The Sistine Chapel was filthy.
Michelangelo’s famous frescoes had become so uniformly dark with smut that critics were going around saying that the master may have been a great sculptor but he was insensitive to color.
The Sistine Ceiling before restoration
There were big cracks in many places too, and water stains on the ceiling. A white crust of salt had formed here and there.
Why didn’t somebody do something?
They had, at least half a dozen times. Already in Michelangelo’s time they painted over the salt crust, which was unremovable, with linseed oil to make it transparent.
A hundred years later a gilder rubbed all the frescoes with linen cloths and bread.
In 1713 somebody used wine to dissolve the grime. Another time someone else thought they could brighten up the colors with a coat of varnish.
But the frescoes kept getting darker and darker. The candle flames sent up wax and soot with each Mass and the open windows let in the black clouds of exhaust from the cars of Rome. The daily crowds of tourists brought great sudden changes of temperature and moisture too, which added to the general deterioration.
In 1981 the Vatican decided to save the frescoes. They announced a long-term restoration project. First the ceiling and then the front wall: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco.
How were the latest bunch of experts going to proceed? Which method were they going to use this time? Bread? Linseed oil? Varnish? Some dissolvent? How DO you clean a dirty picture? What if when you clean it the colors come away with the soot?
Not all paintings are the same. Frescoes have a unique feature: the painter spreads a layer of sand and lime on the wall and paints on it while it is still wet, still fresh—fresco in Italian. He paints with colors dissolved in plain water—there is no “medium” like oil or egg. There isn’t even gum arabic, as in water-colors. His colors are only dirt from the earth or juice from a plant or animal. He dissolves them in water, dips in his soft brush, and paints on the plaster. The plaster sucks the color right in.
And as it dries something miraculous happens: there is a chemical change. The color hops into the plaster and becomes one with it. It can’t be rubbed off anymore.
Isn’t that good news for fresco cleaners then? They can remove absolutely everything from the surface of the plaster and they can be certain they won’t remove the painter’s color, which is protected “underneath”.
In theory, yes. And that is what the new team of restorers of the chapel believed. With distilled water and weak dissolvents they took away the grime from Michelangelo’s frescoes. They stripped them right down to the bone.
They did a really thorough job. It took them longer to clean the frescoes than it took Michelangelo to paint them.
When they opened the chapel to the public, everyone was amazed at the difference. The paintings were so bright they looked like bold poster art. Who had suspected that Michelangelo painted with such bright colors? A real revelation.
The Sistine ceiling after restoration
A Perfect Job?
To some they seemed just a little too bright. “Could an artist of such supreme taste have been content with those garish colors? they asked.
“And don’t the figures look flat now? If there’s one thing Michelangelo put into his paintings it was relief.”
The great Jonah before and after the cleaning.
They noticed that certain features, certain details of the old darkened version which they had admired, had disappeared. Some of Michelangelo’s shadows were gone and some of the “new” ones looked odd. For example, they were red. Who ever heard of a red shadow?
Daniel before and after the cleaning
It looked like maybe the restorers had removed some darkness that WAS NOT grime but a wash of charcoal Michelangelo himself had applied to give the figure relief. The proof came from the missing black eyes of two or three of the figures. Michelangelo had evidently painted the eyes ON TOP OF the plaster. Now they were gone and the figures looked blind!
A young woman in the Jesse spandrel before and after
Painting on top of a fresco after it is dry, called a secco as opposed to al fresco, is occasionally done to correct something or highlight it. The restorers claimed that Michelangelo had painted nothing a secco. “We have it from Vasari himself,” they said:
“Michelangelo wanted to retouch some parts of the pointing a secco, as the old masters had done on the scenes below, painting backgrounds, draperies, and skies in ultramarine, and in certain places adding ornamentation in gold, in order to enrich and heighten the visual impact. The Pope, learning that this ornamentation was lacking, and hearing the work praised so enthusiastically by all who saw it, wanted him to go ahead. However, he lacked the patience to rebuild the scaffolding and so the ceiling stayed as it was.” (Vasari, Life of Michelangelo)
“So you see we were justified in removing every bit of anything that sat on the plaster.”
But some critics weren’t convinced. That Michelangelo didn’t want to paint more draperies, backgrounds and skies is one thing, they said. But it is very likely that while he was up on the scaffolding in the first place he touched the paintings up a secco. The alternative is chipping away the entire day’s work and starting over again.
In any case, his technique changed as he worked. At first he painted in fresco all the shadows and darkness that gave relief to the figures. But later, as the months went by, he seems to have decided to add some of them in a wash a secco, feeling that the result gave richer shadows.
“And that is why the colors look too bright in some places,” say the unhappy critics. “They were meant as an undercoat. Michelangelo afterwards gave them a wash in secco to tone them down. Now the gung-ho cleaners have removed that wash. Wonderful! Poor Michelangelo. Poor humanity.”
Most people are happy to see the frescoes so brand-new looking. The cleaning job has to be given very high points. It was done conscientiously and by experts. Was it wrong to trust them? The worst is that there is no going back. What they did cannot be undone, which violates a simple norm of modern art restoration.
Maybe if Michelangelo turned over in his grave when he heard about it, now, after reflection, he would admit that, all in all, the ceiling is closer to the way he left it. The world still honors him like no other artist.
See this spectacular virtual visit to the Sistine Chapel. It’s as good or better than a real visit.
Sooooo interesting. Getting a good education from you and enjoying it. Thanks.
I second wrjones. Enjoyable and educational.
I’m a little surprised that some of the restorers didn’t begin to have some doubts as they began to see the cleaned figures. But then who would dare to say: maybe we’re doing it wrong?
The colours are sharp but that could be right (who knows?) but some figures are now undoubtedly flat. Surely that was not the way the painter left them. Ergo, the restorers went too far.
Very enjoyable read indeed. Looks like we won something and we lost something: we got brighter, sharper colours but most of the wonderful shadows are gone. The frescoes should be good for a long time to come.
What I’m wondering about, did both Michelangelo and Leonardo sacrifice durability for perfection (or for some other reason)? Experimenting, changing techniques in the middle of the job, how could they forget their work had to survive centuries? Were they not a little irresponsible?
Erika: Painting a secco is not irresponsible. Egg-medium paint will stay ON the plaster as long as the fresco colors stay IN it. Michelangelo used good colors and distilled water and trowelled on the plaster layer evenly. It’s not his fault that the Sistine building didn’t protect his frescoes better. There was a problem with cracks and leaks in the roof right from the beginning, as well as the salt effervescences.
Both he and Leonardo certainly never thought they were sacrificing anything with their changes from the traditional techniques but chasing perfection or a new effect.
Actually all secco techniques are considerably less robust than the fresco technique when fresco is applied correctly – even egg medium. Other techniques (glue distemper, oil) are even more fragile. This is not to say it will definitely fall off after x years, just that (very) often fresco parts survive when secco parts do not.
And what is your opinion on the restoration? I’m always torn when it comes to things like this. At once, I say leave things alone, I actually like the wear of time. I think it really adds warmth and life.
I’ve a scrabble set I used to play on my mom’s bed as a kid, all the tiles and the racks are knicked and scratched and stained beautifully with the oil from 40 years of fingers. Someone noticed the condition of it and bought me a brand new set which I promptly gave to Goodwill.
On the other hand, most people don’t realize the countless renovations and restorations that our “pricelss” history has already gone through. This is especially true concrening historic homes and castles. Now, all of a sudden, everything has to be left exactly as it is, as if every alteration made up until this exact point in time is valid but nothing more can be considered – don’t ruin it with our dirty modernity.
I guess as I finish typing this, I’ve come to an opinion!
Two hundred years from now, Vatican tourguides will be speaking of this cleaning and it will be part of it’s history, rightfully centering not just on the painting but on the human lives that were both affected by it and also those who affected it. This restoration shows that it’s not some dead thing to be looked at from a sterile hospital room but that it is alive. We still use it. We still live it. We still worship there. The painting, to me, isn’t valuable because of the dirt and flower petals and egg whites and sand and whatever else is mixed into those walls. It’s important because it tells our story. The story of man as it continues.
Just sayin …
I can understand your enjoying those old scrabble letters (though I wonder how tenderly you would look on someone else’s crudddy set). But I can’t get too sentimental over candle soot, water stains, salt effervescences, and falling plaster, especially when they hide what I want to see and mean the destruction of a great work. No–restoration is fine and natural. I bet if someone gave you an old Civil War sword you wouldn’t just varnish over that “historic” rust, but try to get rid of it. The question is HOW to restore.
Future generations will have to resort to old pre-cleaning photos to see the eyes of the Jesse and to get an idea of the wonderful relief of the Jonah. If that destruction had been the fault of the weather or even the result of some human idiocy like cannonballs in a war, it would be pardonable. But it was done with scientific precision and confidence. The cleaners said they knew what they were doing and, as it was considered likely, we all trusted them.
I am an antique collector. I have variety of antiques and old collectibles. But my focus interest is inevitably the not worthy, useless and unidentified objects. This is odd to most people. I don’t collect to sell, buy or trade but I collect them for my personal pleasure. From my own history or others. I like the wear of objects in time. But more then that I agree with you, 100swallows. It is very likely for people to see the wonders around them. Sistine Chapel ceiling was indeed very hidden. I own an art gallery in Istanbul. We have one expert and one restorator for various paintings our customers bring us. Strange that people are suppose to expect new things in their paintings after restorations, but we still get many people arguing with us over unwanted elements in the picture.. not like shadows or colors though, more like figures, clouds and even one time it was a bridge that appeared in the middle of the painting. She accused our restorator with adding a bridge in the middle of her painting. It took some time to bring her to an understanding there. So it is very likely to be upset with the restoration results. Michelangelo’s job was perfect but that perfection is not anything to be expected from the restorators. However they still aimed for the perfect and the results should be accepted as reasonable and even satisfying. After all the restorators observed the change at first hand and seen what vanished off the painting. They could paint back the eyes of the young woman on third example above which would be unpleasant. We have advantages and disadvantages in the ceiling’s case. Not weighting them, I would say I’m glad the ceiling was restored.
705: Thanks for your comment. I wonder what “useless and unidentified” objects you find there in old Istanbul, city of such a long and fascinating history. Your antique market must be what a collector dreams of. A restoration, besides being a question of skill, is always an interpretation and will depend on the restorer’s good taste (or that of his customer/boss). Of course, with unknown works, at least your customers won’t have fixed ideas about the way the work must look, so the restorer has more freedom. But it is funny that some customers expect “new things” in the restored works!
The rule in *all* restoration nowadays (whether in the arts or in archaeology) is that it must be reversible: if it turns out to be wrong, it can be undone. It seems to me that the Sistine chapel restorers broke that rule; very much so indeed. They may have had no choice, of course. As Erikatakacs says, you win something and you lose something. On the other hand, might they not have been a trifle arrogant?
Reversibility in conservation is often not practical, especially in the case of cleaning: think about it, while you may be able to remove an adhesive you have applied, but if you clean anything off, even if it is just soot, you cannot realistically reverse the treatment. Cleaning is the most delicate and fraught moment in conservation exactly because you can’t “go back”. As one of the leading Italian Conservation theoreticians says: “cleaning is a page in the story of an artwork you can only turn once, and you can never go back”.
Ken: I wondered the same as you. If no earlier, when they saw that they had just removed Jesse’s eyes, what were their thoughts? They couldn’t very well pretend not to notice because the Japanese were photographing every step of the job. Did they question their whole procedure method? Did they argue with each other and finally convince themselves that it was too late to change (horses in midstream)? Probably they told each other those cases of overpainting were too few to worry about, that the good they were doing far exceeded the bad.
In my little summary I spoke only of the paintings and didn’t mention the sorry state the plaster was in. Look at some of these close-ups taken a few years before the restoration.
Water had seeped in from the roof. The plaster was cracked like an eggshell, with great fissures and long, open cracks in many places. Pieces had fallen out and been stuck back up—look at the one in the Yahweh of the famous Creation picture.
The cleaners’ first real task was to save the PLASTER, which was disintegrating. Unless that could be made firm, there wouldn’t be anything for the frecoes to hold onto. And those technicians deserve a ten for that: they solved each of the problems, filling the cracks, injecting glue under the plaster skin, fixing loose pieces. They even gave the frescoes a couple of ever-so-thin coats of plastic to protect them.
But Judith is right: they went too far stripping the frescoes and that was a terrible mistake. And proceeding bullheadedly after seeing the harm–that was worse than a mistake. Yet there can probably be no agreement about what should have been done. If it was impossible to remove the grime without removing Michelangelo’s eyes and shadows and other impossible-to-know a secco emendations, then what DO you do? Leave the rest of the frescos alone, black as they are?
Judith and Christopher: I wrote this before seeing your new comments, which I will read now. Thanks.
Who was the curator or the overseer or director of the restoring of the Sistine Chapel? Thank you. Joann Merse New Orleans
Joann Merse: I don’t know. I wrote this several years ago and never found out. Tell me if you do. Thanks.
I have to say I had a good laugh at the cheap shot on my dear “cruddy” scrabble set but I’ll respectfully disagree with your other opinions. We are united though in our disappointment over the unfortunate results of the restoration.
Maybe with new soot and exhaust slowly building up on the frescoes the shadows will get darker again. A hundred years from now they will be as good as new. :)
More I learn about critics and experts, more I hate their guts (In fact, I don<t but that the way to put it…)
One thing I don<t get, though: what you mean by “charcoal wash”?
Cause charcoal, real stuff at least, is as hard as oil to mix with water…and wash is water, no?
Hi Ivdanu. This from Wikipedia:
Thanks Swallows, well worth reading. I do have mixed feelings about it and there is some merit in making copies instead which are closer to the original. What happens in a couple of hundred years time? Same again? Eventually none of the original will remain! Having said that I am more concerned about future restoration of more important works! I tease!
Ah, Robert: Take comfort in the fact that nothing lasts forever. (Spaniards smile when you tell then how glad you are to see them after so long: Bicho malo no muere, they might say: A mean old critter just never dies.)
I’ve always been very firmly in the pro-restoration camp when it comes to the Sistine Chapel and I still am. While there may be some minor details that have been lost (like Jesse’s eyes, which, let’s face it, isn’t that big of a deal — it would be different if it was Adam’s eyes), I think that what’s been gained FAR, FAR outweighs it. Frankly, I can’t see why anyone would prefer the grimy, dull appearance of the ceiling before over its wonderful, clear, fresh and colourful appearance now. Discomfort with the possibility of having lost something Michelangelo himself put on — that I can understand a bit better. But my answer would be: So what? If the frescos look BETTER this way, it doesn’t matter what Michelangelo wanted. Which do we value more, the art itself or the artist? Do we want to see the art at its best or do we just want to take pleasure in the fact that it was done by a ‘celebrity’? Take the dome of St Peter’s. What was eventually put up differed somewhat from Michelangelo’s plans, but it is definitely the better for it.
Hiberniensis, Hiberniensis, you can’t mean what you say. Michelangelo isn’t a “celebrity” but one of the greatest artists of humanity. And the Sistine ceiling wasn’t a dirty carpet but a unique work of art.
If the world had wanted to make it better in your sense, they could have let the cleaners have their way with it three times a week starting in 1512. What was keeping them back? They were afraid they might damage it. They all agreed that that was the worst that could happen.
Now these modern cleaners, all confident with their science, rushed in where angels feared to tread and rubbed away essential parts of the fresco. Like you they believed that Michelangelo couldn’t be allowed to tyrannize us all with his details. Once they were finished he would see that they knew best, that now the great frescoes were better–better even than he made them. Some things are larger than the individual. (You see, you forced me to argue the other side.)
How a fresco works – now I understand! How well you explained it, Swallows.
The Jonah example is quite striking. Definitely my impression is there’s something lost through the cleansing process. The result somehow is no more “dirty” enough.
b.t.w: guess this Jonah figure wasn’t painted by Michelangelo as a nude, and then overpainted, was it?
Rich: Thanks. I want to write more on fresco painting. They still teach it here at the Madrid School of Fine Arts. There is a kind of crypt or vaulted basement there where they practise. Each new class chips away the old frescoes and puts their own on the naked brick wall or ceiling. They have a lot of fun–it is hard work but very satisfying. Fresco colors look like no others. I used to know a Spanish painter (José Vela Zanetti) who painted frescoes all over Latin America. He told me one by one they disappeared as the buildings were torn down. Eventually he gave up fresco and painted in oils on big canvasses, which could be rolled up and saved. He was influenced by the great Brazilian and Mexican fresco painters Orozco, Rivera, and Sigueiros.
No, I think Jonah’s loin-cloth was put on by Mike and not added by the Council of Trent.
You may be thinking of The Last Judgement, in the altar wall, which Pope Paul IV wanted to demolish because its nudity was offensive. Fortunately the Vatican reconsidered the matter and Daniele da Volterra, a painter close to Michaelangelo, was chosen to paint draperies over the figures. Allegedly Michaelangelo, who was busy overseeing the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, condoned the changes and considered the matter trifling. I paraphrase Alessandro Conti from his “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art.”
Here we must agree Swallow! There’s quite a lot of sculpture around the world I would like to improve! Some might meet with a lot of approval!!
I have been trying to find some examples of “night” done by other sculptors, but was surprised to find only two. Do you know of any?
My father-in-law took a photo of David some time ago, not quite sure whether or not it was pre cleaning or not but I will talk again about it when I post it up for you.
Robert: A coincidence: I was just preparing a post on how Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel figures influenced other artists. In that post I will include a few drawings of Day and Dusk (the male figures) by Tintoretto and others, and imitations, but no Nights, I think. I’ll try to find some. I wonder what pictures of the David your father-in-law came up with. I still remember the one you posted with all the pimples and pock-marks in his face. I bet there are blackheads on his back too.
>>Once they were finished he would see that they knew best, that now the great frescoes were better–better even than he made them.
Very well put Swallows. I wanted to respond myself but knew that you would do a better job. I’m afraid that you’re probably right and it was just sheer arrogance on the part of the restorer’s not to have had second thoughts as they proceeded along and saw the problems first hand.
Hiberniensis I have to agree with Swallows. The frescoes are undoubtedly brighter now but they’ve left most of the sense of volume. All that thoughtful work from the hand of Michelangelo is gone. It was far more than just dirt that was removed.
I’m all for brightness but not at such a cost.
Ken: The thing is, I do know what Hiberniensis meant about the general improvement—and I hope he doesn’t regret taking the time to write his comment and putting it in, seeing how we all jumped on him. I just flipped when he called Mike a celebrity and I was still in the air when he said the cleaners had made his work better (than he himself). I have to say I don’t know what they should have done. Probably stopped and used their imaginations and skill to come up with a mere plaster-saving approach.
very nice post, swallows. This makes me think of the El Greco exhibit we had at the Nasher. Museum workers decided to clean the paintings and got right down to the verdaccio underpainting on many. You can see the underpainting showing through when you view them now.
Kimiam: How terrible! Those must have been very early paintings—maybe the icons he did in Crete. Because for the paintings of his here in Spain I don’t think he used the old verdaccio underpainting anymore.
Yes I agree with you Swallows that I’m happy to have Hiberniensis’ comments as well. I hope it didn’t look like I was piling on Hiberniensis!
I of course haven’t seen the frescoes in person so can’t have a very good idea of what their real affect is on people. But from the illustrations I just don’t see that they are better. So I was shocked when Hiberniensis found them so clearly better. But I have not seen them in the flesh(cleaned or grimy) so maybe I would understand the idea that they are so clearly better if I had.
Swallows, I think you have a great blog here, open to all opinions. When you disagree it is in a humorous and thoughtful way that I think is enjoyable to read, even for the recipient of any possible criticism. In any case in a blog world that can include some really rude and nasty comments this is a such a welcome change: not a hint of mean-spiritedness. I don’t want to be the first to add that. So my apologies Hiberniensis and Swallows if what I said came off that way.
This blog is a breath of fresh air both in the blog world and the art world so I’d hate to do anything to have a bad effect on that.
Thank you very much, Ken. Comments like that and commenters like you make this blogger feel he’s reaching people who love art as much as he does. I’m always glad you come in with your thought-provoking comments (and more so with those vanity-provoking compliments!). You’ve sometimes made me see things your way. Because of you, for instance, I have had to reconsider artists like Tintoretto.
I’m pretty sure Hiberniensis wasn’t put off by our barking and will come back fearlessly the next time he thinks we got something wrong. I still remember his story about how he descended Bernini’s steps in gala clerical robes with the dead Pope.
Me again. Don’t worry. I knew I was saying something controversial. And I don’t feel anyone has been piling up on me. I love a good argument on subjects I’m interested in.
Let me explain myself. I didn’t say that Michelangelo was a celebrity, or at least that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant was that we shouldn’t TREAT him like one.
Nowadays a doodle by someone who happens to be famous can be sold for millions. It doesn’t matter if the doodle is rubbish and artless. So long as it was done by a big name it’s worth money and is treated almost like a relic. Now obviously there’s no comparison between an artless doodle and the Sistine ceiling. But I think that even with the latter it’s possible to be a little over-awed by the ‘big name’. Sometimes the ‘hype’ can hinder us from really looking at the Sistine ceiling ‘with our own eyes’ and being blown away by how amazing it is. What I’m trying to say is that if one thinks the frescos were better before, then THAT’S what should matter — that the FRESCOS were objectively BETTER. Saying, “This is how Michelangelo wanted it,” or, “This bit was done by Michelangelo, this bit wasn’t,” isn’t really that important except to art-historians. It’s the CEILING ITSELF that counts. The ceiling would be no less astonishing even if we didn’t know who did it. We praise Michelangelo because of the ceiling, not the ceiling because of Michelangelo (Antique statues are a good example of the ‘primacy’ of the art-work over the artist who made it. These statues were intended to be seen in their original form, painted in bright colours. Many, however, would claim that they look better the way they are now, unpainted. Either way, it’s a departure from what the artist intended).
It may be that the cleaners could have done a better job, I don’t know. But I do think there is a definite and major improvement between how the frescos look now and how they looked a few decades ago. Perhaps they could have looked even better (albeit only slightly, I would say) if the cleaning had been a little more carefully done, but all in all I think we can be satisfied with the present state of things. The frescos were so smokey and grimy before. Now they’re luminous and dazzling. I’ve had the opportunity to see them in real life, by the way (post-cleaning). I remember my immediate reaction being amazement at how ‘fresh’ they looked, how ‘stylish’ in the very best sense of the word and that in a truly timeless way. And it was the colours that contributed to that sense as much as the design (it’s the pinks that stand out in my memory especially). I really don’t know how to describe it any better than by using the word ‘fresh’ (which is, of course, what ‘fresco’ means). It was as though they’d been made only the day before. ‘Dynamic’ might be another word I’d use, but it probably conveys next to nothing here and it’s so over-used these days it’s embarassing. Another thing I’d mention is that there’s such a sense of space on the ceiling — luminous, clear space. There’s just no comparison between seeing it in real life and seeing a reproduction. Even just the fact that it’s on the ceiling and so one has to look up at it makes a huge difference, not to mention the sheer, expansive size of the work, which is really a single, unified piece, rather than consisting of the segments we examine so closely in reproductions.
Also, I think that even by the standards of reproductions the photos used here aren’t really the best. I’ve definitely seen photos that show the cleaned frescos in a better light. I’ve seen books with some truly marvellous and lavish reproductions of them with no loss of a sense of volume. One I own myself is ‘Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel’ by Andrew Graham-Dixon.
Finally, I should say that notwithstanding my comments about refraining from treating him as a celebrity, I would happily give Michelangelo my vote as the greatest artist ever in all history. And I would do so precisely because of the Sistine Chapel (ceiling and Last Judgement). I like to look at photos of it while listening to Beethovens Missa Solemnis and it blows my mind every time and I feel the better for it.
Hiberniensis: Thanks for coming back in. Your points are well made. You have described very well how you felt on seeing the new ceiling. It must be like that–I don’t know because I haven’t had the experience. Of course I have seen good (what I suppose were good) reproductions of the restored frescoes one by one. But you are right to insist on the effect of the whole ceiling and wall. Beethoven does seem to go with that wall, doesn’t he? Though I always think of Mozart the kid who heard an unpublished Miserere performed in the Sistine and then went home and wrote it all down.
When I read people celebrating the new luminosity and dazzle of the frescoes after the painting, I’m reminded of something I recently read in Oscar Chiantore’s “Conserving Contemporary Art.” Talking about how the Impressionists and avant-garde artists of the 19th century didn’t finish their paintings with the customary coating of varnish that granted the surface more light and shine, he then explains that posthumously – and against their expressed wishes – collectors and conservators added them anyway. That by itself is vile to our current standards where the intention of the artist is to be preserved. But what I found more interesting was how it was difficult to explain to modern viewers, museum curators, restorers, etc., that the works of these painters – Van Gogh, Pissarro, Monet, Gaugin, Rousseau, Cézanne, Edvard Munch, etc – were not intended to be seen so fresh and glossy. But to the modern viewer’s eye, accustomed by the glossy look of mass printing, that’s how all pictures should look. So I ask, and please don’t feel insulted, but isn’t it possible that maybe you’ve just been brainwashed into thinking the frescoes should look a certain way?
I do sympathize with Hiberniensis’s ‘celebrity doodle’ complaint. I just came across a lovely anecdote, spot on as the literary equivalent of doodles. The Duchess of Devonshire, a great snob (youngest of the Mitford sisters) marvelled that the University of Texas had paid $ 10,000 — then quite a lot of cash — for her sister’s papers, and wrote in a letter to an old friend: “They’ve got all Evie [Waugh]’s stuff, & Osbert [Sitwell]’s, & letters saying things like ‘Arriving on the 2.14 on Saturday so much looking forward to seeing you’ are put under glass and revered“.
I started off by saying what an enjoyable and educational post this was. Now I have to say the same about the responses that followed. They bring up some fascinating questions, particularly the cult of personality and celebrity in art. And I do have to agree with those statements about giving too much respect to something because it is connected to a ‘celebrity.’
I misspoke earlier when I said I hadn’t seen the Sistine Chapel in the flesh(either cleaned or dirty). I did see the frescoes in their dirty state. This was at least 25 years ago and I remember not being all that impressed. In my two months in Italy I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by Michelangelo. I was more interested upon arrival in Piero della Francesca and Giotto among others. But Michelangelo kept butting in. I was continually impressed. But I really wasn’t all that impressed by the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps it was the griminess.
I’m sure it’s a bit silly to evaluate something this large without seeing it in person. I’m sure the effect would be completely different when seen in person. It’s just that when I look at the reproductions here and see the loss of detail I can’t help but see it as a loss. On the other hand it may be that such details are less obvious from the ground and instead the bright, clean colors and overall composition stand out and can’t be ignored. I’ll say no more until I visit in person.
In any case a great post and series of responses.
Ken. Thanks again. I’m like you. I saw the Sistine years ago before the restoration. I was impressed then but I can imagine that, judging from what Hiberniensis tells us, I’d be more impressed now. He’s right that one should judge the Chapel in the Chapel and I too hope to stand there again and feel the power of the whole.
Fascinating post. I never knew that frescoes were actually part of the plaster. I can’t even imagine a sculptor, with no experience in frescoes and little experience in painting, taking on a project of this size. When you think about it, it’s amazing that he was able to accomplish what he did.
Every fabric cleaner I’ve ever bought says “test on a small area before applying.” Why wouldn’t the restorers test their methods on a small, indiscreet area?
Peggi: Yes it is one of those miracles great geniuses perform. No one else could have done that, no one.
The cleaners did try out their dissolvents on a little place around the window I think, and satisfied themselves. Remember: the question was whether to remove everything right down to the plaster or not. There was soot, glue, varnish, and linseed oil on top and they decided it all had to go.
Once they had finished the ceiling they were so happy with the results that they went for the front wall.
It’s worth remembering the frescoes were not a one-man show; Michelangelo had assistants, four unsung heroes: Bastiano da Sangallo, Giuliano Bugiardini, Agnolo di Donnino e Jacopo del Tedesco, all them Florentine painters and some apprentices at Ghirlandaio’s workshop; Ghirlandaio was not just one of the chapel’s painters of the previous generation but had also briefly been Michelangelo’s master before he sent him off to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sculpture school, the Garden of San Marco. Michelangelo chose them exactly because of their expertise in fresco painting, although it’s uncanny how quickly he achieved mastery of the technique in the course of the painting.
Hi Swallows, I greatly enjoyed reading this earlier post and the comments. It’s really fascinating. Personally, I agreed with Hiberniensis’ initial comment that what is gained in the restoration far outweighs some of the detail that has been lost such as the eyes. But, look at the Daniel for example, isn’t he so much sharper and more vibrant now that the soot and grime are gone? To say nothing of what the restoration has brought back to the work as a whole, when we raise our eyes and encounter all that splendour. Instead of looking up and seeing sombre colours and gloom, we look up and are uplifted. The blue of the sky peeking through and at the ends of the central scenes add even more lightness and airiness to this colossal work.
However, I never saw the ceiling before the restoration apart from pictures, but I’ve seen it twice post-restoration. The first time the altar wall was covered in huge sheets as IT was being restored. I think if I would have seen the ceiling pre-restoration, I would have never returned a second time to see it as it was. Like Ken, it would not have impressed me that much, (apart from the fact it was the work of a “celebrity” ) Ha Ha! just joking…
As to whether the “shadows” which have been lost, had been added a secco by Michelangelo, or were the result of accident of airborn pollutants and varnishes applied by restorers over the centuries, or were added in restoration attempts, this is not conclusive, according to what you read (such as Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and Waldemar Januszczak’s Sayonara Michelangelo). The latest restorers believed that Michelangelo did the ceiling almost exclusively in buon fresco, i.e. on wet plaster. So they removed just about everything right down to the plaster, after analyzing the composition of the layers. Although there was a lot of criticism especially from American experts.
We should not have these problems in future, since, as Swallows pointed out some sections are now protected by a thin layer of acrylic resin, although time will tell. Also there are new ventilation and air conditioning systems which keep the atmosphere controlled and clean despite the millions of bodies going in and out constanly, and most important of all, no more candles, torches and incense.
Thank you, justme22. That’s a fine description of the new ceiling and makes me want to hurry over to Italy to see for myself. I’m sure you’re right.
Vasari says that Michelangelo didn’t consider the Last Judgment finished because he hadn’t touched it up a secco; which seems to imply that he had done that on the ceiling. And the temptation is to assume that those a secco additions were like the highlights painters give their works at the end–the colorful brights that enhance the painting so much. But they must not have been so important.
A chink of sarcasm there 100swallows?! No but seriously you’re doing an amazing job keeping your cool with all these people saying Michelangelo’s intention is subordinate to (oooh! look at the…) lovely vibrant colours. Yeah forget Michelangelo, it’s just about the ceiling and us. Okay pretty much just about us. Maybe we should try some neon and glitter, see if that looks cool…
To say nothing of what the restoration has brought back to the work as a whole, when we raise our eyes and encounter all that splendour. Instead of looking up and seeing sombre colours and gloom, we look up and are uplifted.
But what makes you think Michelangeglo wanted you to be uplifted?
First of all, he didn’t even want to paint the frescoes; he went to Rome to sculpt a tomb for the Pope, but those plans were put on hold, and according to Michelangelo he was left with a debt and pissed at Julius II. He was so made he rode back to Florence and vowed never to return. And it took the Pope starting a war with Bologna to make Michelangelo realize that perhaps it wasn’t smart to cross him, so, without much enthusiasm, he took up the job. But his letters to his family during the painting show a despondent, gloomy man who couldn’t wait to finish the frescoes.
On top of that, he had lots of personal problems: his brothers were priggish louts and moochers sucking up his savings, an uncle had died and the aunt had sued the Buonarroti clan to get her dowry back, and his father, Lodovico, could barely make ends meet. Physically, Michelangelo was also not well: an eye disease developed in the first year. If all that weren’t enough, the Pope’s wars with Italian cities in the hands of the French had left Rome in danger of a French invasion, with mortal consequences to the artist. On top of that, Julius II was also ill and Michelangelo feared that if he died, a French-backed Pope would be elected, which meant that the frescoes, built to glorify a Pope enemy of the French, would come to a halt due to their political incorrectness.
Besides all that, Michelangelo was an admirer of the prophet of doom Savonarola, whose fiery sermons he heard in Florence in his youth. His choice of themes for the frescoes were taken from the violent Old Testament and not the gentler New Testament; and his episodes all testify to a fascination with death and violence: the Drunkenness of Noah, the Flood, Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, etc.
So what makes you think he wanted you uplifted? Who’s to say he didn’t want you wallowing in his self-misery?
Miguel St Oberose: Miguel, don’t settle too soon on an interpretation like this. The ceiling paintings don’t seem to be the work of a depressed man, do they? Someone who knew fear and awe–a great tragedian, actually; but not one who is handicapped by depression.
Look. Here’s the history of my own research and constant surprises. Of course I went to the primary sources.
I read Vasari and thought it was the last word. How could there be a better biography than one by a pupil and friend of the Master? Yes, I noticed the glare of admiration everywhere and I suspected there were some stretchers. But still.
Then I read Condivi. Here was a pupil and friend too. And he was being coached by Michelangelo as he wrote. Wasn’t that even more authoritative? Well, he contradicted Vasari on a few things but not all of them that had sounded questionable. And one could “hear” Michelangelo himself in the background exaggerating or settling old scores. So, I thought, all the better: we now have two accounts and, contrasting them, can draw our own conclusions, and get at the “truth”.
But wait: what about Michelangelo’s letters? There we must surely have the final word. Vasari and Condivi didn’t know most of them and, after all, they are Michelangelo’s own version of events. Why not listen to him? His is the very horse’s mouth.
A few of his letters directly contradict things that are said in both biographies. And the man who comes through in the letters is not like the one his friends created in their books.
And the poems? Vasari had some feeling for them (those that were published) but they were obviously above Condivi’s head. They show a “spiritual” or passionate man not at all visible in the letters.
Those are the primary sources and everyone has juggled with them for centuries, each man coming up with his version of the “real” man and his real intentions. Meanwhile scholars have been slowly discovering documents which, in their jargon, “shed new light” on the man and his art. Michael Hirst has collected the most important ones in his book on Michelangelo. They show yet another man, one both more miserly and more generous, more humble, more complex, more devious.
It’s very hard to know what to believe and anyone who has read these works will not be ready to accept sweeping judgments based only on one or the other of them. As to the Sistine paintings themselves, no one knows why Michelangelo painted precisely those scenes, and there are many theories. A Vatican writer called Pfeiffer, for example, believes that he was advised by Julius’ theologians. After reading Hirst’s book you will no longer be content to point to Michelangelo’s own affirmations as proof of anything. They may have been ruses.
Justme22 is right about the fresco being much sharper and more vibrant now. I had the luck to see it just last week in an almost empty chapel (perk of being an archaeologist and taken around by one of the Museum curators). I had not seen the completed restoration before, including the stunning Last Judgment. On my previous visit, that was covered and only about half the ceiling had been done. The contrast between the restored and unrestored parts threw the fresco out of balance and gave the impression that it was being over-restored. I take back what I wrote above. Visually, the whole is now magnificent. Colours are breathtaking. The fresco sings — and must be much closer to the way Michelangelo left it.
Judith and justme22: Thanks for your judgment on the cleaning job. I still haven’t seen the completely- restored chapel and you two have got me very well-disposed. Did your perk get you into the “new” Pauline Chapel, Judith?
No time, 100swallow, no time. I was too busy studying amazing Orientalizing Etruscan jewellery and pottery.
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This is one of the most sickening things I have ever read. No one is arguing, pal, that the only options were to restore or not to restore, as you fallaciously suggest. The question was how RADICALLY to restore, and the answer to that doesn’t even require a moment of thought: restoration should NEVER be radical, if there is any doubt that the original is being compromised unnecessarily. There was and is flaming doubt in this case, to the point of certitude, that Michelangelo could have and very likely did retouch al secco. The controversey should have ended there, and the result would have been a marvelous restoration admired by all. But, instead, the wise fools who did the restoration decided to go with their speculations about how Michelangelo worked, thus pulling of a twisted miracle, destroying the real Michelangelo and creating their own bogus version.
No one who knew Michelangelo’s work ever doubted that he used bright colors. We were surprised at HOW bright his colors were, to be sure, but that was a pleasant surprise. What wasn’t pleasant was how garish the restoration was. The ceiling looks like a poster, period. Yes, like Las Vegas. Of course the casual art observer loves it. Everyone loves color. The Vatican knew they could count on such idiocy to cover the rotten thing they’d done. But Michelangelo’s work is carefully balanced, always. It was not meant to be flat and garish. Look at any of his work and you see that. There is no question that the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo created has been overcleaned. In the future, this will be a famous example, much like other notorious overcleaned paintings, but far more notorious.
Thanks, Epppie. I have not seen the restored Sistine, so I have no business giving an opinion about the intensity of those colors now. I was shocked at the photos. It did seem that Michelangelo would not have been content–or any of those other Renaissance painters like Rafael and Vasari–with colors like those of comics. And Michelangelo would not have made “flat” pictures. He said in a letter that a painting was good to the degree that it was like sculpture. I suppose I was not ready to call the restorers “wise fools” before reading more of their explanations. One would think that if there had been good objections to their procedure those would have halted first the ceiling job, then the front wall, and then again the Pauline Chapel job. Some good eyes and qualified people must have given them the OK, right? One does tend to trust the experts. You accuse the Vatican of hoodwinking everyone. They saw that the ceiling was a botch and went on botching, counting on everyone’s idiocy. There you certainly go too far.
” Personally, I agreed with Hiberniensis’ initial comment that what is gained in the restoration far outweighs some of the detail that has been lost such as the eyes.”
Do you have any idea at all how monstrous this judgement is? Not only are you assuming that the radical restoration was the only possible restoration, which is clearly simply wrong, but you are also assuming that it is up to us to make the michelangelo we want. Based on your reasoning, it would be entirely reasonable to repaint the cieling if we thought we could improve it. After all, that too would involve tradeoffs that might seem very reasonable.
Thread is old but I will state my word to the wind. Ego stripped the drawing and shadow layer off these masterpieces. Such utter irresponsibility. The work is now forever altered, no going back. Sheer stupidity and ignorance of ego. To go about this effort and not try to decipher the correct procedure even if it took lifetimes is just BS, sure it looks nice and bright now with the nice new colors, I tell you my friends the soul which was in the shadows and details which were obviously done after the initial painting was done has been erased, you can think me emotional or irrational, I care not, I know what makes art sublime. The guy was the best sculptor on the planet, you do not think he knew the value of shading and modeling? You think for one moment he did not use high modeling or shading in these works to convey form from that height? I cannot even look without sorrow. I feel pity for those who know no difference and care not, such a waste, so typical. The masterpiece of this world just forever changed and its like, well whatever dude, at least it is bright and cheerful now, huh. Freaking sad humanoids who really do not give a damn really about anything. Such is now.
Thanks, Douglas. After looking again at my illustrations of the Jonah before and after “cleaning”, I realize you are right–the charcoal shadows which the cleaners took for soot, were surely part of the fresco. But how could the the restorers be such fools or be allowed to be? Remember that the restoration went on for years–time for all the experts to have a look and criticize. And then the cleaning crew moved on to the front wall. More time, more opinions. And finally they went to work on the Pauline Chapel frescoes. Were there no objections like yours? Did no one make the obvious one? Was there no one with authority enough to make them stop?
Thank you for replying 100 swallows, I have settled my emotions now, still I am sad that the some of the wondrous shading and definition of forms from this epic work are gone forever. It feels to me that some of the mystery of the drawing and shadow has been stripped off, it just feels that way. How could soot and grime magically create shadows and line in the absolute correct areas? Yes it was obviously the master who came back and worked over the piece with shading. Who else? Very sad really, very sad. It is very surreal that this has come to pass. All is vanity. How could anyone approach the conservation of this work with anything but a humble and unsure temperament as to how to solve its mysteries is beyond me. If I learn anything from this, it is that even the greatest art in the world is subject to change and decay, I would prefer it not be, but that is the message nonetheless.
Black is an amazing color. When mixed with all colors or washed over them it reverses the process of dark colors receding and light ones advancing creating surface tension and heightening spatial relationships. The spatial relationships in the ceiling are, in some of the panels, gone and in others seriously weakened. Michelangelo was a sculptor, first and foremost. It’s clear from his other work that he was interested in bringing a sculptural dimension to his work. That dimension has been seriously compromised in this restoration.
James: Thanks. I have to agree. In 1547 he wrote to his friend Benedetto Varchi (Letter 280):”I admit that it seems to me that painting may be held to be good in the degree in which it approximates to relief, and relief to be bad in which it approximates to painting.” The more I think about what they did to his frescoes, the more I feel like Doug.
There are lots of things we could say here. One is that it is very difficult to draw conclusions about the levels of cleaning, dirtiness and overcleaning just from photographs, especially the low quality ones shown on the web. If you look around the web you can find images of Jonah BEFORE treatment which look cleaner (and more washed out) than the same images after treatment. (By the way, no conservator or restorer would treat the loss of a figure’s eyes (if they are original) as anything other than totally unforgiveable damage to an original work by the artist).
By the way, if you want to see another example of Michelangelo’s work which also displays strong, contrasting use of colour, check out the Doni tondo. Incidentally, using Google images you get a good view of the diversity of photographs of the same painting (light-dark-intense-washed out) shown on the web.
The team working on the Sistine paintings were extremely aware of the controversies surrounding the cleaning – these sprung up as soon they announced the decision to do the treatment. Indeed, this is one of the reasons they took so long to carry out the treatment (it is perfectly normal for restorations to take far longer that the original works took to create: I find it odd that this is mentioned above as if it was a criticism. Would you rather they raced to finish everything in record time ? Signorelli’s great frescos at Orvieto Cathedral took 5 years to paint and ten years to restore).
It is certainly the case that the results of restorations are, and should be, open to examination, discussion and criticism. And I personally think there are some aspects of the Sistine treatment which are open to debate. But please don’t write off treatments like this as crass work dashed off by a few arrogant and insensitive butchers. On a project as important as this, the people involved (conservators, art historians, scientists, architects, engineers etc) think long and hard about what they are doing, test everything they use pretty carefully, and document everything scrupulously from start to finish, especially when such a major work is involved.
(of course this is no guarantee that every choice is the right one !).
Disclosure: I am an art conservator working in Italy for nigh on 20 years.
Paraloid: Thanks. It’s good to have the opinion of an expert. I know you are right about judging from photos. As to color there are never two alike. I have seen quite a few of the Doni tondo and was always a bit bothered by the silvery look of the lights on the Virgin’s arms. Contrast, yes, but apparently at a loss of color. But I have not seen anything BUT photos, so I look forward to seeing the painting itself to decide.
I never meant to criticize the restorers for taking their time. And I never believed they were insensitive butchers. I took it for granted that they consulted experts in many fields and were mindful of the terrible importance of their work. But conscientiousness and technical skill might be put to the service of mistaken policy and some of the evidence brought forth by the critics is troubling. I wonder which of the aspects of the restoration you think is “open to debate”.
There is, after all, a simple question: did Michelangelo paint a secco and did the restorers remove anything he brushed on after the plaster was dry?
You are so cool! I do not believe I’ve read through anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with a few genuine thoughts on this topic. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!
Where to start. I am a realist sculptor with capable drawing (pen and ink) skills and passable painting skills. I feel in many ways the anguish of art that Michaelangelo went thru. He went where the commission or money was. This said, to hear of the comments of both the losses of the Sistine chapel frescos and the freshness of the “new” restoration makes me want to chime in from a working artists perspective. I have worked for others, been commissioned by others, and left alone to my own devises on personal projects. I have found that working in the confines of art by committee, art by financial threat, or art by speculation all bring unwanted but enevitable pressures to the artist.
Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a study abroad art tour of much of Europe. I thank my lucky stars for that discover of the greatest western art available for the paupers of the world to view and the course with which we made those discoveries. We started in Egypt and wended our way thru the continent ending in England. Everything was so old by comparison to anything we have in the US. To be in the physical vicinity of all those treasures, it is the only way to get a true sense of the age of man made things. I did a paper on the restoration of the Sistine chapel the semester before my spring ’93 trip, with the not untypical conclusion that they were destroying the Master’s work. It wasn’t until going to the Uffizzi in Florence and viewing the Doni Tondo did I change my perspective on the previous week’s visit to the Vatican and seeing the resultant cleansing and being awed and angered at the same time. Of course they destroyed the a secco work that I grew up with in the “old” books on Michaelangelo. Of course they were too bright and cartoony compared to the rembrandtesque look, precleaning. But, if you happen to see the only painting we have of Michaelangelo’s in comparison with the fresh look of the ceiling you can only come to the same conclusion as the master himself claimed in protest to Pope Julius II at that time, I’m a sculptor, not a painter. Michaelangelo did not paint in dark umbers. He wasn’t the master of light and dark that we all came to “know” from the books or assumed in the precleaning era. The man was not a foremost painter. He was however a premier draftsman, anatomist(for the times), and gesture genius. He did not have great skills with nature compared to his command of drapery, architecture, and figurative elements. Why, because he was a sculptor. All of the successes and weaknesses of his work on the sistine chapel have to do with his sculpting background, not painting. So the argument that the restorers destroyed the shadows doesn’t hold merit to a Rosetta Stone comparison of the Doni Tondo. Conclusively, the Sistine chapel is one of man’s most beautiful, courageous and successful attempts at reaching beyond one’s capabilities to please a patron, make a paycheck, and stay in the ‘game’.
Some people have suggested that he would turn over in his grave if they saw what they had done with his ceiling, true, but which time. The renaissance restorers could be as faithfully to blame for the sooty restoration of the times as could any of the more recent ‘destruction’. He himself took down the scaffolding to appease a tyrannical pope before its intended completion of a section. I know for myself that a peice of art in the eye of the artist is never “complete”. There is always room for improvement, room for perfection, and plent of room for self-loathing for not “getting it right”. In the end, a finished work is never finished, and as long as there is an adoring public, that piece has an endless opportunity to resurrect and reinvent itself a fresh breath of life every few years. How bout we reface the pyramids at Giza, not to destroy, but to imbue with original pristine beauty? Now there’s something to quibble about.
Dan. Thanks. Give me some time to answer this, OK?
No need, but curious all the same. Fantastic blog, buddy
As the owner of a professorial cleaning service, i can tell you that would be one NERVE racking job! I can’t even imagine the level of stress that would create. Cleaning one of the most important pieces of art in history. Makes me shudder just to think about it.
Fred: Thanks for your comment. I´d never thought of that. At least the responsibility was distributed among them and their bosses. But it’s true, there were regular photos and videos of their work, so the whole world was watching (or could later).
From funtrivia.com “An explosion at the nearby Castel Sant’ Angelo in 1797 caused a small part of the ceiling to fall away. A piece of “The Deluge” and parts of one of the Ignudi and a bronze medallion were lost.”
Did they just throw away the fallen plaster? Why didn’t they try to restore that portion that fell when they were restoring the ceiling? What about some competent artist reapplying the carbon black wash.
You said “They even gave the frescoes a couple of ever-so-thin coats of plastic to protect them.”
Couldn’t the artist apply the washes over this plastic covering taking clues from the “pre” photos?
Tom: As far as I know the restorers do not admit that they removed any of Michelangelo’s original touches. Apparently they claim that the carbon shading that accumulated on the frescoes was candle soot.
As for the fallen plaster, probably it broke into pieces. I’m sure they would have put them back into place if they could have.
I have written about a newly discovered image of “Jesus Christ” in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement:
The following VIDEO shows an image of Christ “hidden” for centuries but possibly decoded today at:
If you and other Art Experts of the Renaissance/Sistine Chapel/Michelangelo could consider investigating this further.
Even exploring the possibility that Michelangelo may embedded symbolism of the “Trinity” as depicted in the Video Reveal (i.e., the “Father”, “Holy Spirit” and the “Son”).
Thank you for your consideration.
Robert: Thanks. I have to say I am not convinced. I know Michelangelo was good for some surprises but it seems to me that here you are projecting your own imagined picture onto the wall. I can’t believe Michelangelo would have made us get help from a lesser draughtsman to see what he “meant”.
Did you ever read James Beck’s ‘Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, The Scandal?’ Beck was one of the fiercest critics of the restoration and his book’s two chapters on the matter contain lots of information that make it nearly impossible to applaud the cleaning. Although a long time has passed since 1993, the year it came out, anyone keeping up with Michael Daley’s ArtWatch knows that his arguments have not yet been adequately refuted by the restorers and their many defenders, who prefer to use silence and hope that people will simply forget this matter.
Speaking of ArtWatch, here’s a great essay that shows to what disgusting lengths the restorers went to hide their art crimes; take a look at the Sybil’s restored ankle pictures:
Miguel St. Oberose: Thanks for the link to the article. I see it is very interesting but long and I haven’t yet had time to study it. But I will.
Wow! So interesting article! I have always wondering how there amazing masterpieces are cleaned. Thanks a lot for sharing this information here! So interesting!Bethnal Green Carpet Cleaners Ltd.
The Sistine chapel frescos are now a colorful cartoon in cartoon colors. The delicate shading which created the form, musculature and delicate nuisances to facial expressions are now gone. I can only weep.
I’ve been reading and rereading ArtWatch’s articles on the Sistine for quite some time, and I have to say that I sincerely believe that Michelangelo’s secco work was washed away. I was reading quite a bit yesterday- he often layered his drawings and sketches with different mediums; if he was not primarily a fresco painter, why wouldn’t he apply unconventional methods to the ceiling? 500 years, and we are reduced to the skeleton of his work. Is it still unbelievably masterful? Yes- but it has lost so much nuance and depth. If you compare the cleaned figures of the ceiling to the Doni Tondo, I believe you will see the effect that was desired. The Doni Tondo has the depth and shadow that the figures in the ceiling now lack. Was the frecso dirty? Certainly. But they went too far.
I know this is a few years later for this conversation- but maybe we can revive it a little. I just found this site yesterday. :(
I really want to see it for myself someday. Also, I would love to be able to watch The Secret of Michelangelo: Every Man’s Dream. Has anyone reading this seen it?
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Who was the curator or the overseer or director of the restoring of the Sistine Chapel? Thank you. Joann Merse New Orleans