Artwatch UK

The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial

28th March 2013

Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.

Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”

Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”

Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.'”

A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?

When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?

To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?

Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up'”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.

His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?

The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)

If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.

Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:

00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”

01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:

“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”

01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:

“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared. “It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves. “And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”

01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:

“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”

Interviewer Sonny Quinn:“He made a film…”

Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”

SQ: “He was close enough so he…”

TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”

SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”

TH: “During the cleaning?”

SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”

TH: “Ya, so?”

SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”

TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”

For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.

For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.

We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: A cleaned fragment of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – but from where?
Above, Fig. 2: A section of Michelangelo’s ceiling before restoration. At the bottom, we see three of his great monumental figures. Two of these, the Libyan Sibyl and the Prophet Daniel, were discussed in the previous post in terms of the great injuries they suffered during restoration. The third figure in the row is that of the Cumaean Sibyl, whose restoration fate is examined below.
Above, Fig. 3: The Cumaean Sibyl seen centre between the Prophet Daniel (left), and the Prophet Isaiah (right).
Above, Fig. 4: The Cumaean Sibyl seen before restoration. Note especially the richly modelled (i.e. shaded) interlocking forms of the two nude boys arms; the dramatic range of tones in evidence on the Sibyl’s monumental left arm; and, the deep, darkly hollow, sculpturally punctuating pool of shadow bounded by the boys’ elbows and the Sibyl’s upper right arm. In general terms, note the extraordinary sculptural fusion of the three figures and their (seeming) collective occupation of a real and palpable space in front of the architectural wall behind them. The plastic lucidity of this group had survived for nearly five centuries. To alert observers it had remained what it had been initially to Michelangelo’s contemporaries: astounding. Note the brilliance with which the twin, linked left arms of the boys had mimicked and echoed in dutiful witness the colossally concentrating anatomical transmission of the Sibyl’s intellectual power and prescience via her own gigantic (and otherwise overblown) left arm. The great Michelangelo scholar Charles de Tolnay must surely have had this figure in mind when he wrote of how Michelangelo had, in the painting of his ceiling, rendered all preceding art “an imperfect preparation” for it, and all the art that followed it “a decadence”.
Above, Fig. 5: The Cumaean Sibyl seen after restoration. There are many differences between the two states and none of the recorded changes has proved beneficial. Note first the transformation that took place in the hanging bag holding manuscript papers, the post-restoration state of which features as our mystery object at Fig. 1. Note the obliteration of the shading which had explained the forms and spaces of the architectural elements on which the Sibyl is enthroned. Note how the escalating, sculpturally expressive tones that ran around the Sibyl’s left arm turning its forms in space have been vitiated by the emergence of a linear highlight on the arm’s underside which overly asserts the drawing of the figure and undermines its calculated tonal simulations of real forms in real spaces. That assertion of marks-on-a-flat-surface now recurs throughout the group and, to echo René Hughe, imparts a distinctly modernist and ahistorical character on an iconic work in which the artist had originally and triumphantly done the greatest violence to the “integrity” of the picture surface on which it had been composed.
Above, Fig. 6: The Cumaean Sibyl seen before restoration. Note the varieties of shades of green that were to be seen on the board of the book and on the hanging bag of papers. Note the highlight on the left side of the cushion (or cushioning drapery) that supports the giant book and the strong dark shadows to left and the right of the hanging bag. Note how the glazing on the drapery had not only darkened and sharpened the sculptural forms (by turning surfaces away from light sources) but had also intensified the hue, moving it away from the tan/orange to a deeper, richer red. We see evidence of a red glazing having been deployed over the base green colouring of the bag, so as to produce the dark shading which is expressive of the forms held within the bag.
Above, Fig. 7: The Cumaean Sibyl seen after restoration. Note the destruction of the varieties of green and with them the flattening of the hanging bag. Note the disappearance of the highlight on the cushion under the book. Note how an abrupt change of hue occurs between the drapery over the leg and that under the book. The justification of the changes induced by the restoration has been that (- as pugnaciously described by Hoving, left) nothing other than black filth had been removed and that this removal had been made expressly to liberate cleanliness and brilliance of colouring. What, then, must the restorers have thought that they were doing when these changes of hue occurred? For that matter, what must the Japanese photographers have thought was happening through their recording lenses?
Above, Fig. 8: A drawing (detail) of the Cumaean Sibyl made by Rubens in 1601, showing the bulging and the shading of the bag. If all the features that were sacrificed in the cleaning really had been misleading impressions created by gradual accumulations of soot and darkening varnishes, as the restorers claimed, the process would have to have begun with a very dramatic spurt between 1512 when the ceiling was unveiled and 1601…and then done nothing much at all for nearly four hundred years.
Above (top), Figs. 9 and 10 showing catastrophic changes of hue and tones. Above (centre), Figs. 11 and 12, showing the catastrophic losses of shading (lights as well as darks) during restoration. The method of the restoration has only ever been defended in general terms, when what is required is some explanation for the various local changes that occurred throughout the ceiling. Because Michelangelo had made elaborations and modifications with paint applied to the dry frescoes, in varying degrees, some parts of the ceiling were more badly affected by their removal than others. It was for the restorers first to acknowledge the changes that were occurring under their sponges and then to explain them section by section. This was never done. If we reverse the sequence as directly above at Figs. 13 and 14, the question then becomes: If Michelangelo had left the bag as is now seen after the restoration (left) at Fig.13, what non-man made process could account for the changes that had occurred by 1601 and then survived without further change until 1980?
Above, Fig. 15: An engraved copy of the Cumaean Sibyl by Cherubino Alberti made before sometime before 1615 which shows the bulges on the bag much as copied by Rubens. The engraving is also eloquent – as so many copies were – on the generally dramatic “Trompe l’oeil” effects created by Michelangelo, one of the most crucial of these being his posited brilliant lighting sources which appeared to have cast shadows from real figures onto surrounding surfaces. These devices are virtually universally recorded in countless copies throughout the centuries and regardless of stylistic changes between artists. A simple cleaning of the paintings would have enhanced their surviving tonal contrasts and thereby intensified the illusions. Instead, what we see along with a compression of these tonal values is a reduction of Michelangelo’s once revolutionary sculptural and spatial effects. Thus was Michelangelo’s original celebrated vanquishing of the ceiling’s complex surface geometries itself vanquished by the actions of technicians.
Above, Fig. 16: An aquatint copy of the Cumaean Sibyl made c. 1790 by Giavanni Volpato, again showing the rich modelling on the bag, the richly modelled arms of the boys first seen in the above copies nearly two centuries previously. Below, Fig. 17: A still from the animated film Frankenweenie. In our post Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times we held that Tim Burton’s vivid black and white photographic images of hand-made models participated brilliantly in one of Western art’s most distinguishing traits. From Alberti to Ruskin, artists have deployed tonal gradations so as to conjure three-dimensional effects on flat pictorial surfaces. Until the 1960s every art student learnt to manipulate tonal values in this fashion. Tragically, such conventions have been discarded in (most) fine art education and in much of today’s fine art practice. Fortunately, those ancient empowering lessons have not been lost in Cinema and Photography. In Burton’s hands they have found singularly powerful expression. It is Art’s great tragedy that Michelangelo’s stupendous and pioneering exemplar of plastic illusionism should have been injured by its intended restorers.
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