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Art: Out Of Grime, a Domain of Light

9 minute read
Robert Hughes

The most ambitious and controversial art-restoration project of the 20th century, the cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, is in its eighth year, with five years still to go. All the wall lunettes and three of the nine Old Testament scenes on the ceiling are finished, freed of 478 years of accumulated grime, crude repaints and successive coats of darkened glue size applied as a varnish by 17th and 18th century restorers. A quite different Michelangelo, one whose intensity and beauty of color matches his long-acknowledged grandeur as draftsman and iconographer, emerges. The vault of the Sistine is now the domain of light.

There is no gain without a sense of loss, however temporary. An equation between the ceiling’s darkness and the profundity of Michelangelo’s mind is old and runs very deep. To find such a father figure decking himself, as it were, in azure, malachite green, rose, yellow, lavender and pink, in the silky and atmospheric sheen of colori cangianti, or shifting colors, is disorienting; one is still apt to think of color as a feminine rather than a patriarchal attribute. One may recoil, feeling that it is somehow better to embrace the frescoes we know than the ones Michelangelo painted. And given the torment inflicted on great paintings by restorers over the years, one may be suspicious of all cleaning.

Hence the controversy that has risen over the past few months as the Vatican’s head restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci, and his team on the scaffold move toward the cleaning of the most famous image in Western art, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

The most convinced antis are James Beck, head of the department of art history at Columbia University; Alexander Eliot, a former art critic of TIME; and Alessandro Conti, a Florentine historian of restoration technique who published a book on the issue. Eliot makes the ridiculous claim that “nearly half of the Sistine ceiling has already been reduced to postcard quality.” Beck sees the cleaning as a “dangerous step, taken without real knowledge or adequate cultural background.” Eliot compares the cleaning to the shuttle disaster; Beck, to Chernobyl.

Fresco is the most durable kind of painting known. It is done in water- soluble pigments on freshly laid sections of damp plaster — the intonaco. When the plaster dries, the color is literally bonded in. Further touches may be put on a secco, on the dry plaster. The antis believe that some of the darkness of the Sistine ceiling and lunettes was put there by Michelangelo himself, in a dark wash of black pigment in glue size, brushed on after the fresco was dry to give more density to the figures and atmosphere to the space. They think this wash is being “indiscriminately” swabbed off along with the dirt. Beck claims that Colalucci and his team, who have done nothing but study the Sistine for the past eight years, have still not studied it enough; and that the cleaning agent, AB-57, though used for cleaning fresco and stone since the early 1970s, is still insufficiently tested. The antis also decry the new look of the frescoes as “thinly, monotonously mannerist,” flat and misleadingly “modern” in color.

So much noise has been raised against the cleaning that it comes almost as . an anticlimax to discover that most experts on Renaissance art, and on Michelangelo in particular, strongly endorse it and reject out of hand the antis’ allegations of haste or insufficient study. The scholars and restorers who have visited the scaffolding seem to agree that the extreme care with which the work proceeds, the constant testing, the minute adjustment of the strength of the solution to the chemical and stratigraphic analysis of each portion of the fresco, is very far from the absurd impression of the restorers that the antis give in their more rhetorical moments, almost as if they were a gang of purblind pedants swiping at the ceiling with mops and Easy-Off.

Last week a further vote of confidence came from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, a long-established nonprofit organization concerned with the care and preservation of Italian art. Six of the world’s leading conservators of Italian painting (including John Brealey and David Bull, the head painting conservators at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s National Gallery of Art), having inspected the frescoes at the foundation’s behest, reported in an open letter that the “new freshness of the colors and the clarity of the forms on the Sistine ceiling, totally in keeping with 16th century Italian painting, affirm the full majesty and splendor of Michelangelo’s creation.”

What weakens the antis’ case is that they have not produced clear physical or documentary evidence that any of the glue and lampblack on the Sistine was put there by Michelangelo himself. James Beck cites a phrase in an account by Ascanio Condivi, a Renaissance biographer, about Michelangelo applying “so to speak, the ultima mano” (final touches) to the mighty fresco cycle; but Condivi did not say what medium these touches were in. Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), whose Lives of Italian artists is a fundamental source on the Sistine, describes how “Michelangelo desired to retouch some parts a secco, painting backgrounds, draperies and skies in ultramarine, and ornaments in gold.” But he was prevented by Julius II, who wanted his chapel finished on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1512, at which the artist dismantled the scaffolding and reluctantly declared the job done. Thus the aim of this ultima mano, this finishing off, would have been not to make the colors more tonally somber, as the antis suppose, but actually to make them brighter.

The pros also point to Michelangelo’s ethic, so to speak, of fresco. Before he began work on the Sistine, Michelangelo knew all about the humiliating mess Leonardo da Vinci made by painting on walls with untested brews of oil, water and varnish bases, which began to come off almost as soon as they were put on. Though Michelangelo grouched about his immense Sistine task, there is no question of his mastery of pure fresco, which he had learned in Florence in 1488 from his master Ghirlandaio.

Giulio Carlo Argan, doyen of Italian art critics, believes Michelangelo took the Sistine as an opportunity of asserting the power of what his rival could not do: “Michelangelo, who was always in competition with Leonardo, wanted to reaffirm the traditional buon fresco technique. The Sistine is that affirmation.” True fresco did not include the use of glue sizing and dark washes a secco. “No other fresco painter applied such a glue,” says Head Restorer Colalucci, “so why should Michelangelo have done so? He knew very well that the final result could not have lasted long. To suggest that he gave his fresco a glue sizing is an insult to his technical ability. A fresco artist studies colors and their relationships, and balances them correctly so that they have unity from the moment they are applied.”

Does this mean that Michelangelo did not retouch at all? Of course not. Nobody thinks that even Michelangelo could have got every passage of color and shade in the thousands of complex forms that make up the scheme of the Sistine right with the first layer of color on each. The Serpent coiled around the tree in the Temptation of Adam and Eve, for instance, far from being the more or less monochrome reptile of old, reveals the most delicate complexities of feathered stroking in green and yellow over reddish tones of shadow. The slow drying of the intonaco gave Michelangelo all the time he needed to correct his shadows without having to use the washes of black pigment and glue size that the critics believe to be his handiwork. And because his retouching was chemically integrated with the plaster, there is no reason to suppose that the solvent AB-57 would remove it.

The antis make much of the fact that AB-57 — a dilute solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, a fungicide and gelling agent in water — has been used for cleaning stone. But on stone it is left for between one and 24 hours and is strengthened by the disodium salt of EDTA, a substance that aids in the removal of calcium compounds; on the Sistine frescoes it is used in a weak solution, in varying applications lasting at most three minutes. It is an efficient solvent but a bland reagent. The fear that the cleaning has taken off any of Michelangelo’s a secco passages seems unfounded. According to Colalucci, these retouchings on dry plaster by his hand have all been identified. In restoration, each is isolated by a waterproof acrylic resin; the surrounding area is cleaned with AB-57; then the resin is taken off and the passage is cleaned with solvents that do not contain water.

The Vatican has certainly made some blunders in presenting this work to its audience. It should have allayed suspicions of haste by fully publishing its scientific analyses of the ceiling, its problems and its techniques of restoration. It was stupid to spring the cleaned lunettes on the public in 1984 under the killing glare of television wattage; that kind of lighting would make even Michelangelo’s sculpture look flat, let alone his frescoes.

But in the end, the proof is in the eye. Michelangelo did not design for electric light. It is the uncleaned two-thirds of the ceiling that needs spotlights to render its mighty forms visible through all the murk. The cleaned areas can be seen clearly by natural daylight, as Michelangelo meant them to be, from the floor 68 feet below. The forms have lost none of their “sculptural” definition, their nobly volumetric quality; instead, they have gained in modulation through the cleaning. Some doubts remain — about the efficacy, for example, of the Vatican’s plans for crowd and atmospheric control: as many as 18,000 people flood through the Sistine each day as it is, and with the publicity about the “new Michelangelo,” this depressing figure (who sees what, under such circumstances?) can only swell bringing more pollutants with it.

Despite these and other worries, the principle of the cleaning and the care with which it is being done deserve support. You cannot preserve the monochrome Sistine that misled generations of visitors to Rome, including some of the best painters and art historians in the past 200 years, and still respect Michelangelo’s intentions.

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