well situated in the lineage of Tuscan painting, beginning in the studio of Ghirlandaio in Florence and influencing such younger Florentine painters as Rosso and Pontormo. Michelangelo used colors on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to model his figures. His varied shades created immense light and startling shimmering effects: gleaming white, flesh tints, yellows, and greens. His use of abrupt juxtapositions of violets, greens, and yellows in the lunettes produced wonderful impressions of light and shade. After veils of grime were removed from the Last Judgment, the colors appeared incandescent, with the figures rising and falling in a space of blue so luminous that the wall on which they were painted seemed to have dissolved.
The "rediscovery" of Michelangelo as a painter vastly different from the somber artist previously perceived was accompanied by scholarly reappraisals of other aspects of his life, his complex personality, and his always surprising art: spiritually resonant poetry, original architecture, and expressive sculpture in stone.
Bibliography: Detailed bibliographies on the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel have been published in the Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Pontificie series. Other recent publications on Michelangelo and/or the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel include: g. colalucci, "Brevi considerazioni sulla tecnica pittorica e la problematica di restauro degli affreschi michelangioeschi della volta Sistina" in Problemi del restauro in Italia, ed., campanotto (Udine 1988); "The Frescoes of Michelangelo on the Vault of the Sistine Chapel. Original Technique and Conservation," in The Conservation of Wall Paintings, Proceedings of a Symposium organised by the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Getty Conservation Institute (London, July 13–16, 1987), ed. s. cather (Singapore 1991). de maio, Michelangelo e la Controriforma (Roma-Bari 1981). m. hall, Michelangelo—The Sistine Ceiling Restored (New York 1993). f. hartt, g. colalucci, f. mancinelli, (and d. schlesak in the German edition), La Cappella Sistina, 3 v.: v. 1, La preistoria della Bibbia ; v. 2, Gli antenati di Cristo ; v. 3, La storia della Creazione (Milan 1989–90; Paris, 1989–90; Luzern 1989–91; Anversa 1990–91; Tokyo 1990–91; New York 1991; Warsaw 1991). r. hatfield, Trust in God: The Sources of Michelangelo's Frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling (Florence 1991). f. mancinelli, "La pulitura degli affreschi di Michelangelo nella Cappella Sistina," in Il problema della Cappella Sistina, ed. istituto superiore di arte sacra (Rome 1987). j. d. oremland, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling: A Study of Creativity (Madison, Conn. 1989); The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered, Eng. ed. (Great Britain 1986). "All Salvation History Leads to Christ," L'Osservatore Romano, English edition (December 15, 1999).
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