New Light and New Life for the Sistine Chapel

January 16, 2016 / Art & Archaeology
Citta' del Vaticano, Stato del Vaticano

The Sistine Chapel is at once the main attraction for all visitors to Italy, a consecrated space, and the setting for great liturgy such as where cardinals elect the Pope and the symbolic heart of the Roman Catholic Church. It is catechism itself literally depicted by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and of course Michelangelo, which makes it not only a destination for art lovers but also a sanctuary in its own right. This was explained on October 29th, 2015 by Professor Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, at the presentation of the acts of the “La Cappella Sistina venti anni dopo. Nuovo respiro nuova luce” conference which was held in October 2014.

Veduta della Cappella Sistina

Veduta esterna della Cappella Sistina dalla salita della Zecca; Città del Vaticano; Palazzi Apostolici Vaticani

The Sistine Chapel saw a great restoration project by Gianluigi Colalucci with Maurizio Rossi, Pier Giorgio Bonetti, and Bruno Baratti, and coordinated by Fabrizio Mancinelli, Vice Director of the Vatican Museums and the illustrious Nazzareno Gabrielli, Scientific Research Director at the time, that lasted from 1979 to 1994 and resulted in controversial yet now highly acclaimed result, summarized by then Vatican Museum Director Carlo Pietrangeli in his report “Storia di un Restauro“.


Maestro Colalucci durante il restauro della figura di Adamo sulla volta della Cappella Sistina

In this report Pietrangeli lists the various stages of the restoration, starting with the first cleaning test done on a few square inches of the fresco in 1979 by Gianluigi Colalucci during which the true colors of Florentine Mannerism (of Andre del Sarto, Pontormo, and del Rosso) in the wonderful Nathan and Eleazar lunette reappeared for the first time after hundreds of years since they were painted by Michelangelo in the vault.

Re-reading this report, it is clear that never before has a restoration been so widely and well supervised internationally. In fact, the restoration was visited by upwards of 6,000 specialists and professors involved by the likes of Andre’ Chastel, Sydney Freedberg (successive presidents of the International Intent and Vigilance Commission), John Pope-Hennessy, Pasquale Rotondi, Umberto Baldini, and Marisa Tabasso. Nonetheless, the restoration caused virulent disagreements and critiques because it was believed that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in darker colors rather than the brighter colors which it was were discovered after the restoration once the consolidated smoke deposits and dust pollution which covered the frescos were revealed.

Veduta del ponteggio di restauro della volta della Cappella Sistina nel 1987 durante il restauro degli affreschi michelangioleschi. Si riconoscono i Maestri Restauratori Pier Giorgio Bonetti e Maurizio Rossi

Twenty years after that restoration the need for a new atmospheric conditioning system became evident, given that the one installed at the time was adequate for a volume of visitors which was half the volume of those today and which was made obsolete by the latest generation of technology.

The illustrious specialists Ulderico Santamaria of the Dignostic Laboratory of the Vatican Museums, Mauro Matteini and Paolo Mandrioli of the C.N.R. Italiano, who, thanks to the coordination of Vittoria Cimino, Director of Conservation Office and Secretary of this Convention, tell us everything we need to know about the Sistine Chapel frescos. Basically, they are in good state of conservation yet they are exposed to negative factors which can contribute to their pollution; these however can be addressed to reduce the levels of risk.




Veduta della Cappella Sistina

It took three years to gather the data and study the conditions which determined the system’s design. It was work that together with the Museum Conservation Office included the directors Ing. Pier Carlo Cuscianna and P. Rafael Garcia De la Serrana Villalobos of the Holy See Technical Services, together with Ing. Roberto Mignucci and Ing. Marco Bargellini.

The Sistine Chapel now sees peaks of 20-30,000 people a day, with recent figures topping 6,000,000 visitors a year to the Vatican Museums overall. (The volume of visitors will be now capped at these levels.) Due to this daily human presence it became necessary to redesign the air conditioning system in order to guarantee the correct standards of conservation of the frescoes. The new system was therefore designed to achieve this, by creating a constant temperature, controlled humidity, reduction of the atmospheric pollutants, efficient air circulation, and by keeping the carbon dioxide within acceptable limits, in order to avoid any future restoration and to guarantee merely ordinary maintenance.

Besides periodic testing of the conditions of the frescos within the Chapel and the efficiency of the new system, the current Director of the Vatican Museums Professor Antonio Paolucci states that they are preparing other initiatives as well.





One of these is to create an multi-language, multi-use instructional space which prior to their visit will help visitors learn and better understand the history, the artists, the styles, the iconography, the theology, the doctrine, and the catechesis of the Chapel. Thanks to this “pre-emptive” education space, the visitors’ stay will be both more respectful of the space and more fulfilling thanks to a greater understanding of it.

Also, the management of the Vatican Museum will have to take more regular and thorough ongoing maintenance services into account, as well as guarantee human and economic resources which are adequate to the volume of visitors.

In 2014 the Vatican Museums honored the 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo with the above-mentioned air conditioning system by CARRIER and a new avant garde lighting system created by OSRAM, whose president and engineers, specifically Ing. Carlo Bogani, the Vatican Museum Director Paolucci would like to thank. These systems amount to a 3,000,000 euro donation to the Holy See by CARRIER and OSRAM.

The recent presentation of the work done allowed me to appreciate with esteem the professional work done by such an qualified team of experts. It is work that needs to be held up as the foremost example of the best art conservation possible.

The result of the restoration and the innovation of the new systems have stood the test of time and are a perfect example of how art should be preserved, for the present and the future, thanks to these new systems.

Link to the Vatican Museums




Veduta della Cappella Sistina

Roberto Civetta

by Roberto Civetta

Roberto Civetta restores artwork and antiques for a living, and is incredibly grateful for the chance to work on some of the greatest fresco, oil, stone, and architectural masterpieces that Italy has to offer. More info available at

6 Responses to “New Light and New Life for the Sistine Chapel”

  1. Mary Cameron

    Loved being able to see these pictures. The Sistine Chapel is so overwhelming and hard to take in–thank you for such a great article!

  2. Excellent article, extremely informative. I visited the Sistine Chapel in December and can vouch for the incredible new lighting system. Grazie mille Roberto!

  3. Saw the Sistine Chapel on a tour. This was not enough time to really absorbed what one is really looking at. Can not imagine how one “person/mind” could produce this work of art.

  4. Rosemary Connelly

    I have not seen it since the new lighting system, but after the earlier restoration, and it was awe inspiring then. I cannot imagine how spectacular it must be now! I’m glad to hear they are also going to “cap” the number of visitors also. When it is so terribly crowded it is also hard to appreciate it.


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