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CRYING IN THE CHAPEL : Is the Cleaning of the Sistine Chapel a Glorious Restoration or a Monumental Sacrilege?

April 05, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

ROME — A visit to the Sistine Chapel has a new sense of urgency these days. It's more than a pilgrimage to the crowning glory of the Italian Renaissance. More than a return to an age that symbolizes the height of human achievement. More than an affirmation of Michelangelo's genius--stretched out on a barrel vault that soars 68 feet above the chapel's marble floor.

It's also a journey to the site of a controversial restoration that some critics say is ruining one of the world's most beloved cultural monuments. You'd better hurry, they warn, because a big chunk of the ceiling is being destroyed every day.

The Sistine Chapel has long since passed from the realm of art criticism into the public domain, so the current argument about its cleaning is no mere academic tiff. It's a highly emotional conflict in which at least one combatant has proclaimed that God is on his side.

As you join the throng of tourists at the entrance to the Vatican Museums on a chilly, gray day, climb the marble-and-bronze spiral staircase, buy your ticket and follow the yellow arrows to the Cappella Sistina, you can feel your pulse quicken. Wending your way to the hallowed room, you finally arrive at the source of the debate.

A high-tech scaffolding--tautly covered with fabric and cantilevered under the vault--is leaving a bright trail of frescoes that were once subdued by soot and various glues. The metal-framed apparatus is the mobile workshop of Italian conservators who are midway in a 12-year effort to restore Michelangelo's early 16th-Century masterpiece. Under the direction of Vatican curator Fabrizio Mancinelli, chief conservator Gianluigi Colalucci and two assistants apply a gelatinous substance called AB-57 to a section of the fresco, about a foot square. They wipe off the gel with distilled water after three minutes and repeat the process in 24 hours. Then they seal the surface with a resin called B-72.

The scaffolding--currently hiding the "Fall and Expulsion From Paradise" panel--forms a buffer zone between colorful scenes of Noah and the flood, bordered by immense Christian prophets and heathen sibyls (swathed in vivid draperies and seated on gold-trimmed chairs) and the still-dark "Creation" panels extending in the opposite direction. But along upper walls, where bright lunettes (fresco sections around windows portraying Christ's ancestors and the Popes) meet the untreated vault, the contrast is so startling that it might be a before-and-after ad for a miraculous new cleaning product. Dark cracks seem to have disappeared in the sparkling clean panels, but binoculars reveal that they are simply less prominent once the dirt has been removed.

There's no denying that the chapel is undergoing a stunning change. The new Michelangelo is not the one you saw on previous visits to Rome or the one you studied in faded slides. But neither is he the limp corpse that has been reported in the press. Whatever else it is, a visit to the Sistine Chapel is still a thrill.

Unfortunately, questions of what looks better or worse to contemporary eyes have obscured the more pertinent issue of determining the most accurate representation of an artwork that has certainly altered over time and will continue to change. Neither the conservators nor their critics can preserve the frescoes in their original state.

At issue is the belief--held by the Italian conservators and supported by an impressive array of scholars and technicians at prestigious institutions--that Michelangelo painted the ceiling a fresco , working quickly to lay wet pigment into wet plaster and making few additions or corrections on the dry surface. They argue that most subsequent paint, glue, varnish and dirt are products of later times and therefore can be safely removed.

A relatively small but growing band of artists and other observers dispute this, charging that Michelangelo made significant a secco (dry) additions and that in removing everything but the buon fresco bottom layer the conservators are destroying his anatomical detailing and subtleties of modeling, leaving only the broad underpainting and even blurring that, thus robbing the figures of definition.

"The conservators are cleaning to prove their theory that Michelangelo painted only the fresco and that the Michelangelo we all know and love is the result of dirt accumulation and retouching by others," Alexander Eliot, a former art editor of Time, told Calendar. "It's a circular process.

"Everyone will realize by the end of the decade that Michelangelo has been done a great disservice, that we've lost forever the most important relic of the Italian Renaissance."

Eliot contends that the conservation is intended "to cheer up the chapel, to make it accessible to the public," but that the conservators "are actually robbing all future generations of the real thing."

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