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Sistine Chapel Art Shows Vivid Colors : Myth Dies: Michelangelo Didn't Lie Down on Job

February 25, 1985|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — The agony of Michelangelo lying painfully on a rickety scaffolding 65 feet above the marble floor to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been celebrated for generations by poets, novelists and, more recently, the actor Charlton Heston.

And the murky gray of the great artist's complex masterpiece led art scholars for at least two centuries to describe Michelangelo as a sculptor with a low regard for color.

So much for poets, novelists and scholars--and Charlton Heston.

Careful cleaning of the Sistine Chapel walls and ceiling, now about one-third complete after four years of painstaking labor, has put both myths to rest and turned up discoveries about Michelangelo's work that have startled art historians.

First, the romantic myth that put Heston in a painful position, flat on his back, playing Michelangelo in the film version of Irving Stone's 1961 novel, "The Agony and the Ecstasy":

"It simply isn't true," according to Fabrizio Mancinelli, curator of the Vatican Museums' Byzantine, medieval and modern art and the director of the Sistine restoration project.

"Certainly Michelangelo was often in pain when he painted the Sistine ceiling," Mancinelli said recently. "He even wrote a poem describing how excruciating it was. But the agony probably came from standing on his tiptoes with his head craned back, which is how he depicted himself in a sketch that accompanied the poem."

Mancinelli said that conclusive proof of how Michelangelo arranged the scaffolding upon which he stood--not stretched supine--to paint the upper walls and ceiling came when his restorers found holes in the chapel walls that were used to support Michelangelo's artfully conceived scaffolding. Experts constructed a modern version of the artist's apparatus.

Mancinelli also discovered a sketch that Michelangelo drew to show the man who made his scaffolding how to build the stair-stepped platform, warning him not to put it so close to the ceiling that he would have to crouch or lie down to paint.

As for Michelangelo's use of dull colors, the cleaning, by the chief Vatican art restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci, and his two master restorer assistants, Maurizio Rossi and Pier Giorgio Bonetti, has revealed that the master painted so vividly--with bright apple-greens, orange-reds, striking yellows and subtle blues--that one critic said they "almost leap out of the wall."

Another of the more intriguing discoveries made by the cleaners was that Michelangelo worked at a rapid pace, at least around the lunettes, the 12 windows high on the walls where the ceiling begins to arch.

"The swift, almost furious execution of the images--sometimes the hairs of the brush remain in the plaster--makes the lunettes look like large colored sketches," Mancinelli said. "Each was executed in three days, and to understand the speed with which he painted, you must realize that each group measures about 7 feet at the base by 11 feet high, and most of the human figures in the lunettes are 7 feet tall."

The decision to proceed with the restoration of Michelangelo's monumental work, made four years ago, has been hailed as one of the wisest and most courageous in the history of art restoration. But it was made almost by chance, according to one of the men involved.

"We were restoring the paintings of the Popes that flank the windows beneath Michelangelo's lunettes and decided to clean a very small side of one of them," said Walter Persegati, secretary and treasurer of the Vatican Museums who, with the director general of pontifical monuments, Carlo Pietrangeli, made the decision. "When we saw that the result was quite remarkable, we decided to go ahead."

The results so far have been a revelation not only for art scholars, but also for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary visitors who have been allowed to pass through the chapel while the team of three restorers proceed with the step-by-step cleaning.

The chapel has been closed to tourists only for brief periods in the last four years, to permit scaffolding changes that allow the restorers to work out of the sight of the visitors.

'The Fewer The Better'

"Why don't we use more people to do the job faster?" Persegati asked rhetorically. "Because restoring and cleaning over the huge surfaces of the Sistine--about 13,000 square feet of Michelangelo fresco--is a matter of careful balance on all surfaces. Only a few highly skilled men working closely together can do that, and the fewer the better."

From their laborious and technically ingenious washing has emerged a brilliantly colored ring of strong figures representing Christ's ancestors as envisioned by Michelangelo, as well as the prophets, sibyls and decorative bronze male nudes in the chapel's lunettes and spandrels, the areas between the ceiling and windows.

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