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Washing away grime or an artist's genius? A shade of doubt dogs the Sistine Chapel restoration

By Karen WolmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1986


MORE than 50 years have passed since the restoration of a 16th-century painting in Naples turned into a nightmare dreaded by museum curators and art historians the world over. The original Madonna del Coniglio by Correggio was lost forever when the last layer of paint applied by the artist dissolved along with layers of unwanted grime in an overly zestful cleaning. In the 1960s the art world was again jolted when restorers realized only too late they had covered the 15th-century frescoes by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo with a protective varnish that whitened with age.

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These are two particularly dramatic examples of botched restorations cited by a small but vocal group of Italian artists and art historians to illustrate the scenario they say is unfolding on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- where Michelangelo singlehandedly painted 10,000 square feet of frescoes at the height of the Renaissance.

A team of highly respected and skilled specialists has been quietly at work since 1984 to reclaim Michelangelo's masterpiece from centuries of dirt and neglect. But criticism of the Vatican's colossal undertaking only flared up last February, when the public was given its first glimpse of a cleaned section of the vaulted ceiling. The unveiling came midway through the ambitious project -- a three-stage restoration of Michelangelo's works in the Sistine Chapel that began with the cleaning of the 14 half-dome lunettes above the windows and will end with the ``Last Judgment'' in 1992.

Part of the controversy over the restoration -- the subject of an earlier cover story in a major Italian weekly -- can be traced to many people's misgivings about a science that has proven to be so inaccurate in the past.

Alessandro Conti, a professor of art history who specializes in restoration at the University of Bologna, contends the Vatican restorers are making a mistake not unlike the Naples fiasco. ``My impression is that they are removing a series of glazings applied by Michelangelo that have endowed the frescoes with their special treatment of light and shadow and depth of field.''

Fabrizio Mancinelli, the director of the restoration, dismisses such comments as the product of a reflexive ``habit to blame current restorers for the errors of the past.'' Mancinelli, a specialist in Byzantine, medieval, and modern art who has worked at the Vatican museums for 15 years, says Vatican experts were ``certain as humanly possible'' before beginning the painstaking cleaning.

International experts were consulted; dozens of laboratory tests were performed; and historical documents were carefully perused before deciding on the best way to remove the thick accretion of dust, soot, and other substances Mancinelli says had kept the real Michelangelo from the public eye for so long. ``We are now probably seeing what people saw for the first 50 years after Michelangelo painted,'' says Mancinelli with evident pride.

All told, it will take a team of five restorers 12 years and $3 million to complete their task -- nearly three times as long as it took Michelangelo to finish painting the ceiling alone.

Funding for the project was secured by striking a deal with the Nippon Television Network of Japan. The Japanese network was offered exclusive rights of all photographs and footage of the restoration until 1995, three years after the scheduled completion of the cleaning of the ``Last Judg ment.'' A seven-member crew is on location at the chapel to record the minutiae of the restoration for posterity.

Mancinelli explains that the accumulation of dust and smoke from candles used to light and heat the room was so rapid that Michelangelo himself was dismayed to find his work soiled and in poor condition when he went to paint the ``Last Judgment'' 20 years later.

By the late 18th century, the condition of the frescoes had so deteriorated that the French astronomer Joseph-J'erome Le Francais De Lalande was nonplused by their beauty. ``The vault is not particularly impressive, the colors tend toward brick and gray,'' he wrote in 1768. Nineteen years later, Goethe, who in contrast was dazzled by Michelangelo's work during his stay in Rome, wrote glumly that he feared the smoke from incense and candles would eventually make the frescoes unrecognizable.

Efforts to restore the ceiling under various popes were piecemeal and sometimes did more harm than good. One method used, with limited results, was to mop up the dirt with chunks of bread moistened with wine.