The Best Artists

The Sistine Chapel Cleaning Job


The Sistine Chapel was filthy.
Michelangelo’s famous frescoes had become so uniformly dark with smut that critics were going around saying that the master may have been a great sculptor but he was insensitive to color.

The Sistine Ceiling before restoration

There were big cracks in many places too, and water stains on the ceiling.  A white crust of salt had formed here and there.

Why didn’t somebody do something?

They had, at least half a dozen times. Already in Michelangelo’s time they painted over the salt crust, which was unremovable, with linseed oil to make it transparent.
A hundred years later a gilder rubbed all the frescoes with linen cloths and bread.
In 1713 somebody used wine to dissolve the grime. Another time someone else thought they could brighten up the colors with a coat of varnish.
But the frescoes kept getting darker and darker.  The candle flames sent up wax and soot with each Mass and the open windows let in the black clouds of exhaust from the cars of Rome. The daily crowds of tourists brought great sudden changes of temperature and moisture too, which added to the general deterioration.

In 1981 the Vatican decided to save the frescoes. They announced a  long-term restoration project.  First the ceiling and then the front wall: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco.

How were the latest bunch of experts going to proceed? Which method were they going to use this time?   Bread?  Linseed oil?  Varnish? Some dissolvent? How DO you clean a dirty picture?   What if when you clean it the colors come away with the soot?

Not all paintings are the same. Frescoes have a unique feature: the painter spreads a layer of sand and lime on the wall and paints on it while it is still wet, still fresh—fresco in Italian. He paints with colors dissolved in plain water—there is no “medium” like oil or egg.  There isn’t even gum arabic, as in water-colors.  His colors are only dirt from the earth or juice from a plant or animal.  He dissolves them in water, dips in his soft brush, and paints on the plaster. The plaster sucks the color right in.
And as it dries something miraculous happens: there is a chemical change.  The color hops into the plaster and becomes one with it.  It can’t be rubbed off anymore.

Isn’t that good news for fresco cleaners then? They can remove absolutely everything from the surface of the plaster and they can be certain they won’t remove the painter’s color, which is protected “underneath”.

In theory, yes.  And that is what the new team of restorers of the chapel believed.  With distilled water and weak dissolvents they took away the grime from Michelangelo’s frescoes. They stripped them right down to the bone.
They did a really thorough job. It took them longer to clean the frescoes than it took Michelangelo to paint them.

When they opened the chapel to the public, everyone was amazed at the difference. The paintings were so bright they looked like bold poster art.  Who had suspected that Michelangelo painted with such bright colors?  A real revelation.

The Sistine ceiling after restoration

A Perfect Job?

To some they seemed just a little too bright. “Could an artist of such supreme taste have been content with those garish colors?  they asked.
“And don’t the figures look flat now?  If there’s one thing Michelangelo put into his paintings it was relief.”

The great Jonah before and after the cleaning.

They noticed that certain features, certain details of the old darkened version which they had admired, had disappeared. Some of Michelangelo’s shadows were gone and some of the “new” ones looked odd.  For example, they were red.  Who ever heard of a red shadow?

Daniel before and after the cleaning

It looked like maybe the restorers had removed some darkness that WAS NOT grime but a wash of charcoal Michelangelo himself had applied to give the figure relief. The proof came from the missing black eyes of two or three of the figures.  Michelangelo had evidently painted the eyes ON TOP OF the plaster.  Now they were gone and the figures looked blind!

A young woman in the Jesse spandrel before and after

Painting on top of a fresco after it is dry, called a secco as opposed to al fresco, is occasionally done to correct something or highlight it. The restorers claimed that Michelangelo had painted nothing a secco. “We have it from Vasari himself,” they said:

“Michelangelo wanted to retouch some parts of the pointing a secco, as the old masters had done on the scenes below, painting backgrounds, draperies, and skies in ultramarine, and in certain places adding ornamentation in gold, in order to enrich and heighten the visual impact. The Pope, learning that this ornamentation was lacking, and hearing the work praised so enthusiastically by all who saw it, wanted him to go ahead. However, he lacked the patience to rebuild the scaffolding and so the ceiling stayed as it was.”   (Vasari, Life of Michelangelo)

“So you see we were justified in removing every bit of anything that sat on the plaster.”

But some critics weren’t convinced. That Michelangelo didn’t want to paint more draperies, backgrounds and skies is one thing, they said.   But it is very likely that while he was up on the scaffolding in the first place he touched the paintings up a secco. The alternative is chipping away the entire day’s work and starting over again.

In any case, his technique changed as he worked. At first he painted in fresco all the shadows and darkness that gave relief to the figures.  But later, as the months went by, he seems to have decided to add some of them in a wash a secco, feeling that the result gave richer shadows.
“And that is why the colors look too bright in some places,” say the unhappy critics. “They were meant as an undercoat. Michelangelo afterwards  gave them a wash in secco to tone them down. Now the  gung-ho cleaners have removed that wash. Wonderful! Poor Michelangelo. Poor humanity.”

Most people are happy to see the frescoes so brand-new looking. The cleaning job has to be given very high points. It was done conscientiously and by experts. Was it wrong to trust them?  The worst is that there is no going back. What they did cannot be undone, which  violates a simple norm of modern art restoration.

Maybe if Michelangelo turned over in his grave when he heard about it, now, after reflection, he would admit that, all in all, the ceiling is closer to the way he left it.  The world still honors him like no other artist.

See this spectacular virtual visit to the Sistine Chapel.  It’s as good or better than a real visit.