The Sistine Chapel Restorations – How NOT to clean Michaelangelo

Posted March 12th, 2013

Murals, Restoration, Vatican

The Sistine Chapel Restorations
“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: Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

ArtWatch UK campaigns to protect the integrity of works of art and architecture from injurious physical treatments and hazardous, exploitative or demeaning actions. They have an interesting journal highly recommended for everyone working in the field.

The Sistine Chapel Restorations

The frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had a number of interventions prior to the restoration process of our times which was started in 1980. Initial problems with the ceiling appear to have been caused by water penetrating through the floor above. In about 1547 Paolo Giovio wrote that the ceiling was being damaged by saltpetre and cracks. The effect of saltpetre is to leave a white efflorescence. Gianluigi Colalucci, Head Restorer at the Laboratory for the Restoration of Paintings for Papal Monuments, Museums and Galleries, states in his essay Michelangelo’s colours rediscovered, that the early conservators treated this cosmetically by an application of linseed or walnut oil which had the effect of making the crystalline deposit more transparent.

In 1625, a restoration was carried out by Simone Lagi, the “resident gilder”, who wiped the ceiling with linen cloths and cleaned it by rubbing it with bread. He occasionally resorted to wetting the bread to remove the more stubborn accretions. His report states that the frescoes “were returned to their previous beauty without receiving any harm”. Colalucci states that Lagi “almost certainly” applied layers of glue-varnish to revive the colours but does not state this in his report in the interests of “preserving the secrets of the restorers’ craft”.

Artwatch has documented the various stages of restorations with images and writes: “We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.

The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57″. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.

On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.”
Read on: Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

An in depth retrospective on the decades long restoration of the Sistine Chapel.

Restoration of the Sistine Chapel

Part 2