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Cleaning the Sistine Ceiling

In response to:

Storm Over the Sistine Ceiling from the October 8, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

I was touched by the tortured quality of Mr. Pope-Hennessy’s Sistine Chapel review [NYR, October 8]. He’s frank to admit that the uncleaned Sistine Ceiling is “almost certainly the greatest painting that has ever been produced” and that it’s “no more the property of art historians than the Ninth Symphony is the property of musicologists.” But he finds the Ceiling’s cleaned sections “seemingly the work of a livelier, more decorative artist.” So, are the Sistine cleaners sacrificing one of humanity’s best-loved treasures for something closer to the Disney realm?

No, says Pope-Hennessy. The Sistine scrubdown is “respectful in the highest degree.” How can that be? It rewrites history. Witness the restoration director’s own claim that he “has brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist.” Previous historians gave Michelangelo too much credit. “Some learned theologian” must have run the artist’s whole project. “Once the cleaning is complete,” Pope-Hennessy admits, “we’re likely to hear much more of Michelangelo as a rhetorician, not a theologian or philosopher.”

Meanwhile, what’s happening to the artist’s final draft? The philosophically all-important details, plus the original glorious orchestration of chiaroscuro effects, are gone from the cleaned sections. These vanished marvels never existed, their expungers insist, except by accident. To quote the restoration director’s circular reasoning: “The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and…glue varnishes.”

Could everyone throughout history have been dead wrong to love Michelangelo? Did simple accretions of dirt in appropriate areas, plus previous restoration-work, befool Pope-Hennessy and everyone else? Was “the greatest painting that has ever been produced” nothing but a filthy mirage?

Pope-Hennessy himself, in his waffling way, implies that we’ve been idiots, alternately cricking and bowing our necks. “For generation after generation,” he writes, “this was the monolith that was worshiped in the chapel, to which deferential visitors tendered their cowed respect, a forbidding, single-minded, God-like figure who resisted the hedonistic temptations of color in unrelenting pursuit of ideal imagery, ideal form.”

The cleaners’ chemical gels, scientific “inpainting,” and acriloid sealants create a “new” artist who’s easier to take. Do we need him? Please, Mr. Pope-Hennessy, stop agonizing; you’ll feel better if you do. Historians James Beck and Leo Steinberg courageously and plainly reversed themselves; why don’t you?

Alexander Eliot

Los Angeles, California

John Pope-Hennessy replies:

In my review I criticized Mr. Eliot for making a number of polemical misstatements about the size of the giornate in the Sistine Chapel. His reply is to make more, and more hysterical, misstatements on a wider front. In my waffling way I would note only that:

  1. The Ceiling cleaned is not a different Ceiling; it is the same Ceiling that was there before.

  2. No “philosophically all-important details” (whatever this strange term may mean) have been eliminated.

  3. The cleaning is not a “scrub-down.” It rewrites history in that it reinstates the fresco in the form and the tonality that it originally possessed.

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