Saving the gift of Michelangelo

Creation of man from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks.

Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings.

“In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,” Paolucci told the newspaper.

“Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,” he said. “This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.”

Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid “serious damage” to the chapel.

Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes.

The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.


Michelangelo was so famous during his own lifetime that 2 authors published biographies about him. And painting the Sistine Chapel was really not a labor of love for him.  In fact, I think I can say that he really hated doing it.

He was discovered at the age of 13 by Lorenzo Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificant of Florence, while he was carving a satyr from a block of marble. Lorenzo saw what would become a breathtaking talent in Michelangelo and brought him into his home. He was raised and tutored alongside the Medici children.

Lorenzo was first and foremost a scholar and he frequently entertained great writers and artists in his palace. Bottecilli was one of Lorenzos favored artist/friends.Michelangelo listened, constantly, to the dialogs of great men of the Renaissance.

Birth of Venus/Bottecilli

This was part of the atmosphere that Michelangelo grew up in. The other part is that of violence and conspiracy. There were many in Florence who wanted to remove the Medici family, the biggest banking family in Europe, from all power. They were known as the financiers of the Vatican. A rival family who had strong connections with the Pope, conspired to kill Lorenzo and his brother. They were successful with Giliano and only wounded Lorenzo. There were many struggles for power all around the Medicis.

After Lorenzos death, 2 Medici cousins raised as brothers eventually moved into positions of control of Florence and the Vatican.

In the meantime, Michelangelo was carving out of a 30 foot block of marble, the most famous of his statues. He worked day and night, often not eating and rarely changing his clothes. He rigged a shower system that kept him cool while at the same time kept the marble dust down.

On the 25th of January, 1504, Michelangelo unveiled his David. It was originally commissioned to be put on top of a cathedral but it turned out to be too beautiful to be put so far out of view. David was a statement by Michelangelo and it became a symbol of Florence.

David by Michelangelo

Leo X, previously known as Giovanni de Medici, was elected pope and his cousin became the Cardinal of Florence. Nothing like a little nepotism, is there? And Pope Leo was not very godly, either. It was under Leo’s corrupt reign as pope that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the church door and thus began the Reformation.

Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope de Medici to paint the 1000 square meter  ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and it took him 4 years to complete. This was no easy task on its face but to paint it in fresco (on wet plaster) was horribly difficult and he painted 300 figures on that ceiling. He did not feel comfortable as an artist (he saw himself as a sculptor) and especially painting in fresco, a medium that requires quick work. Michelangelo felt as though this commission was a set up for failure.

As one last Medici commission, Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Experts say that this painting is a reflection of the feelings of the time, as well as those of the artist, himself: frustration, fear and uncertainty.

His Last Judgment was full of nudes and the Church officials weren’t going to have any part of that. They hired another artist to paint over the nude sinners private parts with flowing cloths.

Without knowing the Medicis, it’s hard to know Michelangelo. His life was so entwined with theirs and his art reflects his conflicted feelings about a family that on one hand was corrupt and ruthless and on the other, the nurturers and first family of the Renaissance.


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