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Storm Over the Sistine Ceiling

Visiting the Sistine Chapel nowadays is a strange experience. You hurry, as you have always done, the whole length of the Vatican building. “Permesso, permesso,” you say, as you push aside coveys of Germans and Japanese in order to reach the chapel before it fills with tourists. If you are successful, you come in, as you have always done, through the little door under the Last Judgment and look up, speechless, at the rebellious Jonah, the melancholy Jeremiah, and the Libyan Sibyl heroically supporting her colossal book. But about half-way down the chapel is a scaffolding resting on rails along the walls, covered with mustardcolored fabric on which appear the shadows of ordinary mortals busily at work. Beyond it you look toward the Zechariah, the Joel, and the Delphic Sibyl, suffused with light and seemingly the work of another, more lively, more decorative artist.

Some of the greatest Renaissance works of art are frescoes, and in the last forty years a high proportion of them have been cleaned. Sometimes they have been stripped off the wall, rolled up, and put away; sometimes they have been stripped off and replaced; and sometimes they have been cleaned on the walls where they belong. Often the result is undiluted gain. Today Correggio’s frescoes in the two cupolas at Parma look much as they did when they were studied by seicento artists; Angelico’s cell frescoes at San Marco in Florence address us with the logic and tenderness with which they spoke to his contemporaries; Titian’s frescoes in the Scuola del Santo at Padua have been reinvested with their original virility.

The coin has a reverse side in restorations through which the work of art has been impaired. One such case is the Masolino fresco cycle in San Clemente in Rome (where the cleaning was heavier-handed and more radical than with the second Masolino fresco cycle at Castiglione d’Olona in Lombardy), and another is the cloister of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, where one (luckily only one) of Signorelli’s frescoes has been treated with great brutality, its figures reduced to wraiths and its space content destroyed. Inevitably judgment contains a strong subjective element, the more so that two kinds of verdict are involved, short-term judgment dominated by pleasure at the unwonted freshness of the paint surface and long-term judgment in which one asks oneself whether the image has the same communicative power that it possessed before.

This is the far from simple background against which the cleaning of the Sistine Ceiling and the controversy it has aroused have to be assessed. More strictly, would have to be assessed were the issues involved less momentous than they are. The cleaning of the Sistine Ceiling is the most important single piece of fresco restoration that has ever been attempted, because the ceiling is in its totality almost certainly the greatest painting that has ever been produced. For four centuries it has been recognized as a peak to which no other artist could aspire, and since the development of reproductive processes its images of Genesis, the Prophets, and the Sibyls have haunted the collective imagination of mankind. Millions of people have come to visualize the act of will through which the world they live in was produced as it was visualized by Michelangelo. If you are an art historian, it is essential to free yourself from the fetters of your profession. The Sistine Ceiling is no more the property of art historians than the Ninth Symphony is the property of musicologists.

A little history is unavoidable. From a conservation standpoint the Sistine Ceiling has always been a problem. Michelangelo began by using the wrong intonaco, or final layer of plaster on which the painting was done, and had to be put on the right lines by Giuliano da Sangallo. In 1547 it was reported by Paolo Giovio that the surface was being eroded by salt deposits and cracks. Shortly after Michelangelo’s death a Modenese restorer, Domenico Carnevali, was engaged in filling in cracks in the intonaco and repainting damaged sections of the Flood. With the exception of this single fresco, the sixteenth-century restorations were cosmetic and were made necessary by the factors Giovio describes; some of the cracks were covered with glue varnish and gum. In 1625 a major campaign took place when the dust on the surface was removed with “linen rags with slices of cheap bread…scrubbing hard,” and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, “the bread was moistened a little.” A second, more thoroughgoing restoration was carried out between 1710 and 1713, in the conservation-minded pontificate of Clement XI, this time with sponges dipped in Greek wine, which was allowed to acidify to increase its strength. Revivifying agents were used to improve the by-then grayish surface, and parts of the fresco were patinated with opaque or transparent paint.

This was the state in which the ceiling was known to visitors for the next 250 years. “It might be supposed,” writes Heath Wilson in the last quarter of the nineteenth century,

that every means would have been taken to insure the safety and preservation of the noble works of art in the Sistine. The contrary has been the case, they have been neglected and wilfully maltreated…. The frescoes of the Sistine are now so darkened by the effect of the smoke tapers that seen from the floor their real colours are imperceptible. Colours from every part of the ceiling [are] changed with dust.

Part of the intonaco was stabilized at the beginning of the present century, and in the middle of the 1930s a further superficial restoration campaign was undertaken, and small diagrams were printed showing the working periods (giornate) for the painting of the Flood and of some of the other frescoes. The author of the ceiling, therefore, until very recently was the same artist who is described in 1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. “He considered art,” declared Reynolds,

as consisting of little more than what may be attained by Sculpture: correctness of form and energy of character. We ought not to expect more than an artist intends in his work. He never attempted those lesser elegances and graces in the art.

For generation after generation 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 and ideal form.

So things stood when the present campaign began. It was inspired (and this should be made clear at once, since the contrary case has been freely and rather irresponsibly advanced) by a sense of duty to preserve the ceiling, part of which was, and had long been, in a precarious state. Rightly or wrongly, it was felt that an end should be put to cosmetic restoration, and that in the modern world optimum conservation was alone permissible. Work started not on the vault proper but on the walls: with the lunettes of the Ancestors of Christ over the windows. A disconcerting thing at once transpired, that these frescoes, which were discussed throughout the literature of Michelangelo as a zone of darkness leading the eye toward the ceiling, were colored with exceptional strength. Still more disconcerting was their tonality, their shot yellows and pinks and greens, which had hitherto been thought by art historians to have originated two decades later with Pontormo and his Florentine contemporaries. Fabrizio Mancinelli, in the informative new book devoted to the Sistine Ceiling, contrasts the condition of the vault with that of the lunettes, for which

almost certainly no cleaning properly speaking was attempted at all. The imbalance was becoming steadily more marked in the years immediately preceding the present restoration. The lunettes in this way assumed their romantically sombre character—in fact quite foreign to them but determining to an appreciable degree their reception and evaluation, not only artistic but also iconographic.

Art-historically, and artistically as well, the recovery of these figures, generally in sound condition, was an event of great importance. When it was demonstrated that the Prophets and Sibyls and the narrative scenes over the entrance to the chapel were also strongly colored, a gulf opened between those who adhered to the old concept of the ceiling and those who embraced the concept of the ceiling as it seemed originally to have been. The dispute was taken up by the American press, in largely polemical terms. There were demonstrations; and vociferous protests were made by both academic and nonfigurative artists. The Vatican authorities went so far as to explain publicly, in two days of conferences in New York, their restoration program and the data on which it was based.

Not unnaturally American criticism was reported throughout Italy, and had a disturbing, though not demoralizing, effect on the restores involved. Arrangements, however, were made for a number of restorers of acknowledged excellence (three of them specialists in fresco decoration) to visit Rome, and they one and all endorsed the wisdom of what was being done. I have myself long accepted the Vatican restorers as among the most responsible in Italy, and when I in turn was shown the ceiling, I was convinced first that its restoration should not have been postponed, second that it was respectful in the highest degree, and third that the means used were wholly adequate to the task. This last point is important since critics of the cleaning have urged that it should be deferred till the technique of restoration becomes even more sophisticated than it is today. I see no technical grounds on which the present restoration can be criticized.

The focus of criticism was the belief that though the ceiling was painted in true fresco, this had been modified by Michelangelo with extensive glazing and secco painting (additions made after the intonaco had dried), which the Vatican restorers had removed. The most culpable of the critics, Professor James Beck, distinguished himself in an interview in People last March by making a succession of statements few of which were even approximately correct. Comparing photographs made after cleaning with those with which he was working while teaching at Columbia, Beck was disturbed by the differences between them, and went to Rome. “I just said, ‘Oh God, this is a disaster.’ It looked as if the soul of the fresco had been stripped away. All its three-dimensionality was gone.”

What then did he believe was wrong? “They are removing a layer, or layers, put on by Michelangelo himself.” But what proof do you have, he was asked, that Michelangelo put a transparent layer over his fresco? “Condivi,” Beck replied, “Michelangelo’s friend and biographer, quotes the artist as saying the frescoes were not finished because they didn’t have l’ultima mano (in English: final layer). It is precisely that final layer…that the restorers are mercilessly wiping away day after day.” The expression “ultima mano” means “last touches,” not “final layer,” and is generally agreed to refer to secco additions, particularly local gilding, which Michelangelo would have added to the second half of the ceiling had pressure of time been less great. Where they were added, in the first half of the ceiling, they are perfectly preserved.

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