The agony of Michelangelo lying painfully on a rickety scaffolding 65 feet above the marble floor to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been celebrated for generations by poets, novelists and, more recently, the actor Charlton Heston.
And the murky gray of the great artist's complex masterpiece led art scholars for at least two centuries to describe Michelangelo as a sculptor with a low regard for color.
So much for poets, novelists and scholars--and Charlton Heston.
Careful cleaning of the Sistine Chapel walls and ceiling, now about one-third complete after four years of painstaking labor, has put both myths to rest and turned up discoveries about Michelangelo's work that have startled art historians.
First, the romantic myth that put Heston in a painful position, flat on his back, playing Michelangelo in the film version of Irving Stone's 1961 novel, "The Agony and the Ecstasy":
"It simply isn't true," according to Fabrizio Mancinelli, curator of the Vatican Museums' Byzantine, medieval and modern art and the director of the Sistine restoration project.
"Certainly Michelangelo was often in pain when he painted the Sistine ceiling," Mancinelli said recently. "He even wrote a poem describing how excruciating it was. But the agony probably came from standing on his tiptoes with his head craned back, which is how he depicted himself in a sketch that accompanied the poem."
Mancinelli said that conclusive proof of how Michelangelo arranged the scaffolding upon which he stood--not stretched supine--to paint the upper walls and ceiling came when his restorers found holes in the chapel walls that were used to support Michelangelo's artfully conceived scaffolding. Experts constructed a modern version of the artist's apparatus.
Mancinelli also discovered a sketch that Michelangelo drew to show the man who made his scaffolding how to build the stair-stepped platform, warning him not to put it so close to the ceiling that he would have to crouch or lie down to paint.
As for Michelangelo's use of dull colors, the cleaning, by the chief Vatican art restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci, and his two master restorer assistants, Maurizio Rossi and Pier Giorgio Bonetti, has revealed that the master painted so vividly--with bright apple-greens, orange-reds, striking yellows and subtle blues--that one critic said they "almost leap out of the wall."
Another of the more intriguing discoveries made by the cleaners was that Michelangelo worked at a rapid pace, at least around the lunettes, the 12 windows high on the walls where the ceiling begins to arch.
"The swift, almost furious execution of the images--sometimes the hairs of the brush remain in the plaster--makes the lunettes look like large colored sketches," Mancinelli said. "Each was executed in three days, and to understand the speed with which he painted, you must realize that each group measures about 7 feet at the base by 11 feet high, and most of the human figures in the lunettes are 7 feet tall."
The decision to proceed with the restoration of Michelangelo's monumental work, made four years ago, has been hailed as one of the wisest and most courageous in the history of art restoration. But it was made almost by chance, according to one of the men involved.
"We were restoring the paintings of the Popes that flank the windows beneath Michelangelo's lunettes and decided to clean a very small side of one of them," said Walter Persegati, secretary and treasurer of the Vatican Museums who, with the director general of pontifical monuments, Carlo Pietrangeli, made the decision. "When we saw that the result was quite remarkable, we decided to go ahead."
The results so far have been a revelation not only for art scholars, but also for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary visitors who have been allowed to pass through the chapel while the team of three restorers proceed with the step-by-step cleaning.
The chapel has been closed to tourists only for brief periods in the last four years, to permit scaffolding changes that allow the restorers to work out of the sight of the visitors.
'The Fewer The Better'
"Why don't we use more people to do the job faster?" Persegati asked rhetorically. "Because restoring and cleaning over the huge surfaces of the Sistine--about 13,000 square feet of Michelangelo fresco--is a matter of careful balance on all surfaces. Only a few highly skilled men working closely together can do that, and the fewer the better."
From their laborious and technically ingenious washing has emerged a brilliantly colored ring of strong figures representing Christ's ancestors as envisioned by Michelangelo, as well as the prophets, sibyls and decorative bronze male nudes in the chapel's lunettes and spandrels, the areas between the ceiling and windows.
The boldness of color revealed by the restoration thus far suggests that the immensely more complex ceiling fresco, which Colalucci and his colleagues have just begun to work on, may stand out like a sunburst when it is completed in 1988.
Once done with that arduous, neck-craning task, they will proceed to the great altar wall of the Sistine, where Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment almost 30 years after completing the ceiling and the lunettes. Although scholars believe that the artist deliberately used more muted colors for the somber theme of Judgment Day, the restorers expect to see another remarkable contrast to the rather murky browns and grays now visible against a muddy, irregular blue background.
The irony revealed by the restoration is that the Sistine, while admired as a masterpiece from the time that Michelangelo completed the ceiling until today, was seen as he intended it to be seen for only a relatively brief part of its 473 years.
The oily smoke of flaming torches used to illuminate the chapel even in daytime in the years before electricity, and the smoke of innumerable altar candles--as well as the charcoal braziers that warmed the feet of cardinals during conclaves (Popes are elected in the Sistine Chapel)--clouded the 1512 ceiling and the lunettes, as well as the Last Judgment, completed in 1541, which was 23 years before Michelangelo's death in 1564 at the age of 89.
In the 18th Century, as the works grew even more obscure, Vatican restorers made matters better or worse, depending on one's point of view.
They carefully covered Michelangelo's once-brilliant frescoes with layers of a preservative made of animal glue and fat. For a time, the relatively clear coating enhanced the colors of the paintings. But soon the protective coating discolored and, like flypaper, attracted passing particles of dirt and dust, making Michelangelo's work even harder to see. Still, it did guard the frescoes against further deterioration.
The challenge for the restorers has been to dissolve the layers of dust, dirt, smoke stains and glue without touching the fresco surfaces and harming Michelangelo's original colors.
"We clean until we can see how Michelangelo paints, until all the passages of color that he wanted become readable again," Mancinelli said. "But to remove all of the film that covers the fresco would mean touching the actual fresco, and we never do that. We clean it down to a minutely fine film and stop there."
'A Question of Patience'
"It is all a question of patience, skill, sensitivity and chemical know-how," Persegati said, describing how all the elements of the dirt layers had to be identified before selecting a solvent that would remove them.
After analyzing the dirty barrier from every angle, with tools ranging from old-fashioned microscopes to high-tech infrared and ultraviolet devices, the restorers settled on a solvent called AB-57, named after the number of experiments it required to arrive at the right formula by a husband-wife team, Laura and Paolo Mora, of the Rome Institute for Restoration.
Using the solvent is an art in itself, Colalucci said. He and his colleagues must gauge exactly how long to let the solvent soak into each small section under restoration--one to three minutes--before neutralizing it with a wash of double-distilled water. Then they must let the section dry for 24 hours before softly brushing on another coat of AB-57, repeating the process until only an almost infinitesimal layer of film remains.
To further guarantee extreme care in the work, as each sponge used to wipe away the solvent is rinsed, the residue must be chemically analyzed to show not only the composition of the dissolved dirt in the water, but any telltale flecks of color that would indicate that the original surface of the fresco has been touched.
The team is working, along with a nine-man television documentary crew from the Japanese NTV network in Tokyo, atop metal-framed scaffolding mounted to move the length of the chapel on steel rails that rest on heavy steel bars protruding from the original post-holes that Michelangelo drilled beside each of the 12 chapel windows.
According to Persegati and Mancinelli, it is a reasonably faithful but mobile modern version of the fixed wooden scaffolding that the artist erected in the 16th Century, ingeniously free of any supporting structure on the floor of the chapel, resting entirely on the short supports that are braced in the newly discovered holes in the walls.
Here and there the restorers say they have come across old overpainting by early restorers who attempted to bring deteriorated sections--there are remarkably few--back to life.
"We decide on a case-by-case basis whether to remove the overpainting or leave it," Mancinelli said.
But they will leave alone what is perhaps the most damaged section of the ceiling, he said. That is the top right-hand corner of Michelangelo's representation of the Flood, shaken loose from the ceiling and smashed on the floor below when the gunpowder works of the nearby papal fortress of Castel Sant'Angelo blew up in 1797.