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Save Sistine From the 'Restorers'

September 20, 1987|ALEXANDER ELIOT | Alexander Eliot is an author and was art editor of Time magazine from 1945 to 1960.

While in Los Angeles, Pope John Paul II met with the high priests of the news and entertainment business. He told them that they can be a "force for great good or great evil" and that they "are the stewards and administrators of an immense spiritual power."

The Holy Father now has an opportunity to demonstrate his own stewardship on an urgent matter right under the Vatican's roof. Pope Julius II was an awesome warrior-Pope of the Renaissance whose enduring fame rests on his commission of Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. John Paul's place in history also is tied to Michelangelo--in the negative sense.

I'm talking about the well-meaning scientific desecration--nay, the virtual destruction--of Michelangelo's frescoes. At stake is an immense 13,000-square-feet art inheritance from Michelangelo's own mind and hand. Many have described this as the supreme relic of the High Renaissance, showing what a single divinely inspired artist can accomplish. But now this masterpiece is being deliberately sacrificed for what's underneath.

The Vatican's "restorers" readily admit that they're removing the top layers of the frescoes along with what little dirt they find. To justify this extraordinary procedure, restoration director Fabrizio Mancinelli offers a novel and convenient theory. "The restoration," Mancinelli writes, "has brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist. The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows (chiaroscuro) for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and glue varnishes."

We'd better believe, Mancinelli insists, that Michelangelo painted only the first draft of his frescoes. The master never followed the standard practice of lime-wash over-painting, detailing and retouching on the dry surface, and glue-glazing for harmonization plus preservation. The convincing and beautiful chiaroscuro effect of his frescoes was just a matter of dirt sticking in the right places and restorers adding the right touches over time. According to the restorers, "candle-smoke and glue varnishes" fooled everyone for centuries.

Thousands of art lovers, critics, historians and world-class artists have protested the cleaning. Not one of them has been admitted to the Vatican's determinedly scientific deliberations. Dirty, "old" Michelangelo has not a single friend in court.

The final draft that we all thought was Michelangelo's is being removed by a gel that eats through to the first draft. When it has devoured all else, the gel is swabbed off with water, smearing the first-sketch remains. Bits of plaster that are now bare are scientifically "inpainted," and a sealant is applied.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II warned against "the temptation to pursue technological development for its own sake . . . as if one should always do what is technically possible." When the Pope spoke those words, Michelangelo's frescoes were just coming under the sponge. Science had proved, you see, that the inmost layer could be laid bare by the gel. The restorers maintain that their own technical expertise justifies their actions--"as if," to echo the Pope, "one should always do what is technically possible."

Should the so-called science of art restoration remain a law unto itself, or should it be subject to critical appraisal plus common-sense checks?

I contemplated every inch of the Sistine ceiling while preparing an ABC documentary on the subject in 1967, so I know what's missing from the ceiling's "cleaned" sections. But anyone can check what's gone. Find an old reproduction of Michelangelo's "Delphica" fresco and note that the violent, superbly modeled twist of her figure contrasts tellingly with the fixed, intensely visionary look in her eyes. Compare this with the cleaned image in the Vatican's own photos. The pupils of her eyes have been wiped away; strangely, the seer can't see. Cleaned, rejuvenated indeed, the awesome prophetess has been flattened into a scared, rubber-limbed, teen-age girl. Multiply this disaster by a hundred and you have the bad news.

The good news is that roughly half of the Sistine's barrel vault has not yet been cleaned. The Holy Father could still save the most compelling narrative image on earth. I refer to Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" at the Sistine ceiling's center. If the Pope fails to speak, we'll very soon see a "totally new" version of Adam touched to life by the finger of God.

Pope Hadrian VI, the second pontiff after Julius, hailed from Utrecht. He complained that Michelangelo's frescoes seemed better suited to a bathhouse or brothel. Plainly this pious product of the lowland mist and snow could not relate to the frank physicality of the Mediterranean region, the virile pagan, Jewish and Christian spirit poured forth by Michelangelo. Does John Paul have the same trouble?

Life is short, and so is politics, but art is long. Final responsibility for Michelangelo's masterpiece is on the Pope's shoulders alone. Won't someone please let him know what's happening at home?

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