A lot of studies has been devoted to analysis and appreciation of the fabulous paintings of the Sistine Chapel, conducted between the years of 1508 and 1512 by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The pictures have for centuries been hailed as masterpieces of one of Italy’s most famous Renaissance artisans and revered as a cultural treasure throughout the world. The Sistine Chapel is widely known as a gem of Christian art, depicting scenes that represent the period of the Bible and tying together the two main books of this holy text incoherent pictorial format. While various problems had arisen in deciding how to decorate the ceiling of this building, as well as difficulties in stabilizing the same roof, the primary concern for many was whether or not to trust Michelangelo, a sculptor, with something so essential and so degrading at once. For although Michelangelo’s work on the chapel is widely known today, ceiling work such as what he was asked to do was usually the work of lesser artists. Michelangelo went to work, showcasing his creative talent until the nuances had been ironed out and the egos soothed. Initial accounts of the chapel suggested that the paintings were alive with bright colour, beautiful scenery and mastery of technique. Still, visitors to the chapel must have lost some of the vigours in the centuries since they saw the images. It has also been the case, as discovered in the previous century, when nearly 500 years of soot, haze and dust have accumulated over the photographs’ faces although the ravages of decay and erosion have assaulted the underlying structure. As society entered its second millennium, the Vatican announced its intention to restore the ceiling of Michelangelo and the other frescoes that were located inside the chapel. Although some praised this move as a much-needed conservation initiative, others argued that any efforts to recreate it would inevitably ruin its creator’s artistry and originality. This document aims to discuss some of the controversy surrounding the Sistine Chapel, beginning with the problems of its original formation and then moving forward to the issues involved in attempting to restore such an irreplaceable international treasure, ending with an overview of the effects of the restoration efforts.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel despite the several problems the two men had with each other. Julius was perhaps the only man in Italy with the power and authority necessary to bring the artist back into Rome following the failed project of the Pope’s tomb. In addition to the ‘bad blood’ between artist and the Pope regarding this commission and other issues, Michelangelo was not an obvious choice for the job as his preferred art form was, of course, sculpture.
Some accounts even suggest that Michelangelo’s rival, the architect Donato Bramante, recommended the artist for the position as a means of discrediting Michelangelo by giving him an impossible task both artistically and structurally. “In Michelangelo’s eyes, Bramante had persuaded the Pope to abandon the project [of the tomb] by warning him that it was bad luck to have one’s tomb carved during One’s lifetime and instead suggested a radically different commission for the sculptor, a job which he knew Michelangelo could not possibly succeed: to fresco the vault of the Sixtine Chapel. “Michelangelo was also commissioned in 1534 by Pope Clement III to paint the Last Judgment on the ceiling, but it is usually thought of only in connection with the ceiling. chapel’s altar wall, providing some means of comparison for purposes of restoration. Michelangelo began working on the ceiling in 1536 under the supervision of Pope Paul III and completed it in 1541. While these issues regarding the commission of the artist are essential in understanding the origins of the paintings, there were also several technical details to overcome.
The project to repaint the Sistine Chapel ceiling originated in necessity. The ceiling structure itself had been hastily constructed in the years 1477 and 1483 to satisfy the desires of Pope Sixtus IV, who didn’t have long to live but wanted to see the chapel completed before his death. As a result of the speed with which it was constructed, the underlying structure of the ceiling was faulty, and a significant collapse occurred in 1504. As a result of this collapse, the ceiling in the chapel exhibited a large crack to be repaired by Pope Julius II. “This was the most important chapel in Christiandom: it had to be repaired. Sixtus’ nephew, Julius II, who owed his entire religious career to his uncle’s nepotistic largesse, must have decided almost immediately that the roof should be restored and that the existing ceiling, a blue one decorated with a galaxy of twinkling silver stars, must be replaced.” This was not just a means of praising the House of God, but was perhaps more the result of social status. Social structures in place during the height of the Italian Renaissance required the ruling and wealthy families to fund the construction of impressive architectural monuments to the power and prestige of the family line. The chapel had already become a monument to the Della Rovere family at large, and Julius knew it was up to him to make any necessary repairs to the chapel as a means of honouring the family name before he spent any time or money on the self-aggrandizement of his tomb. Julius had the additional desire to ensure that his family was accredited as having the highest status of all families throughout the world, which could be accomplished if the ceiling in the Pope’s chapel so far surpassed that of any other chapel that it would become emblazoned in the annals of history. Julius probably considered Michelangelo for the project both as the result of his impression of the artist’s work and as a result of the past relationship between them with little or no consideration of the underlying structural issues. There is some evidence of Bramante’s involvement in the decision as well, though whether he urged the choice or discouraged it remains unclear. “Holy Father,” he is reported as having said, “I believe he does not have enough courage and spirit for it because he has not done too many figures and, above all, the figures are high and in foreshortening, and this is another thing from painting at ground level.” Bramante, of course, would have known about the structural challenges associated with the project.
One of the first structural issues to be addressed in beginning the project was determining just how to get up to the ceiling itself to perform the task. Bramante left some scaffolding in place as a means of assisting the artist in his job, but Michelangelo quickly determined that this scaffolding was entirely inadequate for the purposes. “Bramante built a scaffold that was suspended from the ceiling from ropes. When Michelangelo saw it, he was convinced that Bramante was trying to discredit him in the eyes of the Pope because he knew that when the scaffolding was removed, It would leave holes in the ceiling and ruin the art. “Michelangelo’s scaffolding consisted of a flat wooden frame on brackets fixed in the walls near the tops of the windows, to prevent this problem. This approach enabled Michelangelo to reduce any further inherent damage to the building while providing him with the means of connecting the floor and ceiling without loss. Structural restoration could then take place as teams of workers climbed up and down the spiral ladders to remove the plaster of the old roof, destroying Piermatteo d’Amelia’s starry sky fresco, before reapplying material. The new layer of plaster, “called the capriccio, would spread to a thickness of about three-quarters of an inch across the entire ceiling, filling various gaps and irregularities such as the joints between the masonry blocks and creating a smooth surface over which, when the time finally came to paint, the intonaco could be spread.” Intonaco is a different form of plaster that is laid on the surface and into which the pigments of the fresco image are laid. Like other professional painters of his day, Michelangelo originally had several other painters come in to help him on the project, but eventually dismissed all of them, meaning that all of Michelangelo’s assistants during the project served primarily to apply new sections of plaster, mix paints or occasionally assist in filling in small, inconsequential portions of the ceiling.
The logistical problem of how to paint the ceiling has often been solved through popular imagination with the image of the artist painting while laying on his back. Still, evidence suggests he spent his years of the project bent over backwards to get just the right touch while still being capable of accurately working with his paints.
In addition to understanding the structural issues faced in creating the ceiling images, which is essential to an understanding of the fundamental potential problems involved in restoration, one must understand the technicalities behind the fresco technique. The complicated process of painting frescos requires a great deal of attention and concentrated effort, but also requires a certain speed to the work as pigment must be laid in before the plaster dries. The process begins with the application of intonaco, which is an excellent form of gypsum created by mixing quicklime with water and sand in precise proportions. The resulting mixture is essentially calcium hydroxide. This specialized plaster is distributed evenly over the entire working area at a depth of approximately half an inch thick, with the term ‘working area’ defined as that area of space the artist believes he will be capable of completing in a given day. Although the plaster mixture was very effective in absorbing the pigments applied to it and then locking them into place as a natural part of the drying process, the major drawback to this method is that the plaster dries quickly.
In the Tuscan summers, this could often dry within 24 hours of application, meaning Michelangelo could only work on an area roughly the size of a large canvas in a given day.
Upon its completion and unveiling, the ceiling was widely recognized as a stunning creation. “The Pope was delighted with the unveiled fresco, surveying it ‘with immense satisfaction.’ Everyone visiting the Sistine Chapel in the days after the fresco’s completion was equally dazzled with Michelangelo’s job.” While it is claimed that he was pleased with the performance, it is also said that the Pope felt that the final picture lacked a ‘final touch’ in the form of the costly and spectacular gold and ultramarine pigments that were then available.
These elements had been used by other great artists to convey a sense of richness and opulence to their pieces, but Michelangelo argued that these touches were unnecessary. Not only did he feel these pigments would not survive the same length of time as more traditional pigments, but Michelangelo also argued that even if they could be discerned as such from the ground level, it was unlikely any of the men depicted, being poor men, would have had access to such riches. In keeping with his personality, Michelangelo himself was more pessimistic in his assessment of the finished work. In one of his letters home, he wrote, “my work is not progressing in such a way as to make me think that I deserve anything.” This general background into the creation of the piece displays the sheer force of will necessary and expended to accomplish the task undertaken, overcome the physical and technical challenges presented and to fight against continual interruptions and lack of funds. While Michelangelo is widely lauded as a master in the arts, his completion of the Sistine Chapel to such a high degree of skill also demonstrates he was a master at overcoming a myriad of challenges as they arose with a single-minded attention to detail and, to some extent, escape in the execution of his art.
Modern Restoration Efforts
Many of the challenges faced by Michelangelo in the 16th century remained challenges to those who proposed restoring the chapel in more recent times. As in Michelangelo’s time, the chapel has been the subject of years of wear and tear, movements of the earth through earthquakes, volcanoes and human activity and the ravages of time and structural decay as rainwater continued to seep through in places, causing further damage to the images depicted.
Concerns regarding restoration are well-founded when one considers the fate of d’Amelia’s original image. There is also some validity to concerns that the original hand of the artist will be altered or made less valuable as a result of restoration efforts. While some of these concerns are valid, those proposing them must also consider the price of doing nothing to restore a ceiling beginning to succumb to the inevitable processes of nature, time and pollution as well as the fact that the original hand of Michelangelo has already been altered. The first time this was done was during Michelangelo’s lifetime. As the restoration turned into the Reformation, the sensibilities of the church changed somewhat. This made such a blatant representation of nudity depicted in the ceiling offensive to some of the figures of the church. Michelangelo’s masterpiece only survived to the present century due to a ‘last minute’ proposal to have the offensive elements’ clothed’ with paint applied by Daniele de Volterra. Modern restoration efforts were proposed as a result of some genuine issues that had to be addressed regarding the chapel, but this did not mean the suggestion was accepted unilaterally. Several positive and negative possibilities were debated and continue to be discussed today.
Modern Day Issues
In considering the current day issues of restoration, one must first take into account previous efforts that have been made as, often, these efforts leave behind a residue of their own, contributing to the need for restoration. For example, while Michelangelo still lived, water seeping through the ceiling was adding to build-ups of saltpetre, or salt, that obscured some of the paintings with its opaque white crystalline structure. Because scraping this off would have damaged the arts, early attempts to address this issue, again during Michelangelo’s lifetime, were to apply a topical treatment of linseed or walnut oil to the surface which didn’t remove the salt but transformed it into something slightly more transparent. Another restoration effort was attempted in 1625 when Simone Lagi tried to clean the ceiling using bread, rubbing against the images to remove some of the build-up and sometimes wetting it in an attempt to remove more stubborn stains.
Writing about this attempt, it is suggested that the paintings were returned to their previous splendour by the restorer through this means alone. Still, Calalucci suggests Lagi also applied some layers of glue-like varnish as a means of revitalizing the underlying colours. However, this wasn’t admitted perhaps as a means of protecting his profession. While the material evidence only suggests this attempt, later attempts at restoration conducted between the years of 1710 and 1713 employed a glue-varnish as a part of the process.
This next restoration attempt was more extensive than previous efforts as Annibale Mazzuoli and his son used Greek wine on sponges to try to clean away the soot and dirt that had become trapped in Lagi’s restoration attempt and then over-painted various details as a means of bringing out the contrasts to a higher degree. They also over-painted those areas of the paintings that had become encrusted by saltpetre. Because their work was conducted using hatching or linear brushstrokes, Colalucci suggests these modifications can be easily distinguished from Michelangelo’s original intentions. Only after these repainting techniques were completed did Mazzuoli cover the work with his form of glue-varnish again as a means of brightening the painting. The last known restoration attempt took place in the early 1900s as the church attempted merely to remove some of the soot that had accumulated. However, throughout most of the chapel’s existence, visitors have been under the impression that Michelangelo was not much of a colourist, an idea that would change with the revelations of modern restoration.
Benefits of Restoration
The restoration team for the most recent treatment of the chapel ceiling was formed with several objectives in mind. It was quickly recognized that the darkness of the colours on the roof was at least partially the result of 500 years of accumulated grime caused by burning candles lifting wax and soot to the upper regions. The accumulations of salt had also not only stopped following ancient treatment with animal fats or oils. Water has continued to seep through the ceiling throughout the years, thus making the removal of the salts and their associated ancient treatments another objective of the modern restorers. Numerous cracks had also formed over the many years as a result of underlying structural damage that was threatening to undermine the stability of the original plaster. While the grime and salts obscured the painting, left untouched, these fundamental issues could lead to the total collapse of the arts as pieces of plaster would eventually come free of the ceiling to disintegrate on the chapel floor. Other underlying issues, such as bubbling and flaking, were also threatening the integrity of the painting. To discover the original paintings of Michelangelo, the over-paintings of other ancient artists also needed to be removed. Still, attempts were made to preserve the efforts of these earlier restorers as a means of protecting the history of the chapel. Everything done in furtherance of the restoration project was in keeping with the guidelines established by Carlo Pietrangeli, director of the Vatican’s Laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures, in which the emphasis is placed on understanding and analyzing the original work while documenting each step of the process.
While it was widely recognized that Michelangelo’s paintings had been damaged by time and pollution, among other things, the extent of this damage was not fully known before restoration efforts began.
According to Colalucci, one of the lead restorers on the project, the process began with a few experiments on a lesser painting in the chapel, Conflict over the Body of Moses by Matteo de Lecce. This painting was a wall painting, and thus easier to access, and was created using the same techniques and many of the same materials employed by Michelangelo in the creation of the ceiling. Other solvents were tested on Michelangelo’s work in the Eleazer and Matthan lunette before the right combination was determined. Despite this, restoration processes remained an ongoing experiment through the project rather than merely applying the same process unilaterally. As restoration began on the lower sections of the chapel, the extent of grime build-up was realized. According to a report by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the lunettes were in particularly poor condition presumably because they are placed immediately above the windows, which are the primary source of ventilation for the chapel. As a result, additional smoke and exhaust fumes from the surrounding city contributed to the deterioration of the images.
Other than the problems of water seepage, salt build-up and structural changes, restorers discovered that Michelangelo’s original work was of particularly excellent quality, preventing bubbling by applying paint thinly which allowed water to pass through rather than accumulate below the surface and utilizing the highest quality fresco techniques known at the time (as described by Vasari). Previous restorers had secured any potentially loose plaster with brass pins, thus providing current restorers with a secure base from which to begin work.
According to Colalucci, the restoration team spent at least six months studying the paintings, determining their composition and condition as well as discussing the project with surviving restorers from the 1930s project and considering which methods would be best to use for which surfaces before they fully launched into the process.
Detriments of Restoration
Despite the seeming obviousness of the need to restore the ceiling if it was to be available for future generations, there were numerous objections raised to the project. One of the more vocal opponents of the restoration project was James Beck of ArtWatch International. Beck’s argument pointed to the previous restoration attempts not just of the Sistine Chapel but of other artworks as well in which the original had been damaged as a result of the restoration efforts. This argument held particular weight regarding the Sistine Chapel given its fragile structure as well as its long history of restoration damage. As Beck asserted, efforts at restoration necessarily remove something from the painting. In contrast, aims at conservation, the simple protection of the artwork in its current condition, prevents the possibility of further deterioration. Arguing against restoration, Beck is reported to have made a very modern analogy: “In the rhetoric of this conversation, [the conservators] say that the previous restoration was no good – now we’re going to make a perfect one. It’s like having a facelift. So many times can people go through one without looking like an orange peel on their bad faces? One of the primary factors of the restoration project was the removal of layers of grime and glue varnish that had been applied to the painting either through natural processes or as the result of the previous restoration. However, Beck suggested that a good portion of this glue varnish was applied to the ceiling intentionally by Michelangelo himself as a means of achieving a sculptural effect on the paintings, or, as was suggested by Alexander Eliot, as a means of adding tonality to the images.
This argument that Michelangelo might have added adjustments to the painting a secco, or after the plaster was dry, is actually at the heart of the restoration debate. Critics of the restoration effort maintained that restorers were taking a universal approach to the entire work, judging all layers above the plaster to be later additions to the paintings that were not Michelangelo’s. By using solvents that cut down to the plaster itself, the restorers were destroying the artist’s following additions to refine the finished work.
The problem with this argument is that it is based on the false presumption that the restorers took a ‘universal approach’ to remove top layers. One of these critics, in attempting to demonstrate how Colalucci contradicts himself in discussing Michelangelo’s painting technique, proves Colalucci’s assertion that the project was the subject of ongoing processes, adjustments and assessments. “The elderly restorers who had taken part in the restoration of the 1930s were interviewed as part of the preparatory process. They claimed that Michelangelo worked over the frescoes a secco using feature or glazes as a binder. Colalucci rejects this, stating that Michelangelo worked exclusively in Buon fresco [wet plaster]. Colalucci then contradicts this by stating that Michelangelo worked a secco, but ‘to a minimal degree’ and ‘not at all in the lunettes.’ In making this statement, Colalucci seems to be a victim of seeing only what he is seeking.
In asserting that Michelangelo worked exclusively in Buon fresco, Colalucci is generalizing the ceiling as evidenced in his clarification regarding those areas in which Michelangelo used secco techniques to adjust the image. This qualification suggests Colalucci was well aware of the difference between Michelangelo’s work, which didn’t appear at all in the lunettes but which was found elsewhere, and the work of others who had come later. Because he can make this distinction, it seems clear that Colalucci and the rest of the restoration team would have taken care not to remove elements that were recognizably placed by the original artist.
However, this doesn’t completely answer the critics’ concerns as the general approach to the restoration was to remove all of the grease and soot found on the ceiling. Beck and others have claimed that Michelangelo, or his assistants, may have used carbon black and a glue wash to apply shadows and definition to the images a secco. It is reasoned that throughout the long period it took for Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, he was forced to alter his technique from time to time either as a result of exhaustion, temperature, humidity levels or the duration of daylight hours for him to work. As a result of these limitations, he may have come back at a later point on some images to apply secco details using a combination of paint and glazes or carbon black and glue as a means of adding the feature that couldn’t be added buon fresco. To prove this point, the critics have pointed to some of the restored images that have lost a great deal of their definition through the loss of carbon black. A comparison of the photos does demonstrate significant differences in the level of darkness found within some of the paintings. Still, the results of these differences may be more a matter of interpretation in some or a case of later artists’ improving’ on Michelangelo’s work in others.
As has been discussed already, the restoration process for the Sistine Chapel began only after extensive study regarding the frescoes and previous efforts at restoration had been conducted. The next step of the process consisted of the construction of aluminium scaffolding that closely mimicked the scaffolding used initially by Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, often even using the same holes in the walls Michelangelo used to support the platforms. This prevented further damage to the chapel while the aluminium material, being more lightweight, could be rolled from one position to another which made it safer for those using it. A careful process of discovering the appropriate solvent to apply for the restoration was also conducted. Similar frescoes and even some of Michelangelo’s images were tested with a variety of solutions in small areas as a means of determining which one would clean appropriately without damaging the underlying paint or plaster.
Colalucci persisted, before, during and after restoration, to emphasize that Michelangelo initially placed none of the glue layers covering the paintings. In most cases, it could be linked directly to the 18th-century restoration efforts and had been intended as a means of brightening the frescoes, which had already been dimmed by grease and soot, rather than providing higher contrast or darker depths. Distilled water was equally as useful in some areas for removing the top layers of grime, providing restorers with comparison images in working with more difficult dirt in other areas. In some places, cracks in the ceiling had to be repaired using intonaco much like the substance Michelangelo used and then painted to match the surrounding areas.
Loose plaster was glued in place with yet another substance carefully tested beforehand to ensure it would have both durability and prevent further damage to the plaster. It put it in place; the glue was injected under the loose plaster and then allowed to dry in place. Although the original intent had been to make the entire project entirely transparent to the public by allowing large-scale distribution of images and open invitations to art critics and analysts to visit during any part of the process, the project also depended to some extent on the available funding. The restoration of the chapel was funded by a grant from the Japanese television station Nippon, but only under the condition that they would be given exclusive rights to images documenting the procedure. While every step taken was carefully recorded with descriptions and pictures, none of these images was made available under after restoration work had been completed. Thus, only those individuals who could make the physical trip to investigate what was being done in the chapel had the opportunity to get their questions answered. In contrast, others assumed that the secrecy was a deliberate attempt to gain carte blanche tacit approval for what they were sure was the wanton destruction of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Thus, while the documentation and funding of the project were handily taken care of by the television station, ensuring the best possible equipment and professional photographers were on hand to take accurate images, this same element also served to heighten the controversy over the project and create an atmosphere of contention rather than cooperation regarding the best possible treatment for the frescoes.
Although the cleaning itself took more than twice as long as it took Michelangelo to paint, this was only the next step in the process. Before the project could be considered finished, it was necessary to find a means of protecting the frescoes from future environmental damage. Before the restoration, the chapel was typically ventilated through the large windows high on the walls, and glaring bright lights were placed to illuminate the darkened ceiling for more comfortable viewing by the masses of tourists who make their way through the chapel every day. The tourists themselves comprise yet another danger to the frescoes as they bring with them a great deal of humidity, heat and dirt that floats up on air currents to become lodged in the cracks and fissures of the ceiling. Without the grime of centuries to protect them, the frescoes were even more vulnerable to damage after cleansing than they were before it. To meet this challenge, individual air control studies were conducted, and the windows were permanently sealed as a means of reducing the damage of automobile exhaust. A specialized air conditioning system was then installed that was specially designed to control rapid changes in heat and humidity as tourists are permitted to enter in the morning and then as they are requested to leave in the evening. This system is also advanced enough to regulate the changes in temperature from winter to summer so that the ceiling is permitted to adapt to changing temperatures gradually. This unit manages to keep the air near the limit relatively stable and temperate. At the same time, it cools the lower atmosphere to a more significant degree and keeps it circulating at a faster rate. This functions as a reverse draw, pulling dust and dirt particles down rather than allowing them to float up and then running them through a filtration system to remove them from the chapel space.
Results of restoration
Restoration efforts on the paintings in the Sistine Chapel have revealed a great deal more colour and motion in the pictures than anyone previously imagined. The difference in appearance is so vast that some critics have considered the Sistine Chapel ceiling to have been destroyed by the massive project. “Michelangelo’s figures once thought purposefully dark, now show brilliant colours of high intensity, brushed on with astonishing freedom and vigour. The new, luminous hues, confidently joined in unpredictable harmonies, appeared uncharacteristically dissonant to some experts when brisk controversy first exposed and aroused. “This transition is demonstrated by one picture from the Azor-Sadoch lunette.
While the figure is almost indiscernible under the grime just as restoration work began, the image of a face slowly emerges from the darkness to finally reveal the face of a young man, carefully shaded and brilliantly adorned in vivid reds and blues. For most, the discovery of these brilliant colours was a surprise. In contrast, others used examples from some of Michelangelo’s other works to try to demonstrate that the revealed images were somehow no longer Michelangelo’s.
Under the grime of ages, the face of this figure is blurred beyond any distinction while his hand seems almost unrecognizable from a floor-level view. The cherub supporting the book is easily missed while the colours remain heavily muted. A figure peeking over the shoulder of Daniel is seen as only a strange bump hovering behind him, with no real sense of the symbolism or purpose. After cleaning, Daniel’s face is revealed as being heavily concentrated on his present task, which is easily understood to be a process of writing and study. The cherub is starkly clear now and very human in appearance as is the small figure peeping over Daniel’s shoulder. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the stark contrast in colour as the muted tones of the old image are replaced by a brilliant yellow cloth covering Daniel’s knee and the vivid red of his trousers visible just beneath.
The subtle blue of his shirt is a nice contrast while the warm creams of the architectural elements provide the image with a sense of familiarity and comfort. This image is one of those pointed to by critics of the restoration effort. They claim that Michelangelo intentionally employed a secco application of carbon black and glue to the surface of his images as a means of bringing in greater depth and shadows. For example, the gentle shading seen on Daniel’s robes in the before the picture is missing in the after photo, converting the delicate folds and shadows into mere blocks of colour and sudden shifts of colour as the gold converts to green on the inside of his knee. While these types of colour shifts can be found elsewhere on the ceiling, obviously intentionally combined in just this way, this particular image seems to support the carbon black idea as the colours do not, by themselves, provide the same sense of depth and detail that was seen before restoration. While it seems clear that the grime of ages had heavily obscured the original ceiling to the point where it perhaps would not have been recognizable to the original artist, there may be some merit to the critic’s concerns that a great deal of the original artwork has been lost in the cleaning off of all surface layers as more and more of the images are compared side by side.
It seems clear in these comparisons that some of the grime should have remained in place as it brought sharper definition and personality to the works.
Reactions to restoration
Reactions to the restoration project have been widely mixed. Many have been thrilled with the revelation of bright colours more in keeping with the pigments of the era and the known processes of fresco painting. Pope John Paul II celebrated the ceiling’s brilliant colours and newly welcoming atmosphere for those who would come to see the limit for themselves. The governor of Vatican City at the time of the unveiling of the restoration said, “This restoration and the expertise of the restorers allows us to contemplate the paintings as if we had been given the chance of being present when they were first shown.” Of particular delight to those who study religious iconography, the cleaning of the images seems to have revealed several details that were previously unsuspected. Every element of Michelangelo’s painting seems to suggest some aspect of the story that can be traced through the religious literature for a greater understanding of the story. Thus, while the Sistine Chapel ceiling serves to provide visitors to the chapel with a basic understanding of the story of the Bible and the connections between Old and New Testaments, it also helps to challenge regular users of the chapel to discover new depths of their faith and understanding of these connections, all while reflecting the more salient elements of the High Renaissance and inspiring the soon-to-follow tenets of Mannerism painting.
However, as the comparison of images before and after restoration suggests, not everyone was happy with the changes that had been wrought. Andrew Wordsworth said, “There seems little doubt that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was in part painted a secco, but the restorer’s none the less decided that radical Given the amount of dirt that had accumulated (especially from candle smoke), cleaning was necessary. The ceiling now has a strangely washed-out appearance, with exquisite yet flavorless decoration-an effect very unlike that of the highly sensual sculpture of Michelangelo. In addition to charges that Michelangelo’s secco elements had been washed away with the soot, critics of the cleaning have suggested that the colours could not have possibly been the original intention of Michelangelo, who is so closely associated with the gracefully sensual lines of his (colourless) sculpture. Despite these complaints, it seems most scholars have come to accept the new images and have adjusted their thinking regarding Michelangelo’s palette to consider the very real considerations of the necessary chemical composition of the pigments and plaster that somewhat limited the colour range of the Renaissance artist.
Painting images on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been a project fraught with peril since it was first attempted. The reasons for this are manifold. They only begin with the haste in which the chapel’s ceiling had been erected as a means of satisfying a dying pope who wanted to see his project complete before he died. Following the collapse of the underlying structure, the first image to be painted on this ceiling had to be completed destroyed before the roof could be properly repaired and repainted. Numerous other obstacles had to be overcome as well before Michelangelo, one of the most famous artists in Florence in his time and ever since could be engaged to undertake the project, but this did not end the problems. Michelangelo had to contend with new cracks appearing in the ceiling, some of which required patching with bricks and mortar before they could be painted over.
Scaffolding and issues of water also continued to be a problem both during the painting process and as the years passed. In the intervening years between the painting of the ceiling and modern-day, the chapel has seen several restoration attempts made upon it, including a few that took place. At the same time, the original artist was still alive. A persistent problem on the ceiling has been the seepage of water that continues to leave a salt build-up on the surface of the cap, obscuring the underlying tints and thus defacing the original image. Other problems included the accumulation of layers upon layers of soot and candle wax as the only means of lighting the chapel other than the open windows, which themselves permitted the entrance of more moisture and other forms of pollution, particularly as the world became modernized and the city of Rome expanded. Also, the underlying structural issues continue to cause problems, leading to cracks in the plaster and causing earlier restorers to add elements such as animal glue to try to hold everything together while still bringing forward the images out of the dimness.
Restoration toward the end of the twentieth century was largely guided by science as detailed analysis of the images was undertaken as a means of distinguishing between the work that was original against the work that was added at some later date. Cleaning the frescoes revealed surprising use of vivid colours and symbolism, but also generated a large-scale debate that continues today. While most scholars now accept a modified view of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, still recognizing in it a mastery of the art and a brilliance that preceded his time, there does seem to be a troubling loss of detail in some of the images that would be surprising if they were a part of the artist’s original intentions. While it is easier today to recognize the various figures depicted in Michelangelo’s ceiling, it may forever remain lost to us just how much of what we are seeing was a part of what Michelangelo unveiled so many years ago.
- Arguimbau, Peter Layne. (October 5, 2006). “Michelangelo’s Cleaned off Sistine Chapel.” Peter Layne Arguimbau. Available March 10, 2009 <http://www.arguimbau.net/article.php?sid=8>
- Beck, James. (1996). Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
- Colalucci, Gianluigi. (1986). “Michelangelo’s Colors Rediscovered in the Sistine Chapel.” The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered. Massimo Giacometti (Ed.). New York: Harmony Books.
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