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26 June, 2013
Cleaning the Ceiling
As a result of the Second World War, many of the art treasures of Italy were in imminent danger of collapse. During the 1950s, art conservation became much more than a "cottage industry" in a nation claiming to have up to 50% of the worlds great art. Experts from all over the art world flooded the country and as a result, preservation and conservation techniques made remarkably strides in the decades to follow. Major efforts were underway in Florence, Venice, and Milan. Whereas up until this time, art conservation work had largely been devoted to canvas painting, now, workers had to undertake the far more difficult tasks of preserving whole walls and even worse, ceilings. Fortunately, technology and chemistry came to their rescue providing hardware such as X-rays and solvents never before used for such purposes.

During the late 1950s, impressed by the efforts going on in other cities, the Vatican in Rome took a deep breath and commissioned the cleaning of several minor frescos from the 1400s one of which had been all but obscured by centuries of accumulated dirt and grime. The results were impressive, if not astounding, at least enough so as to encourage them to move on to bigger game. In 1960, work began on the side wall frescos of the Sistine Chapel. It was a learning process and the church initially had hoped to train an in-house corps of conservation/restoration workers and experts. However the effort was far more complex, more time-consuming, and more expensive than anyone had ever guessed. Work on the sidewalls took most of twenty years.

In 1980, a single lunette of Michelangelo's famous ceiling was cleaned as a test. In a massive room where for over 500 years, the only source of lighting for evening services had been candles, the resulting soot and smoke had so disguised the technical and colouristic brilliance of Michelangelo's work that the uncovered area was nothing short of breathtaking in comparison to the dull, long-accepted, brownish appearance of the rest of the ceiling. The next year, they summoned up their courage and proposed the cleaning of the entire ceiling. A Japanese media firm offered to pay for it in return for exclusive television and photographic rights to the finished work. And although restorers proceeded with great caution and consulted with other art and conservation experts, the effort was not without controversy. The major fear this time was that the work was proceeding too fast. After having spent twenty years on the walls, the ceiling took only eight. It was finished in 1989 and the whole world had to step back and take a serious look at their previous conceptions of Michelangelo the painter.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
25 May 1998

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