Artwatch UK

Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes

As we predicted at the time of the last restoration of the Sistine chapel ceiling, by removing all of the glue-painting applied by Michelangelo to finish off and heighten the effects of his frescoes, the Vatican’s restorers exposed the bare fresco remains for the first time in their history to new dangers from the atmospheric pollution that is exacerbated by huge numbers of paying visitors.

Then, 2 million visitors entered the chapel every year. Now, that figure is 6 million.The Vatican has been carrying out secret attempts to remove disfiguring calcium deposits building up over the remains of Michelangelo’s painting. These deposits are caused when moisture given off by tourists and air-borne pollutants are absorbed by the plaster. This now-acknowledged process will also activate, as we specifically contended, the remnants of the cleaning agents (sodium and ammonia) that were washed into the frescoes during the rinse cycles of their last so-called restoration and conservation treatments. At the time, the use of the ferociously aggressive cleaning agent AB 57 was justified by the Vatican on the grounds that it was necessary to remove, among other things…ordinary solvent-resistant calcium deposits that had built up over the centuries in parts of the ceiling exposed to leaks in the roof.

Then, the Vatican promised that special air-conditioning systems would protect the newly exposed fresco surfaces in perpetuity. That system had failed even before the Vatican recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the end of the last restorations of Michelangelo’s paintings. Today, as the new physical threat is seen to be turning the frescoes white, the Vatican promises new, improved air conditioning units (from the same firm). To counter the new pale appearance, the Vatican recently installed thousands of LED lights, each individually attuned to heighten the colours in Michelangelo’s painting. Michelangelo’s now twice-injured painting has been left a colourised but still lucrative wreck – and an EU-funded (EUR 867 000) showcase (“This made the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel the ideal venue for LED4ART”) for a company that shows in its advertisements that it has no idea what the Sistine Chapel looks like.

We said at the time that the restoration constituted a crime against art. Now, the Vatican promises to limit the numbers of visitors inside the chapel to 2,000 at any one time. But that means allowing a crowd as big as a full capacity audience at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, to pack into the small chapel all day long. The Vatican’s administrators – who have known of the present problems since 2010 – now concede that the glue coatings (that were in truth Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments) had served as a protective barrier against all air-borne pollutants. The tills will continue to ring. Art lovers remain weeping. Shame on the Vatican’s administrators.

For our previous coverage, see:
Misreading Visual Evidence ~ No 2: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling;
The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In;
The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II: How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes;
The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial;
The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size;
The Twilight of a God: Virtual Reality in the Vatican;
Sistina Progress and Tate Transgressions;
ArtWatch Stock-taking and the Sistine Chapel Conservation Debacle;
Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times

11th November 2014. Michael Daley

UPDATE: 16 November 2014

While the Vatican now admits the hitherto concealed fact of the damage that is being caused to Michelangelo’s frescoes by the massive increase of tourist numbers, it remains in denial about the destruction during the last restoration of the final a secco adjustments that Michelangelo had made to those frescoes. That autograph last-stage painting – which was observed and described with perfect, detailed clarity by the painter Charles Heath Wilson in the 1881 (second) edition of his book Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti – is characterised, preposterously, and against the evidence of all contemporary and subsequent copies of the Sistine ceiling, as consisting of “centuries of built-up candle wax, dirt and smoke”, as if such substances might somehow have disported themselves along the lines of Michelangelo’s design so as to reinforce his modelling and depict shadows cast by his figures. This latest apologia is carried in an Associated Press article “Sistine Chapel frescoes turning white ~ Humidity, tourists’ CO2 to blame”.
A paperback facsimile of a 1923 edition of Wilson’s milestone book (in which he describes his close examination of the ceiling on a special portable scaffold) is now available. It is time for the Vatican to acknowledge that Michelangelo had indeed finished his frescoes with secco painting, and that its curators, restorers and conservation scientists had blundered badly and inexplicably when, having judged Michelangelo’s specific, purposive pictorial enhancements and modifications to be nothing other than arbitrary accumulations of polluting material, removed it – and, thereby, exposed the lime plaster surfaces of the frescoes to their present dangers. That initial error and the subsequent falsification of art history that was made on its back, have both now been maintained for two decades.

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