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 …

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Letters

Cleaning the Sistine Ceiling December 3, 1987