An article by (c) Cait N. 2000-2010
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Marie Curie. Albert Einstein. William Shakespeare. Pythagoras. Only a select few people in history seem to embody the very essence and spirit of the vocation they pursue. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was one such individual. His name is synonymous, not with the wonderful sculptures he poured his heart and soul into, but rather his one major painting commission, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Restoration of the ceiling has caused many art historians, and the public in general, to step back and take a new look at a work that has been around for some four hundred and eighty-eight years.
Painted between the years 1508 and 1512, the Sistine Chapel ceiling has been one of the greatest tourist attractions since the nineteenth century. The simple fact that the Vatican voluntarily chose to have the ceiling restored is amazing because for the last 150 years they considered the idea of any major restoration tantamount to sacrilege. The decision to restore Michelangelo’s frescoes was partly to celebrate the fourth centennial of his death, and also because glues applied to the surface of the frescoes by previous restorers was causing the plaster to flake and peel which, if untreated, could have destroyed the ceiling.
According to Vatican records, there was a darkening of the frescoes in Michelangelo’s own time due to dust and smoke from candles and braziers. As early as 1543, Pope Paul II hired a caretaker to look after, not only the ceiling, but also the frescoes done earlier on the walls of the chapel. The first restoration was done in 1635 by a restorer named Lagi. He first dusted all the frescoes and then scrubbed them with wadded up bread. It’s speculated that this only added to the problems with the frescoes instead of helping. Also, in the 16th and 17th centuries, rainwater seeped through cracks in the chapel’s roof. The water weakened the plaster, causing cracks and color loss. As the water evaporated, it left crystallized deposits of mineral salts that spell death for frescoes. A second restoration in the 18th century and subsequent minor interventions added layers of animal glue, varnish, overpainting, and resins. Dust from the over two million visitors to the chapel every year, and sulfur dioxide from combustible engines only compounded the problem. It was evident that something had to be done before the frescoes were obliterated entirely.
The restoration of the chapel walls and other art in the room actually started in 1964. It was decided to restore Michelangelo’s work last because frankly, there wasn’t any other body of work (other than the Donni Tondo) by him to study. The four million dollar restoration was funded by the Japanese in return for the exclusive filming rights to be given to Japan’s Nippon television network until 1995. The ceiling restoration, which was started in 1980 and lasted for 12 years, was put into the hand of chief restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. He decided to start with the lunette fresco of Eleazar and Mathan.
The restoration team applied a thin layer of a chemical solvent called AB57 to the fresco in a patch about the size of a handkerchief. The solution is left on for roughly three minutes at a time, and then wiped off with distilled water. In some areas the restorers had to apply several applications because of varying thickness in the layers of dirt and debris. Even then a fine layer of dirt was left on the fresco as a form of protection for the paint. Colalucci asserted that the main purpose of the restoration solidified and cleaned the fresco, but most importantly, stopped future damage. He insisted that the greatest damage wasn’t to the paintings themselves, but the substances put on the paintings over the centuries.
Some of the more vocal critics against the restoration project argued that the reason for the restoration was nothing more than the Vatican officials wanting the frescoes to look better and appear clearer and easier to read. Whatever the reasons for the restoration, all the critics argued that the subtle shadows and corrections done by Michelangelo were stripped away. They said that the coatings of glue and varnish applied by earlier restorers cannot be separated from the glue Michelangelo used to make changes on the dried surface of the plaster. They also contended that the solvent used produces a chemical reaction with the paint which caused the brilliant colors, not the result of the pigments used by Michelangelo. Not only do the figures appear flat and one-dimensional, but they insisted that the clean frescoes look as if the soul of the fresco has been stripped away.
Colalucci and supporters contended that the new, brilliant colors are indeed those of Michelangelo. The restorers used historical research, chemical analysis, and powerful x-rays in their approach to do the best job they could on the ceiling. Before starting the restoration, the Vatican research lab conducted over 4,000 separate analyses to determine exactly what was painted “buon fresco” and what was painted using “a secco”. Even then, whenever “a secco” areas were encountered, microsamples were sent to the lab to determine the presence of zinc white, a substance not created until the 18th century. In addition to all the above, a graphics computer was installed on top of the scaffolding to enable restorers to call up the locations of the acrylic resin that was injected into cracks to secure the plaster, and the chemical composition of different colors of paint. The computer also had the ability to create a topographic grid of the ceiling that reflected every bump and curve of the plaster. Another plus of using the computer was its ability to guarantee a quicker and more efficient of record-keeping.
In 1987, a group of restorers, sponsored by the Kress Foundation, thoroughly investigated the restoration work and delivered a positive verdict. In addition, to help preserve the paintings and frescoes, the Vatican installed a complex climate-control system, comprised of 75 ultrasensitive sensors and computers designed to keep the temperature and humidity within acceptable levels. In effect, it will cover the ceiling with a special curtain of air so that very little dirt and moisture will ever reach it again.
The end result of 12 years of grueling and tedious restoration work: Colalucci and the other restorers discovered a brighter, more luminescent Michelangelo that none ever knew existed. Instead of using a palette composed of mainly greys and browns, colors such as varying shades of purple, green, orange, red, and blue are visible to the naked eye. Also visible was the increasing giornata size as Michelangelo grew more confident and comfortable in his painting. The restorers discovered that in the first lunette cleaned, Eleazar and Mathan, Michelangelo drew the figures freehand. No cartoon was used and each lunette was completed in a single day. It was as if they were actually watching Michelangelo work.
On the whole, the restoration project was embraced with heartfelt gratitude and joy. Now whole new generations of art aficionados will be able to see Michelangelo in a whole new light. Even so, there will continue to be those who see the whole project as a violation of the principles of art, and the cleaned frescoes as unnatural looking. As the French essayist Georges Braques said, “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.”
buon fresco – (true fresco) – method of creating wall and ceiling murals with water color on fresh lime-plaster so the resulting painting is an indestructible part of the wall, chemically integrated into the fabric of the building.
a secco – technique of applying colors which are not resistant to lime over an undercoat, putting the finishing touches on a fresco after it has hardened. Tempera is mixed with adhesive such as gum arabic, casein or animal skin glue or applied over a thin coating of adhesive painted on the wall after dampening down the plaster. (Also used to paint entire murals on dry plaster. Results are not
as durable or brilliant as buon fresco.)
giornata – irregular shaped section that can be plastered and painted in one day. The shapes more or less follow the composition so adjoining giornate do not have obvious dividing lines in the finished work.
(Editor’s Note: This article by Cait N was originally submitted and published in Courtyard Expressions a now-dormant project associated with the mythopoetica.com family of sites and is reprinted with her kind permission.)