The New Year will mark the anniversary of Michelangelo’s completion of the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican worries about the future of these frescoes, and may restrict visitor numbers, citing safety and preservation of the art their paramount motivators.
Time will tell how the custodians of these great works will employ technology to keep the Sistine Chapel works viable to future generations. It is a shame that art such as this will be viewed by fewer individuals, ones that will be vacuumed and cooled according to the Vatican, but preservation of these masterpieces is the critical factor in such decisions. A bit of online debate has gone to greater lengths at The Guardian regarding how the Vatican has treated the frescoes over their 500 year history, referring to visitors as “drunken tourist herds.”
According to the director of Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, 20,000 visitors a day has produced “dust, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide, the great enemies of these paintings.”
The Chapel features 300 figures painted across 2,500 square meters by artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Pinturicchio as well as Michelangelo. I cannot imagine viewing these beautiful works while being jostled by crowds pushing through the room. The sheer number of visitors is criticized for giving the space the feel of a busy train station.
One recent step forward is the virtual experience of the Sistine Chapel; a great view of the ceiling and surrounding walls. Perhaps collaboration with the Google Art Project will propel this virtual site into the mega-pixel display that these frescoes deserve.
Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel is more than just Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination. Beginning in 1492, the building has hosted numerous papal conclaves, during which cardinals gather to vote on a new pope. A special chimney in the roof of the chapel broadcasts the conclave’s results, white smoke indicating the election of a pope and black smoke signaling that no candidate has received the two-thirds majority.
Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling; he was busy working on Pope Julius II’s marble tomb in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli church. When Julius asked the artist to switch gears and decorate the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo balked; he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter; he had no experience with frescoes. He reluctantly accepted the commission as funding for the tomb dwindled, money being a great motivator, signing the contract on May 10, 1508. The artist spent the next four years of his life perched on scaffolding with a brush in his hand. He did return to Julius’ monumental tomb over the next decade.
The artist and his assistants used wooden scaffolds that allowed them to stand upright and reach above their heads. Michelangelo designed the unique systems of platforms, and attached to the walls with brackets. The legend that Michelangelo painted on his back may come from the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, with Charlton Heston portraying the genius painting on his back.
Michelangelo described the physical strain of the Sistine Chapel project to his friend Giovanni da Pistoria, in a poem from 1509. “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,” and “I am not in the right place-I am not a painter.”
The frescoed ceiling has held up remarkably well in the five centuries since completion. Part of the sky in the panel depicting Noah’s escape from the great biblical flood is missing. The section of plaster fell to the floor and shattered following an explosion at a nearby gunpowder depot in 1797.
Work in the 1980s and 1990s restored selected artworks in the Sistine Chapel, including the ceiling and Michelangelo’s famed fresco known as “The Last Judgement.” The restoration also undid the work of Pope Pius IV, who ordered the placement of fig leaves and loincloths on Michelangelo’s nudes during the 1560s.
Rabbit-hole of research:
The New York Times archive contains an interesting article regarding the Spark of Life in Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam.” Was the artist allegorically portraying the moment when God bestowed Adam with intelligence? Read more to draw your own conclusions.
What are your views on the preservation of art? Is the virtual museum experience a necessary step for museums? I look forward to chatting with you.