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CRYING IN THE CHAPEL : Is the Cleaning of the Sistine Chapel a Glorious Restoration or a Monumental Sacrilege?

A visit to the Sistine Chapel has a new sense of urgency these days. It’s more than a pilgrimage to the crowning glory of the Italian Renaissance. More than a return to an age that symbolizes the height of human achievement. More than an affirmation of Michelangelo’s genius--stretched out on a barrel vault that soars 68 feet above the chapel’s marble floor.

It’s also a journey to the site of a controversial restoration that some critics say is ruining one of the world’s most beloved cultural monuments. You’d better hurry, they warn, because a big chunk of the ceiling is being destroyed every day.

The Sistine Chapel has long since passed from the realm of art criticism into the public domain, so the current argument about its cleaning is no mere academic tiff. It’s a highly emotional conflict in which at least one combatant has proclaimed that God is on his side.

As you join the throng of tourists at the entrance to the Vatican Museums on a chilly, gray day, climb the marble-and-bronze spiral staircase, buy your ticket and follow the yellow arrows to the Cappella Sistina, you can feel your pulse quicken. Wending your way to the hallowed room, you finally arrive at the source of the debate.

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A high-tech scaffolding--tautly covered with fabric and cantilevered under the vault--is leaving a bright trail of frescoes that were once subdued by soot and various glues. The metal-framed apparatus is the mobile workshop of Italian conservators who are midway in a 12-year effort to restore Michelangelo’s early 16th-Century masterpiece. Under the direction of Vatican curator Fabrizio Mancinelli, chief conservator Gianluigi Colalucci and two assistants apply a gelatinous substance called AB-57 to a section of the fresco, about a foot square. They wipe off the gel with distilled water after three minutes and repeat the process in 24 hours. Then they seal the surface with a resin called B-72.

The scaffolding--currently hiding the “Fall and Expulsion From Paradise” panel--forms a buffer zone between colorful scenes of Noah and the flood, bordered by immense Christian prophets and heathen sibyls (swathed in vivid draperies and seated on gold-trimmed chairs) and the still-dark “Creation” panels extending in the opposite direction. But along upper walls, where bright lunettes (fresco sections around windows portraying Christ’s ancestors and the Popes) meet the untreated vault, the contrast is so startling that it might be a before-and-after ad for a miraculous new cleaning product. Dark cracks seem to have disappeared in the sparkling clean panels, but binoculars reveal that they are simply less prominent once the dirt has been removed.

There’s no denying that the chapel is undergoing a stunning change. The new Michelangelo is not the one you saw on previous visits to Rome or the one you studied in faded slides. But neither is he the limp corpse that has been reported in the press. Whatever else it is, a visit to the Sistine Chapel is still a thrill.

Unfortunately, questions of what looks better or worse to contemporary eyes have obscured the more pertinent issue of determining the most accurate representation of an artwork that has certainly altered over time and will continue to change. Neither the conservators nor their critics can preserve the frescoes in their original state.

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At issue is the belief--held by the Italian conservators and supported by an impressive array of scholars and technicians at prestigious institutions--that Michelangelo painted the ceiling a fresco , working quickly to lay wet pigment into wet plaster and making few additions or corrections on the dry surface. They argue that most subsequent paint, glue, varnish and dirt are products of later times and therefore can be safely removed.

A relatively small but growing band of artists and other observers dispute this, charging that Michelangelo made significant a secco (dry) additions and that in removing everything but the buon fresco bottom layer the conservators are destroying his anatomical detailing and subtleties of modeling, leaving only the broad underpainting and even blurring that, thus robbing the figures of definition.

“The conservators are cleaning to prove their theory that Michelangelo painted only the fresco and that the Michelangelo we all know and love is the result of dirt accumulation and retouching by others,” Alexander Eliot, a former art editor of Time, told Calendar. “It’s a circular process.

“Everyone will realize by the end of the decade that Michelangelo has been done a great disservice, that we’ve lost forever the most important relic of the Italian Renaissance.”

Eliot contends that the conservation is intended “to cheer up the chapel, to make it accessible to the public,” but that the conservators “are actually robbing all future generations of the real thing.”

“They’re cleaning it like a rug,” fumed New York artist Frank Mason during a phone interview. Mason, a former resident of Italy who paints in a classical style and teaches traditional techniques at the Art Students League, has made the protest a personal cause, compiling a hefty file of correspondence and clippings, leading a march on the Italian Consulate in New York and conferring with experts.

“Can you be so sure that nothing by the master is being lost?” asks James Beck, chairman of Columbia University’s Art History Department in an open letter to Colalucci published in Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper and by Arts magazine in New York. Contacted in his office, Beck called the operation “Sistinegate,” charging that the conservators haven’t been completely forthright about their processes and results.

A solid majority of conservators and art historians vigorously refutes such claims. Frederick Hartt, a leading Renaissance scholar at the University of Virginia who has visited the project six times, has declared himself “delighted” with the conservation, in a printed response to the “irresponsible critics” who have attacked the cleanup in a “campaign of disinformation and abuse.”

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The bulk of Hartt’s tract refutes Beck who, in effect, bolted the ranks and offended his colleagues by admitting that he was “favorably impressed” on his first visit, then going public with his “second thoughts” and proposing a delay.

“Scholars are cowardly,” Beck said, noting that it took artists to bring the issue to the fore.

But artists who have voiced concern over the restoration have been discredited by scholars for basing their objections on reproductions. Most of the 15 prominent artists who signed a March 3 petition to Pope John Paul II (in a protest spearheaded by New York art dealer Ronald Feldman) have not seen the restoration in progress. The 12 members of the UCLA art faculty who recently circulated a letter of protest were reacting to photographs in Harmony Books’ new publication, “The Sistine Chapel: The Art, the History, and the Restoration.” Mason, who has visited the site, says he refused an invitation to observe the work from the scaffolding because he didn’t want to be “charmed” by the technology.

“I find it a great pity that these objections are being raised by so many people who have no basis for making a reasonable judgment,” commented Pieter Meyers, chief conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“All the concern is noble, but the whole polemic has no basis,” said Andrea Rothe, conservator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The cleanup (financed to the tune of $3 million by the Nippon Television Network in Tokyo in return for 12 years of reproduction rights) proceeded quite peacefully at first, aided by glowing reports in the popular press and only occasionally questioned by artists. But the protest has gained considerable steam in recent months, putting the conservators on the defensive as they patiently explain their methods and rationale to the press.

Eliot emerged as a major critic when he voiced his alarm in a cover story and 11-page spread in the March/April issue of Harvard magazine. In an emotional argument against the project, he draws on his close contact with the ceiling in the late-'60s when he and his wife, Jane Winslow Eliot, studied and filmed the vault for a TV documentary. Former residents of Northampton, Mass., the couple has recently moved to Los Angeles, where they were interviewed by Calendar.

They told of visiting the chapel in 1982 and finding that the Michelangelo they knew 15 years earlier was disappearing. “We were so saddened and shocked that we came right home and started calling all our friends,” Alexander Eliot said. The couple drafted a written criticism of the project in late 1984 and circulated it privately in 1985. The Harvard article, called “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy?,” is a later version of that piece.

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“What we’re seeing in the cleaned portions of fresco is a relatively superficial decorator on the grand scale, a coloristically extreme and splashily effect-conscious Michelangelo,” writes Eliot, who likens the ancestor figures to “mannequins in neon wet suits.”

Supporters of the project don’t deny the striking change. “We were shocked, too,” Mancinelli said during a recent press conference. “We spent many months convincing ourselves that these were Michelangelo’s colors.”

“Everyone initially feels disoriented by the revelations of the cleaning,” writes Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of fine arts at New York University who is currently in residence at the American Academy in Rome. Her rebuttal to Eliot appears in the same issue of Harvard magazine with a group of “opposing views.”

“Scholars realize that Michelangelo’s role in the history of color must be rewritten. But a few cultural critics oppose the cleaning just because of the difference it makes,” Brandt writes. She views objections to Michelangelo’s emergence “from the dirt of centuries as a dazzling colorist” as “a reflection of culture shock.”

“It’s like seeing your grandmother turn into a 20-year-old woman. It’s a terrible shock,” says Rothe. An Italian who joined the Getty’s staff in 1981, he is currently in Rome, observing the cleanup from the scaffolding for the third time.

Rothe sympathizes with concern over some photographs in the Harmony book, but says they reflect actual differences in scale and detail as well as touch-ups and layers of glue added over the centuries. “You have to understand that Michelangelo was under enormous pressure to finish the ceiling. As the pressure became greater, the figures got larger and less detailed,” he said.

Explaining that touch-ups to dry fresco must be applied with a binder that inevitably darkens, he pointed out areas in photographs not painted by Michelangelo (dark splotches and broad brush strokes of glue contradicting the anatomy of the figures) that need to be removed. While conservators concede that the layers of fresco, paint and glue cannot be positively dated, they say that they can easily distinguish between Michelangelo’s work and that applied later. Critics of the project contend that Michelangelo did extensive painting on the surface of the dry frescoes and added unifying veils and shadows, but Rothe says: “Technically it was considered decadent to use glazes. Michelangelo wouldn’t have done that.”

Hartt concurs, insisting that the only secco retouches done by Michelangelo have been “scrupulously identified and preserved.”

Though Rothe says his colleagues at the Vatican are doing “a more conservative” job than he would (and that they might have avoided some criticism if they had done some retouching or toning), his only complaint about the cleaning is that pale blue artificial lighting in the chapel makes the colors look “off.”

“I advocate no lighting at all,” he said. “Then it wouldn’t look over-cleaned.” Others note that strong lights being used by the Japanese television crew also distort perceptions of the hues.

Passions run high on both sides of a controversy that’s graced with sincere professions of love for Michelangelo and understanding of his work. Mason has taken to calling Michelangelo “Mike.” During a recent press conference, a Vatican spokesman said that the Italian conservators were so immersed in the project that they had become the artist’s “alter egos.”

Michelangelo was secretive about his methods, leaving much room for speculation, so the argument continues with no end in sight. To question advocates on both sides is to confront constantly conflicting views:

While the Eliots say they encountered a “relatively pristine” vault that only looks dirty from the floor, Rothe argues that the “filthy” ceiling is in desperate need of professional help. “The glue exerts an enormous attraction on the surface,” he said. “As it expands and contracts with changing humidity (due to the weather and crowds), sooner or later it will pull the color off. It has to be removed.”

Conservators look forward to the moment when the chapel is harmoniously unified by its new color scheme, but detractors lament that all unity is disappearing with the dirt. “They are destroying the totality,” says Mason, who believes the change reflects “a commercial art mentality” formed by art that’s “painted in pieces.”

Both sides see a Mannerist aspect to Michelangelo’s work, but their reactions are diametrically opposed. To Eliot, the newly bright frescoes are “monotonously Mannerist”; art historians, on the other hand, are excited by evidence that Michelangelo’s influence on Mannerist color will be clarified.

The modeling of volumes is also a matter of debate. Mason thinks that the vault is being turned into “a flat post card.” Eliot says the frescoes are being reduced to “sentimental, flat kitsch,” while Rothe enthuses about the amazing amount of modeling that Michelangelo achieved in color.

Some critics believe that the coating on the cleaned frescoes doesn’t breathe and will cloud as moisture gathers in the plaster; conservators say not to worry, the material is porous.

The cleaning agent is accused of being too harsh--and defended as a neutral, well-tested product that only works on the surface and doesn’t penetrate the wall.

As for who’s winning the battle, critics of the restoration concede that they are a tiny minority but say “the tide is turning” and advocate a “grass-roots protest.” Eliot advises sympathizers: “Write to the Holy Father. Just as Reagan was the only one who could stop the outrage in the White House, the Holy Father is the only one who can stop this.”

Though no one is claiming that Michelangelo will emerge from the cleanup as a lesser artist, that seed of doubt has been sown. But here, too, opinions diverge. Art historians prefer to talk about the revelation of Michelangelo as a colorist and a better painter than he was reputed to be, while Eliot says, “I don’t think people will say he wasn’t so hot after all. They will say that an irresponsible cleaning destroyed the Sistine Chapel.”

Probably the only point on which everyone agrees is that the Sistine Chapel is a cultural totem that cannot be touched without setting off a reaction that reverberates around the world.


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