Sistine Chapel Restoration Controversy


The Sistine Chapel was restored in the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s. The Sistine Chapel restoration project was one of the most significant, largest and longest art restoration projects in entire history. The entire project took twelve years to complete, not taking into account the inspections, planning and approval of the project. Among the many parts of Sistine Chapel that was restored, what drew the most attention were Michelangelo’s frescoes.

Till the mid-80’s, the project’s approval and its progress were lauded by all and sundry. There was unanimity among art scholars, religious leaders, popular celebrities and world leaders that the Chapel must be restored and all its art must be taken care of to retain its original glory and brilliance. However, there was some opposition to the whole idea in 1986.

Many experts came out in the open circa that time criticizing the move and furnishing reasons for their standpoint. This initiated the Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy.

Among the many experts was James Beck. He was a scholar of Renaissance art. He was also the chairman of the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia University. James Beck and his fellow experts pointed out that the restoration procedure would scrape off the layers of various materials on the frescoes and that would lead to damage which shall be beyond repair. James Beck and other experts went on record to state that the removal of the materials will expose the pigments on the frescoes which were fragile and dated to artificial light, temperature variations, humidity and pollution. Such exposure, according to Beck and others, would cause massive damage to the original artwork.

Toti Scialoja who was the former director of Museum of Fine Arts in Rome had also started voicing his opinion circa that time. He issued a warning that any restoration or similar attempt would deliberately remove a shadowy layer that Michelangelo had applied himself. Many, then contemporary, painters in American and Italy had also agreed to his viewpoint. As a matter of fact, many painters had been propagating that viewpoint for a long time, from even before the restoration project was underway.

The Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy had countermeasures as well. In October, 1986, a member of the Italian Parliament, Antonio Tancredi had noted the arguments being made again the restoration process and urged the Vatican to not only defend the decision to restore the Chapel but also to document each and every stage of the restoration process so all future controversies could be avoided and the process could be defended as having been right and appropriate. There were others like Gianluigi Colalucci who defended the decision of restoration. Colalucci was the chief conservator of the Vatican Museums. He was joined by many scholars of Michelangelo’s artwork. They all stated confidently that the entire process was completely safe and that the efforts were worthwhile to retain a wonderful piece of art to its original glory. Colalucci had been proactive in quelling the Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy. He assured everyone that the Vatican Museums would be having state of the art climate control system that could protect the fresco from all the impending dangers of pollution, heat, humidity, weather variations and light.

Colalucci went to great extents to reassure everyone. He went on record to say that no over-painted layers or excess colors would be removed that the master painter Michelangelo had intended to keep in the fresco.

But the Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy raged on because Beck had a completely different approach to counter Colalucci. Beck was less worried about restoring the over-painting or anything of that sort. Beck was more concerned about removing the wax and layers of dirt that had accumulated on the fresco over hundreds of years. He questioned if the conservators or restoration experts knew what impact the pollutants would have on the fresco after the protective natural layering was removed. Beck also stated that the pollutants prevalent in 1980’s were not the same as they were in the 16th century and thus it was a very different ballgame that not everyone in the decision making body understood.

Beck had continued to write and he remained vocal for a long time. That kept the Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy burning for quite some time. He had even criticized the decision of using the funds donated by Nippon Television Network that got exclusive rights to videotape and broadcast the videos and photos on their network. Beck questioned if restoration had to be carried out just to use the funds and for no other purpose.

The restoration project was completed and there were many appreciators. But after its completion, there was a new Sistine Chapel Restoration controversy, raised by those who claimed that the fresco was not the same as what Michelangelo created or intended to create. It was brighter, more colorful and didn’t make as much aesthetic sense as it did originally.