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.

When the Ancestors of Christ were cleaned, it was found first that they were executed freely without cartoons and second that they were painted very rapidly. One of them required four giornate (or working periods while the intonaco was damp) and the remainder needed three, one for the central inscription, and one each for the figure or figures at the sides. This has led to the suggestion that the present figures were designed as under-painting, which was, or would have been, completed with glazing and secco painting. The principal exponent of this mistaken theory is a journalist, Alexander Eliot, who writes,

Tuscan fresco tradition never called for such gigantic giornate as those found in the Sistine…. On the contrary, the Florentines planned and executed each small giornata of their frescoes meticulously, as an exquisite, immediately perfected fragment of the entire scheme. 1

Some painters may well have done so, but the greatest painter of the fifteenth century did not. In Masaccio’s Expulsion in the Brancacci Chapel (where Michelangelo studied as a youth), the Adam and Eve were painted in one giornata each; they are the product of a single impulse, with no caesura, no seam, no second thought. The giornate in the Ancestors of Christ are larger than those in the Brancacci Chapel, but are faithful to the same pictorial principle. They are not gigantic, and bigger giornate were indeed employed a decade earlier at Orvieto by Signorelli. Disruptive and violent as some of them may appear today on grounds of color or imagery, there is no reason to suppose that Michelangelo did not intend them to be seen exactly as we see them now.

Nonetheless friends in whose taste and judgment I have confidence but who have no pretensions to knowledge about fresco restoration continue to feel unhappy, first about the cleaned ceiling visible from the ground and second about the probable effect of the entire ceiling when work is done. To some extent I share both preoccupations. The reasons are inherent in part in the frescoes and in part in the kind of artist Michelangelo was. The decision to paint, more strictly to repaint, the ceiling goes back to May 1506, when the possibility was first mooted that the work might be entrusted to Michelangelo. This was opposed by the architect Bramante on three separate grounds: first that Michelangelo’s animo (the sense here seems to be “stamina”) was unequal to the task; second that his experience as a fresco painter was limited; and third that there was no evidence of his ability to paint foreshortened figures that would register at a great height. There was a measure of truth in all three objections. Given Michelangelo’s erratic behavior over his first papal commission, the abortive tomb of Pope Julius II, it was an act of faith to suppose he could maintain the steady tempo that so large a commission required. Only in the spring of 1508 was the contract for the ceiling signed.

The ceiling as it was first envisaged was very different from the ceiling we know now. Its main feature was to be figures of the twelve Apostles enthroned in the pendentives between the windows. Above them, in the center of the ceiling where the Genesis scenes now are, was to be what Michelangelo describes as “decoration as is usual.” This scheme was then abandoned, and the present Prophets and Sibyls were substituted. Michelangelo later claimed that the change was made at his request, but it was in fact so fundamental—it affected the doctrinal content of the ceiling—that this can hardly have been the case. On one point, however, his influence must have been dominant, that the fictive architecture of the vault should read as an extension of the real architecture of the chapel. The main axis therefore was across and not along the vault. To judge from a drawing in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the inclusion of narrative scenes was envisaged from quite an early stage, but when work began the Genesis scenes were a relatively unimportant feature of the whole design.

In the early stages Michelangelo repeatedly complained that painting was not his profession, and in one respect this was a statement of fact. In Florence he had evolved the magnificent structures of the Doni Tondo and of the Battle of Cascina, but he had no experience of narrative painting, and this is reflected on the ceiling in the first narrative scenes he undertook, the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Drunkenness of Noah, and also, with special force, in the big spandrel scenes of David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes, where the mannered figures read like a theorem in geometry and the foreground is void. In their cleaned state the tentative character of the large scenes is more apparent than it was before.

It is no less apparent in the panorama of that inspired and moving but rather awkward masterpiece, the Flood. One self-appointed authority on Michelangelo has accused the restorers of overcleaning it. According to a report in Newsday, Leo Steinberg “found the figures in ‘The Deluge’ scene—particularly a woman on the lower left whose hand he likened to a ‘rubber glove’—’flat, and Michelangelo did not think flat.’ “2 This fresco was gravely damaged by an explosion in 1797, and I can personally see no proof of further damage caused by overcleaning. With the Drunkenness of Noah the narrative assumes new clarity, and with the Fall and Expulsion from Paradise (which has been magnificently cleaned but is only in part visible from the ground) Michelangelo gets into his stride, with figures whose resilience and expressiveness and sheer physical vitality have no precedent in Western painting. Michelangelo declared in a conversation reported in the Dialogues of Francisco da Hollanda that “he deemed it to be a very much greater thing to make a masterly stroke with the brush than with the chisel.” In the audacious brush strokes of the Expulsion this sentence takes on a new significance.

The articulation of the fictive architecture now reads as it has never read in living memory, and the space relationship between the various figurated elements has assumed new clarity. This is a point to which Michelangelo must from the first have attached great importance. In the spandrels the strongly illuminated frontal platforms lead the eye, with a smoothness that must have been intended, to the central area of the thrones, and the putti behind each figure now fulfill their pristine role of establishing the depth of the void between the seated figures and the rear wall. The three Prophets and two Sibyls that are visible from the ground reveal an astonishing richness and delicacy of coloring. Optically, seen from the altar end of the chapel, they look a little smaller and less weighty than they did before. In the heads the gain in definition is accompanied by a loss of ambiguity.

On two points the restorers seem to me to have been at fault. The cartellini bearing each figure’s name have become a grayish mauve framed in dead white. Whereas in the uncleaned frescoes these tablets, though suspended by strings from the thrones, remain firmly integrated in the architecture of the chapel, here they read like supertitles in an opera house. Throughout, the white highlights present an intermittent problem. Between the Isaiah and the Delphic Sybil, where the play of light is miraculously well controlled, is a spandrel scene with Ancestors of Christ, where the white hose of a male figure in the foreground and the white veil of a female figure behind in their cleaned state eclipse the Prophet and the Sibyl. It is difficult to believe that this is how Michelangelo wished them to be seen. The same difficulty arises with the David and Goliath, where the ugly light patch in the surface of the tent beneath the raised sword was present before cleaning but has become more pronounced, and the white sleeve of Goliath now reads so strongly as to neutralize the dark foreshortened body behind.

A difficulty many people will experience with the cleaned part of the ceiling is that it now looks highly rational. Michelangelo is not commonly thought of as a rational painter. His is the classic case of an artist establishing the terms in which he intended his achievement to be seen. The first account of his career, Vasari’s of 1550, was a uniformly flattering biography. But it conflicted with the artist’s view of his own personality, and three years later it was rectified by an independent life written by Condivi that was inspired, perhaps dictated, by Michelangelo. Condivi’s life is auto-hagiography; it is an attempt by Michelangelo eleven years before his death to impose upon his earlier life the convictions that he entertained at the close of his career. In old age he believed that art was the product of sublime intuitions, and was arrived at through inspiration, not through taking thought. No doubt this was the case in 1553, but it was not the case in 1508–1510 when the newly cleaned part of the ceiling was produced.

With any other artist the creative process on which so large a fresco rests could be deduced from drawings, but this is not possible with Michelangelo. There are countless preliminary drawings by Raphael for the Vatican Stanze, but of the thousands of preliminary drawings that the ceiling must have entailed, only fifty-four, at the most liberal computation, actually survive. The single coherent series is eight pages of a sketchbook at Oxford, containing scribbles mainly for the Ancestors of Christ (a very good essay on these by Michael Hirst is included in The Sistine Chapel), and the only completed life studies from models we possess are drawings in New York for the Libyan Sibyl and in London for the Adam in the Creation scene. The drawing for the Libyan Sibyl is concerned with posture and that for the Adam with lighting, and both of them result not from intuitions that were unlike those of other artists, but from accepted creative thinking raised to a heightened power. Is the lack of preliminary drawings due to malign chance, or was the evidence for his thought processes as he felt his way toward a definitive solution deliberately destroyed by Michelangelo?

The campaign of deception started ten years after the ceiling was finished. The Pope, Michelangelo asserted, had given him “a new commission to make what I wanted, whatever would please me.” Tolnay, in his great book on Michelangelo,3 put forward the old-fashioned view that

no detailed iconographic program was given to Michelangelo in advance for the execution of the Sistine Ceiling…. The content of the vault was gradually developed by the artist during his struggle to master artistically the surface put at his disposition.

Thanks to the perspicacity of Edgar Wind and other scholars, this claim is no longer tenable. No church in Italy was so program-conscious as the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s early letters show an almost total lack of interest in structured thought. The case is well set out by John O’Malley (“The Theology Behind Michelangelo’s Ceiling” in The Sistine Chapel), who concludes that “the weight of scholarly opinion today favours the hypothesis that some ‘learned theologian’ or group of theologians planned what Michelangelo executed.”

The only sense in which Michelangelo’s claim may have been true is that he was allowed unusual freedom not in the planning of the program but in establishing the terms in which it is presented and the rhetoric from which it derives its force. The program would naturally have embraced the narrative scenes and the Prophets and Sibyls and the fictive bronze discs above them (the literary source of which is known) and the Ancestors of Christ. But it need not have included the monochrome bronze reclining figures or the paired putti that support the thrones. In the past the ceiling has frequently been treated as though it contained no area without meaning. The nude youths have been described as acolytes, the bronze discs as sacramental wafers, and the bands from which they are suspended as altarcloths. Once the cleaning of the ceiling is complete, we are likely to hear much less of these hermetic interpretations of its iconography, and much more of Michelangelo as a rhetorician, not a theologian or philosopher.

With all Michelangelo’s great commissions, the style changed as work evolved. It did so in the sculptures carved for the tomb of Julius II, and it did so on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The painter of the Judith and David frescoes at the entrance could never have conceived the Punishment of Haman over the altar, the painter of the Zechariah could never have conceived the Jonah. The process of self-liberation is continuous, but the climactic point occurs toward the center of the chapel, where the painter, the first part of the ceiling unveiled and the second not yet begun, faced up to the challenge of completing the whole work. Here Michelangelo sheds his youth as a snake sheds its skin and emerges as what he claimed later to have been from the beginning: an inspired artist whose responses were more passionate and more profound than those of ordinary men. It was these later frescoes that Reynolds had in mind when he declared that he felt self-congratulation in knowing himself capable of such sentiments as Michelangelo intended to excite.

In this respect the acid test of the whole enterprise is still to come. How will the later frescoes look? Will the Creation of the World appear marginally more prosaic than in the past and the Creation of Adam marginally more pedestrian? Each time I go back to the chapel and sit, as I have so often sat, before the pitted surface of the Jeremiah, I feel concern that future generations may be denied an experience that raised the minds and formed the standards of so many earlier visitors. This is the basis of the claim of Beck and many others that cleaning should be suspended at this point. If there were the least reason to believe that the late frescoes would be overcleaned, this would be a valid view. But there is no evidence of overcleaning in the restored section of the chapel, and there is no reason to suppose that the later frescoes will be treated less judiciously.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that the effect made by any section of the fresco is contingent on the cleaning not only of that section but of the areas contiguous to it. The figure of God the Father in the Creation of the World could be cleaned faultlessly, but it would appear less dominant if the equation between the figure and the fictive moulding around it were disturbed. This has occurred in the first half of the ceiling with the weakest of the frescoes, the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, where the upper strip of framing is now too light. If this happened in the second half of the ceiling, there would be protests that the Genesis scenes had been diminished or spoiled. The present width of the scaffolding is the equivalent roughly of one bay of the ceiling, and it is extremely difficult when standing on it to judge the relationship of the part of the ceiling that is within touching distance to the cleaned part beyond. I have repeatedly wondered whether it would not be prudent in the second half of the ceiling to employ a platform of double width, even at the cost of denying a larger area of the fresco to current visitors.

In 1538 (when the Last Judgment and the Pauline Chapel lay in the future) that intelligent woman Vittoria Colonna praised Michelangelo for “confining himself to the painting of a single work during his whole life, as he had done.” When work is finished in the chapel, the frescoes will inevitably look less homogeneous than in the past. They will read, rightly, as an evolving organism. But the internal changes in them are not, or are not primarily, a matter of technique. They mark a revolution in Michelangelo’s attitude toward the human form, and there is a risk that the pairs of nude figures supporting the bronze medallions, which up to the Creation of Eve are a subsidiary element, may, where their chiaroscuro is stronger and their poses are more violent, take charge of the whole work.

Whatever these hazards (and they may well be avoided), the compensating gains will be immense. With the Persian and Cumaean Sibyls there may be some loss of mystery, but they will not assume the abrupt, almost journalistic character of some of the Ancestors of Christ, and their color harmonies should prove more delicate and resonant than any visitor in the past could have conceived. The Daniel will address us with new directness and greater majesty, and the Jonah, in its cleaned state over the altar, will speak the language not of menace and struggle but of ecstasy and hope. In the later stages of the cleaning criticism will certainly break out afresh. It would be wrong if it did not do so, since the ceiling, for civilized people everywhere, is a legitimate focus of emotional concern. But posterity, insofar as its verdicts are predictable, will view the dedicated work that is now under way with admiration and with gratitude.

This Issue

October 8, 1987