Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Renaissance for Michelangelo

Sistine Chapel Restoration
With the aid of a computer, a restorer works on Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s monumental portrait of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) in Rome, Italy. This controversial restoration, undertaken in the 1980s, revealed previously unknown brilliance in the colors of the ceiling frescoes.

Although Michelangelo was reluctant to undertake the commission, his paintings on the ceiling and upper walls of the Sistine Chapel remain masterpieces that have captured the attention of art lovers ever since their completion in 1512. Modern-day restorers began work in the 1980s and faced a number of challenges in trying to bring the paintings back to their original state.

A Renaissance for Michelangelo

By David Jeffery

Who would dare change the arms of God on the first day of Creation? Michelangelo. First he scribed outlines for God's arms into wet plaster with quick strokes of a sharp tool. Then he abandoned those outlines in a flash of brushstrokes. He painted God's left arm so it swept directly overhead, made that arm plunge a divine hand into the turbulent light and wrench it from the darkness.

The Sistine Chapel quivers still with the aftershocks of Michelangelo's daring—now even more as nine years of careful cleaning and restoration by Vatican experts come to an end. They have been separating darkness—the accumulated grime of nearly five centuries—from Michelangelo's light. It is a light to amaze the eye and blind the soul.

Yet what a reluctant light it was, for the artist was cajoled and harassed, forced really, into completing one of the crowning masterpieces of Western civilization.

By age 33 Michelangelo had already made his reputation as a sculptor equal to any ancient Greek or Roman. His marble "Pietà," the crucified Christ lifeless across the knees of a Mary forever young and innocent, transcended grief. His giant "David" glowered fiercer than any Goliath.

Now he had a commission from Pope Julius II to make for him a tomb of sculptures so elaborate and so huge as to confound the imagination. Julius, however, first insisted that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Pope's own Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo did not want the Sistine job he began in 1508. Though trained to the brush, he had painted infrequently. Julius, whose fame came from enlarging the papal domain by the sword, bullied him like a drill sergeant, once hitting him with a cane, once threatening to throw him off the scaffold. The artist grumbled constantly, asked for release, signed his letters: "Michelangelo, sculptor."

Yet in little more than four years he filled the ceiling and upper walls with dozens of compositions, the ancestors of Christ, Old Testament prophets, and sibyls of the ancient pagan world. On 132 by 44 feet of ceiling, he painted scenes from Genesis, backward from the Flood to the Creation.

"All Rome admired it and crowded to see it," recounted one contemporary of the completed ceiling, unveiled in 1512. Another wrote: "It was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment."

Astonished too were those who 469 years later crowded to see the first cleaned section opened to public view. Yet some academics, critics, and painters complained that the images now looked too bright, too flat. A few asserted that some, and maybe a good deal, of Michelangelo's own handiwork must have been erased in the cleaning process.

To see for myself, I visited the restorers at work. A clanking ascent in a narrow elevator brought me up to a scaffold similar to the one sketched by Michelangelo. The attachment points along the walls are even the same ones, and the central platform also has a few oversize wide steps at either side to facilitate working along the arc where the ceiling curves toward the walls.

Scaffolding had borne chief restorer Gianluigi Colalucci and his colleagues Maurizio Rossi, Pier Giorgio Bonetti, and Bruno Baratti for years. All worked under the direction of art historian Fabrizio Mancinelli of the Vatican Museums. Baratti was preparing to inject vinyl resin to secure a small section of ceiling weakened by a void behind the plaster, while others worked on figures out on the curve and Filippo Petrignani recorded every detail on a computer.

Years of restoration had passed, and with them daily strain, stress, and interruptions. Michelangelo described similar effects on himself: "I live here in great toil and great weariness of body, and have no friends of any kind and don't want any, and haven't the time to eat what I need."

He then, as the restorers do now, stood day by day, head bent back, arms stretched up. He complained of paint splattering his beard, of pain, of problems with his eyes. The restorers keep on steadily, professional and serious but not solemn. Colalucci has a button pinned to his smock that reads: "Even the Pope had trouble with Michelangelo."

Trouble ran both ways. The artist was desperate to quit the commission; the Pope was adamant that he continue. The work did not go well at first, partly from inexperience. The fresco of the Flood was soon hazed over by "mildew," the result perhaps of mixing too much water in the surface plaster, or intonaco, Michelangelo complained to the Pope:

"Indeed I told Your Holiness that this is not my art; what I have done is spoiled." Julius did not relent; Michelangelo must make it his art.

The restorer's credo is like the physician's: First, do no harm. The treatment is to lift layers of Rome's dust, sooty grease from burning candle tallow, and other substances—even the residue of Greek wine used as a cleaning solvent some 275 years ago. All have obscured Michelangelo's Promethean work.

Worst of all were varnishes made of animal glues. Applied in various centuries to brighten the darkening surface, they did so for a time. Then each deteriorated and turned the ceiling darker than before.

Despite its dingy appearance, most of the fresco remained in good condition. The technique of painting on fresh plaster was its own best protection. In the hours after Michelangelo painted, the day's application of fresco dried. As it did, the pigments were chemically bonded in a hardening layer of calcium carbonate. The various glues and gums of centuries did not penetrate that hard carbonate shell.

The glues have, however, shrunk and puckered, and in spots scabs of glue have fallen away, pulling pigment with them. This slow destruction by glue pox, rather than some large and immediate threat, has been the Vatican's principal motivation for cleaning the ceiling now. Water damage from roof leaks since plugged has also infiltrated dissolved salts to the surface, stains that cannot be removed as easily as ordinary grime.

The restoration plan calls for examination of each section of fresco with scientific instruments and assessment of the results with human judgment. Then, under exacting procedures, the gentlest effective solvent is applied to overlying grime and both are rinsed away. It seems a nearly magical process to watch.

On one side of the scaffold Bonetti is cleaning the figure of the Libyan Sibyl. First he wets a natural sponge in distilled, deionized water and gently wipes a small section of fresco. With a natural-bristle brush he applies the cleaning solution. Used by restorers for about 20 years and known as AB 57, it is made of bicarbonates of sodium and ammonium. An antibacterial, antifungal agent is added. All these are mixed in carboxymethylcellulose and water to become a gel that will cling without dripping.

The gel is applied and remains for about three minutes. Then the gel—together with the dissolved grime—is removed with sponge and water. Where grime is especially heavy, the process may be twice repeated at 24-hour intervals.

A restorer comes to feel on intimate terms with the creator of the work on which he labors. Bonetti works with a musician's rapt concentration. Here—and here!—he finds bristles from Michelangelo's brush embedded in the surface. The master must have been using an old brush. Bonetti smiles. Then—here!—he finds an arc of small indentations. Michelangelo was probably testing the set of the plaster, the intonaco—with his fingertips.

Bonetti works on, and the sibyl's glowing flesh appears from beneath a grayish brown hide. The back and left arm are smoothly modeled with color. Brushwork defining the face is ineffably delicate, yet the expression will be clear to someone standing on the floor some 60 feet below.

Details of brushwork along one fold of white drapery appear. Bonetti calls them "worms," tiny red curlicues that define the curve and give volume to the fold.

"The technique and results always surprise," Bonetti says. Even after all their years on the scaffold and the preliminary analyses, the photogrammetric mapping, the peering beneath surfaces with ultraviolet fluorescence and sodium monochromatic light and infrared spectrometry and liquid chromatography and atomic absorption spectrophotometry.… After all that, Michelangelo still surprises.

"We know what will be there, but to see it!… Just look at that green!"

On the other side of the scaffold Maurizio Rossi confronts an image of Jeremiah as beset with cause for lamentation as was the prophet himself, who bemoans of his people in the Bible: "Their visage is blacker than a coal…their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick."

Jeremiah's image was already damaged before Michelangelo's death in 1564. The Sistine Chapel, built in the 1470s by Pope Sixtus IV, racked slowly out of plumb as the massive structure settled unevenly into the soil beneath. Some of the ceiling's fresco, including part of Jeremiah, was sloughed onto the floor below.

Artist Domenico Carnevali's mid-16th-century restoration was the first of several in just a small region near Jeremiah's head. Rossi points to a detail where gray overpainting from the 19th century covers a layer of glue varnish that, in turn, had been applied atop an earlier repair.

Sorting through the complexity at Jeremiah amounts to micro-archaeology: all the layers and details are analyzed and recorded long before any cleaning begins.

Michelangelo passed from 33 to 37 years old during his Sistine ordeal but aged much more. Even his images of God seem to reflect the terrible weight. Painted first, the creator of Eve looks fairer and younger than the creator of sun and moon.

Gianluigi Colalucci feels that in a sense Michelangelo salvaged the design of the tomb he had wanted to build by turning it inside out, adapting the architectural and sculptural elements to the painting. He believes too that the artist underwent a personal transformation during the work.

"He is given a job he doesn't want, but at a certain point he starts to enjoy what he is doing. His designs become less constricted. It is hard to say exactly where, but the feeling begins to change.

"When we started cleaning the scene of the temptation, I realized that we were out of the everyday routine. I felt a new level of pleasure in the work.

"Then when I got to the head of Adam, I had another whole feeling. It was like a change in stato d'animo."

That literally translates as "state of mind." But Colalucci explains that he is describing not a flash of feeling, an emotion, but a deep and expansive change in his relationship to the work, both Michelangelo's and his own. Artist and restorer might now speak across nearly 500 years and say together: This is my art.

As for the lingering criticism, no one has produced tangible evidence that casts doubt on the validity of the restoration. By far the majority of interested art historians and conservators support the project.

"We made a mistake in the beginning," concedes Walter Persegati, then secretary and treasurer of the Vatican Museums. "After we uncovered the first cleaned part of the ceiling, we left the same strong lights there. The impression was left that the frescoes had been overcleaned. Instead, they had simply been overlighted."

The Vatican has now replaced the old, bright lights with dimmer ones, and the painted colors have retreated back into the design and rhythms of the compositions.

In the spring a gathering of experts from around the world will assess the cleaning of the ceiling. Analysis will already have begun in preparation for cleaning Michelangelo's fresco of the "Last Judgment," a work that rises 60 feet like painted thunder on the wall behind the Sistine Chapel's altar.

The wall, Colalucci says, has likely suffered even more damage than the ceiling: more handling, more deposition of dirt, and more sooty grease from the tallow of altar candles. He does not know what the laboratory analyses will show.

But does he expect that Michelangelo, painting that anthology of salvation and damnation 24 years after he finished the ceiling, used identical fresco techniques—techniques Colalucci now knows with the greatest intimacy?

"Perhaps," he says.

"Speriamo—we hope."

Source: Jeffery, David. “A Renaissance for Michelangelo.” National Geographic, December 1989.

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