I recently had the pleasure of attending an event at the Vatican during which the latest “upgrades” to the Sistine Chapel were presented by Professor Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. In a nutshell, these recent upgrades ensure that this important site is well positioned not only to welcome its many visitors in the years to come, but to also satisfactorily continue playing its central role in the liturgy and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.
The presentation began with mention of the great restoration project of the Sistine Chapel done by Gianluigi Colalucci that took place from 1979 to 1994. The first step of that long journey was recounted again, when Colalucci did the first cleaning test on a few square inches of the fresco and how the true colors of Florentine Mannerism in the wonderful Nathan and Eleazar lunette reappeared for the first time, hundreds of years after they were painted by Michelangelo.
Also remembered was how the restoration caused virulent disagreements and critique because so many actually thought that Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel in darker colors rather than the brighter colors which appeared once the consolidated smoke deposits and dust pollution which covered the frescos were removed.
The museum director however then reported that since the great restoration, the number of annual visitors has doubled, and while the frescoes are in good condition, they are nonetheless exposed to ever increasing negative agents which can negatively affect their conservation. Thus the decision to “upgrade” things recently.
Basically, it took three years to just to gather the data, study the conditions, decide on the best solutions, and design the new systems. First off, the number of visitors (recent figures top 6,000,000 people a year!) will be capped. Also, due to this enormous human presence the, air filtration system was rebuilt to guarantee the correct standards of conservation for the frescoes (and humans, of course). Simple AC? No chance! The new system has to guarantee (with either the Chapel empty or with thousands of people in it) constant temperature, controlled humidity, the reduction of atmospheric pollutants, efficient air circulation, and carbon dioxide within acceptable limits. Of course, given the enormous impact that light can have on both frescoes as well as the surrounding air conditions (temp, humidity, etc.) the lighting system too was completely redesigned and built.
In addition, besides new schedules for the periodic testing of both the conditions of the frescos within the Chapel and of the efficiency of the new conditioning and lighting systems, Professor Paolucci also spoke of plans for the creation of a multi-language, multi-use instructional space which will help visitors better understand the history, the artists, the styles, the iconography, the theology, the doctrine, and the catechesis of the Chapel prior to entering it. Thanks to this “pre-emptive” education space, the visitors’ stay will be both more respectful of the space and more fulfilling for all thanks to a greater understanding of it.
This presentation of all the work done has given me a greater appreciation of the professional work done by such a 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.
(- Vatican Museum link.)