June 7, 2013

Cleaning the Sistine Chapel

Think of the longest you’ve ever gone without cleaning your house.  Now imagine giving your house a light dusting once a century for five hundred years.  You’ll have a pretty good idea what the Sistine Chapel looked like until 1980.

Painting the Sistine Chapel

When Michelangelo finished The Last Judgment in 1541, he probably celebrated by breaking all of his brushes.  The guy hated painting.  When he was first given the task of frescoing the vault of the Sistine Chapel, he was already deeply preoccupied with sculpting a tomb for Pope Julius II.  The pope ended up having to chase him all over Italy for two years before he finally bit the bullet and returned to Rome.  Through four years of back-breaking labor, he created the most famous ceiling in the world.  He thought that was the end of it, but twenty-five years later, he was called back for another fresco job.  This time they needed something for the wall.  Another four years of Michelangelo’s life gave us The Last Judgment, the largest and grandest mural in Rome.

Ironically, these projects that Michelangelo was dragged into, kicking and screaming, turned into two of the greatest works of all time.  The Church wasn’t the last to notice.  Since its unveiling, the chapel has been fiercely guarded.  But the most difficult challenge they’ve faced has been protecting it not from vandals, but from time and the elements.  Over the years a layer of grime had accumulated on the frescoes, courtesy of smoke, candle wax, the breath of visitors, and air pollution.  Several attempts were made to clean things up, using everything from stale bread to Greek wine, yet the crud persisted.  Think of this the next time you feel like whining about wiping down your bathroom.

Re-painting the Sistine Chapel

In 1980, the Vatican launched its first serious attack in the War on Dirt.  Directed by their chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci, and founded by a Japanese TV network, they embarked on a wholesale restoration project.  Starting with the lunettes, continuing on to the ceiling, and finishing with The Last Judgment, they uncovered the masterpiece.  Using a cleaning solvent called AB57, they painstakingly removed not only the grime, but any residue left behind from previous restoration attempts.  Watercolors were added in some places where the color had faded away, and the surface was coated with a protective acrylic resin called Paraloid B72.  It took fourteen years, but on April 8, 1994, the job was done.

The unveiling of the “new” Sistine Chapel sent tremors through the art world.  For one, no one could believe how vibrant the colors were.  Up until then, it had been assumed that Michelangelo painted in dark, somber tones, but the cleaning revealed a color scheme brighter than anything out of Warhol’s Factory.  Also, close examination of the frescoes showed that a great deal of the work was executed by Michelangelo’s assistants.  Just like the revelation that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a committee, this was a downer.  We like the idea of one guy being able to pull off something so extraordinary on his own.  Oh well.

To this day there are critics who think the restoration shouldn’t have been done at all.  They believe additions made by Michelangelo himself were scrubbed off along with the dirt.  Others claim using Paraloid B72 was a stupid move, as it might someday turn opaque.  You can judge for yourself when you visit.  Look at the upper right-hand corner of The Last Judgment, and you’ll see a blackish-grey square that sticks out like a sore thumb.  That square is one spot the restorers left untouched.  I’m pretty sure you’ll agree it was time to break out the Pine-Sol.

the Sistine Chapel IN A NEW LIGHT

Starting from October 16, visiting the Sistine Chapel will be a completely different experience. The Vatican has announced a new lighting system that provides ten times more light while saving up to 60% the energy with LED-based fixtures to highlight Michelangelo’s frescoes. The project, involving custom-designed fixtures optimized for beam control and with a color spectrum that will highlight the pigmentation and the colors will be inaugurated in a couple of weeks, on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo, occurred in 1564.

Art lovers and Vatican tours participants visiting the Sistine Chapel will be able to experience the art in a completely new diversity of color. Lighting experts from the company of OSRAM developed a sophisticated LED lighting concept that increases illuminance by five to ten times, elevating the colors from the semi-darkness of twilight and illuminating the complete color spectrum of the frescoes in highly homogeneous and optimally controlled light. The development was implemented within the framework of a project subsidized by the European Union. To read more about the Sistine Chapel and how and when it is better to visit it please refer to our Guide to the Sistine Chapel.