Life & Liberty: Rediscovering Michelangelo


It is a walk, a long walk, through long and then twisting marble corridors. After the last few steps you arrive through a tiny door at the Sistine Chapel, a historic chapel adjacent to St. Peter's Church in Rome, at the center of the old Christian empire. It is a grand space about one third the dimensions of a football field, with a high vaulted ceiling that makes it seem larger. Arriving at that small entry door, at least during the next six years, you see scaffolding covering a small portion of the ceiling.

You enter a world that has been partly hidden for three and a half centuries: the history of mankind as described in the Old Testament, transformed by Michelangelo into powerful, universal imagery. Because of an ongoing restoration, that ceiling—for the first time since 1512, when Michelangelo was 37—is something the artist would recognize as his own.

How you react to the ceiling (regardless of its state of restoration), whether you love it or not, is up to you—but there is no avoiding its impact. You need no knowledge of the biblical stories portrayed to appreciate the work. As in any great work, it succeeds with a lightning immediacy and makes palpable certain human emotions and qualities and experiences. There is nothing else quite like this ceiling in the world—in drama, in visual virtuosity, in audacity, in size. Michelangelo did it in four years, alone on a scaffold. It was four years of terribly hard physical labor married to a mental and emotional conception that made all the hardship worth it. A word, much debased in 1980s America, comes to mind: awesome.

If you have seen the ceiling before, the new scene will be a shock. You realize you have never really seen Michelangelo's ceiling—this is so fresh and richly colored and three-dimensional. This shock has come to many, including many art experts. And it has engendered controversy. The chief restorer, Prof. Gianluigi Colalucci, has had to defend the project against both worthy and unworthy critics. The cleaning is a wonderful revelation, or an unpleasant jolt, depending on how dearly you hold to a previous idea of how Michelangelo's ceiling "should" look.

This ceiling's long history in shadow has created the current reaction—a true culture shock—upon finding that Michelangelo's work has been gravely misunderstood since shortly after he completed it. While the forms, colors, and expressed feelings were, more or less, always visible (though muted), the "new" colors are radical to many.

Apparently within a few years after the ceiling was completed, it lost much of its vibrancy to smoke, dust, and animal fats applied to protect or temporarily brighten the work. Thus, almost all the later accounts of the magnificence of the ceiling speak about the muted colors and soft tones. Whether Michelangelo was praised or chastised in a particular generation depended on whether that kind of coloration was popular. If people preferred bold, strong colors, Michelangelo was called a weak colorist, and vice versa.

The restorers are working on one portion of the ceiling or upper wall areas at a time. This small band of experts, under the direction of Colalucci, has been at it since 1980. They will spend about 12 years in the Sistine (with about six years on the ceiling itself)—three times as long as it took Michelangelo to complete the painting.

They started on areas that were less important or done by other artists. They spent four years in this early phase, researching the many layers of debris deposited on the ceiling and perfecting the appropriate techniques for cleaning and repair without affecting, now or later, these irreplaceable frescoes.

A fresco is a painting on plaster, but more exactly, in the plaster. When the plain plaster is put up, the painter applies water-based color pigments to the plaster with his brushes, and these colors mingle with the wet plaster, sink in, and become integral to it. A well-made fresco doesn't peel even after centuries (unlike house paint, for example, which is only on the surface). While this art technique was common in Italy and other European countries for several centuries, it has been all but lost in the 20th century.

The word fresco means "fresh," and when referring to plaster means "wet." It is distinguished from secco, or "dry." A painter had to have supreme confidence and great skill to work in fresco. Once the wet plaster was applied to the ceiling or wall, he had only a matter of hours to paint before it became secco. If he failed to achieve the final appearance of the design, of all the colors and all the details of the figures, he had to rip it all down and start over the next day. Oil paintings are much more forgiving and are often reworked for months.

Despite the sturdiness of fresco, it does require care over centuries, and the Sistine paintings, like other frescoes, have been subject to much abuse, mostly unintentional. For example, one restorer in the 18th century used Greek wine and stale bread to clean the ceiling. Until modern times, candles, torches, and braziers were the only sources of light in the chapel—and they are as unhealthy for the ceiling as for the people below.

Mingle these combustion deposits with roof leaks, centuries of dust, misguided restoration attempts, over painting by later artists, protective coatings that have darkened, and salt deposits—and you have an archaeological dig. Only this dig is upside down, working upward to try to reach the true Michelangelo.

Once the restorers completed their primary research, the application of proven techniques became relatively simple. Most of the ceiling is cleaned by applying distilled water or a diluted well-known restoration cleaner to a small area—about a square foot—at a time. Then the cleaner is cleaned off, and the ceiling is rinsed with distilled water until no residue of the cleaner remains. The complexity arises in knowing how far down (up?) to clean and in determining which small patches of secco painting, done after the plaster dried, are Michelangelo's touch-ups and which belong to later painters. Touch-ups that are not Michelangelo's work are usually removed.

But the restorers are not just taking off the accumulated grime and over painting by others. In certain cracked or water-damaged areas, they are retouching the work with a watercolor paint that can be removed in the future. On close inspection, this work is subtly different in coloration from the immediately adjacent work by Michelangelo. While this difference is impossible to see from the floor of the chapel (65 feet below), it is obvious once you are a foot or two away from the ceiling on a scaffold—as I saw on a recent trip.

If you want to see the results (and the prior appearance) you can buy the new book, The Sistine Chapel: The Art, the History, and the Restoration, by Carlo Pietrangeli (and others), recently published by Harmony Books. It serves as a superb, oversized picture book and doubles as a scholarly work describing the chapel in detail. Or you can buy a companion videotape, Return to Glory: Michelangelo Revealed, produced by the same people. Or you could go there.

Reviewing either the book or videotape shows the tremendous transformation already wrought by this restoration. And the shock of this new Michelangelo has brought criticism, some plausible, some not, some laughable. There have been brief flurries of controversy from the Italian Communists (long-time enemies of the Vatican) and from a small group of artists and an art historian in the United States.

In early 1987, a group of 15 contemporary artists signed a petition demanding that the Vatican stop the work, then halfway done, and wait a generation or so and see how it holds up. One of them, abstract-expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, said he had not seen the restoration, just color photos: "It looks funny to me. I have a gut feeling that it isn't right."

Another, sculptor George Segal, had not seen the ceiling either (just photos). He told the New York Times that he liked the old muted colors, so he worries that restorers have done something wrong. Ironically, these mostly "radical" abstract artists, with no knowledge of fresco techniques, were insisting on a conservatism that would embarrass hidebound right wingers.

One person with substantial credentials has severely criticized the project. In 1986, an art historian at Columbia University, James Beck, called for a stop to the restoration and raised questions about it. Several experts investigated his allegations and concluded that his objections were in some cases subjective, in others an incorrect reading of historical documents; others were based on no evidence, and still others were reasonable to ask and needed answers.

Some of the sensible questions that he and others have asked are: Is the cleaning solvent really safe? Are any of Michelangelo's own touch-ups (secco) being removed? Will the newly exposed, clean surface of the fresco be attacked by modern-day pollutants? Colalucci and other experts had addressed these concerns during their years of study, and every oversight expert who has inspected the work has come back praising the appropriate and careful techniques chosen.

For example, the cleaning agent has been in use for about 25 years and has never had any known ill effects on fresco surfaces; there is every chemical reason to believe it never could. Also, identifying Michelangelo's secco touch-ups is reportedly easy. While on the scaffold, I saw no touch-ups by Michelangelo—there were none in that particular area—but the brushwork of later artist/restorers attempting to "brighten" the dirty, dulled ceiling is clearly very different in style from Michelangelo's brushwork. If there is any doubt about whose work a touch-up is, a chemical analysis of a microsample can determine in which century the over painting was done.

Finally, the clean surface will be partly protected from Rome's vehicle exhausts by a sophisticated air system being made by Carrier in the United States. This system will help to reduce the major pollutants, brought by the thousands of visitors who come every day to see the chapel, exuding moisture and heat and stirring up all sorts of dust.

For those who have been to the Vatican in previous years and seen the Sistine Chapel in its encrusted state, the culture shock is something to be embraced, since it reveals an even more exciting, original Michelangelo. For those who never have seen it before, you have the pleasure of a instantaneous trip back to the year 1512, without any intervening shock. And you will have the pleasure of seeing the Sistine ceiling almost as if Michelangelo had descended the scaffold yesterday.

John Gillis is an architect in New York City.