Times Art Writer

Have we heard the last word on the controversy over cleaning the Sistine Chapel? “I hope so,” said Andrea Rothe, conservator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Back in Malibu after visiting the chapel with a distinguished panel of experts, Rothe said that while “the criticism is good, to a point,” it is hampering progress. “The conservators are not able to work,” what with a constant parade of visiting professionals inspecting the project from the scaffolding that serves as their workshop.

Rothe was one of six conservators invited last week by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to visit the restoration site. They filed a report, released this week by the New York-based organization.

Refuting claims that Italian conservators are overcleaning the Vatican’s Renaissance masterpiece, the group concluded: “The new freshness of the colors and clarity of the forms on the Sistine ceiling are totally in keeping with 16th-Century Italian painting and affirm the full majesty and splendor of Michelangelo’s creation.”


After spending “considerable time” studying and discussing the frescoes under different light conditions, the conservators wrote: “Overall, the state of preservation of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the lunettes and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is essentially good, retaining the secco corrections added by the artist.

“The frescoes are obscured by uneven layers of soot, glue, salt deposits and numerous previous restorations. These old restorations, which lie on top of the discolored layers, were added to reinforce certain details that had become illegible beneath the heavy veil of blackened glue and blanching due to the salts. In a few areas, water seepage, condensation and the efflorescence of salts have brought about a variety of irreversible surface effects, such as mottling and hazing of some colors.

“All these conditions combine to falsify the grandeur of Michelangelo’s intention by flattening the forms and reducing the colors to a monochrome that has misled generations.”

While many members of these “generations” have been startled by the vivid hues emerging from the cleanup, some insist that they represent only Michelangelo’s underpainting. These critics fear that conservators are now removing veils and details that the master added to mute the colors and to add definition to broad-brushed surfaces. Supporters of the restoration dispute this, arguing that his touchups are clearly visible and that they are being preserved.


Along with Rothe, the Kress Foundation invited to the Vatican two other painting conservators from major American museums: David Bull, of the National Gallery of Art, and John Brealey of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Independent practitioners serving on the committee were Leonetto Tintori, a Florentine who specializes in restoring frescoes; Diane Dwyer, who formerly worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Mario Modestini, former conservator of the Kress collection.

The conservators employed by museums were chosen because they represent institutions committed to conservation done “with care and intelligence. They do not believe in destructive techniques,” foundation spokeswoman Lisa Ackerman said. All the committee members are “conservators who believe in working with art historians instead of against them,” she added.

Ackerman called the foundation-initiated visit “an appropriate endeavor” for an organization that has “for 40 years been concerned with the conservation of painting in Italy” and runs a fellowship program, sending about 10 conservators a year to Italy for training.

She said negative criticism probably spurred the foundation into taking action “sooner rather than later,” but that the report should not be construed as a direct response to complaints.


The restoration is now midway in a 12-year program that has been financed to the tune of $3 million by Nippon Television Network in Tokyo in return for 12 years of reproduction rights. The project moved along smoothly for a time, but resistance has mounted in recent months. Among critics who have voiced their concern in published articles and letters are James Beck, head of the art history department at Columbia University; Alexander Eliot, former art editor of Time; a group of prominent artists in New York and members of the UCLA art faculty.

Throughout the controversy, the scholarly community has presented a largely united front in favor of the Italian conservators’ methods, but conservators deny they’re simply toeing the party line by approving the cleaning.

“The frescoes are more important than a friendship,” Rothe said. “Conservators don’t agree with each other very often. There’s no way” leading authorities could be prevented from speaking their minds if they believed anything were amiss, he said. Rothe also emphasized the value of Tintori’s endorsement because of his expertise in frescoes.

Already familiar with the Sistine project from earlier visits, Rothe told of a ceiling in desperate need of attention. He described a surface so rough that it looks “like a mountain range.” Glues added to brighten colors have darkened and attracted soot, he said. That these layers were not the work of Michelangelo is proved by the presence of “the same junk” on unsightly “nails and spikes” that hold up sections of past restorations.


While his recent trip brought no major revelations, Rothe said he gained an increased understanding of a method Michelangelo used that might have been confused with the disputed “veils.” Frescoes are painted quickly, by laying color into wet plaster. By mixing dry pigment with calcium hydroxide in water, Michelangelo could add very thin layers of color to humid plaster, thus extending his work periods and giving him an opportunity to add highlights such as the blue shoulder on one female figure, Rothe said.

But “the most important” event of the visit, in Rothe’s opinion, was that “finally they turned down the lights. If people had never seen the restoration under those bright lights (employed by conservators and Japanese television crews), we would have avoided this whole polemic.”

Noting that the only artificial light Michelangelo used was from candles and that he chose bright colors so they’d be visible from the floor, Rothe said the restoration can look “horrendous” under extreme lights and that some photographs that have triggered criticism reproduce this skewed impression.

“Once they turned off the lights, we were all amazed,” he said. “It looked so rich and so beautiful.”