2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot

Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.


Sistine Ceiling 2.0: Restoration of the Carracci Gallery Frescoes.

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Palazzo Farnese Rome

Carracci Gallery, 2014.

This past February, announcements were made concerning the restoration project planned for the frescoes adorning the Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

This is no new thing for Annibale Carracci’s monumental cycle The Love of the Gods (1597-1606), which had already undergone “consolidation” only a few decades after completion under Baroque painter Carlo Maratta later in the seventeenth-century. [1] Since the beginning of the twentieth-century, the frescoes have undergone patched cleaning in 1923, 1936, and 1994 (though it is not clear just how much was accomplished during this latest effort beyond a general assessment of the issues).

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery WMF Europe French Deputy Ambassador

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy: ANSAmed, 2014.

The French government, which has inhabited the historic building since 1874, first opened the gallery and palazzo to the public in 1936. Today it houses both the French Embassy and the Ecole Française de Rome, with reportedly small groups of visitors coming to see the Carracci frescoes only by appointment. According to the project’s Press Release from the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund:

“Today conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling. The campaign of 1994, realized under the direction of the French Service des Monuments historiques, assembled information on the condition of the vault that led to some proposed solutions to conservation issues, but it was not possible at the time to secure sufficient funding to carry out the proposed treatments. The previous analysis will be helpful in developing the conservation program for the painted decorations, stucco, and gilding that adorn the room. Work is scheduled to begin this year and will be coordinated by WMF in collaboration with local heritage authorities and international experts.”

Besides WMF, the other groups that have joined together to help get the project off the ground are the French Embassy in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and the Foundation de l’Orangerie (connected with French banking giant BNP Paribas). [2]



2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Queen Cassiopeia King Cepheus

Cracking of Carracci’s depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Restorers will first go about cleaning off layers of dirt and old overpainting from areas that had been restored in previous years. They will then work to fill any extensive cracks and repair water damage. [3]  According to WMF, this is the first time in the gallery’s history that the side walls, in addition to the ceiling in its entirety, will be treated. No doubt there is much restorers hope to glean from this work, more so than a simple stabilization of Carracci’s 400 year-old masterpiece. It is also understood that this year-long project will likely uncover some secrets about the frescoes’ condition. As Italian culture ministry official Rossella Vodret said to the New York Times in 2012, the work of the restorers will hopefully aid in “determining which hands painted which section” – Annibale’s, Agostino’s, or others from their workshop. She added emphasis on the “scientific endeavor” of this project. Meanwhile, scholars who have shown concern towards this massive overhaul are deemed “purists.” [4]

Objections arise not because of any “purist” impulses but because of (well-founded) concerns about the complex nature and (intended or un-intended) aesthetic consequences of comprehensive, long term, high cost, high-profile, heavily sponsored programs that aim at a single definitive comprehension to a cluster of real, feared or assumed problems. And why should the matter be decided by scientists alone? In the Times’ coverage of this project two years ago, an interesting statement was made by Vodret: “We are certain that if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out.” [5]  But precisely which experts? What kind of one-sided expertise? Ancient works of art are primarily artistic and historical artifacts. Any proposed treatment must take those factors into consideration – and, certainly, scientists alone are not competent in those vital areas. For example, removing all previous (historic) repairs will likely expose injuries that gave rise to the repainting in the first place. If it does, will those injuries be repainted again to the standards and tastes of the twenty-first century or left as wrecked passages? There is talk of a threat from water infiltration. Is that a substantive threat? Does the roof leak? Do gutters need to be replaced? Is the building affected by rising damp?

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery corner frescoes

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Is it just a scare? Alleged conservation threats that were cited in the past on other major projects can prove unfounded when challenged – as was the case with the claimed “glue pox” that was said (on no evidence) to be devouring the Sistine Chapel ceiling at a dramatically escalating rate.

The project, which is underway as of the beginning of March, was set in motion by a new committee of 30 scientific restoration specialists formed in 2009 to consider the ceiling’s treatments and make recommendations for future work. [5] The conglomerate of international non-profits mentioned above have chosen the reputable Italian restoration group ATI Farnese as the  to carry out the project. $200,000 of the 1 million euros this project will entail has been allocated to preliminary studies of the ceiling (a portion provided for specifically by the Italian government). [6] A sense of immediacy to protect pervades discussion of the work to be done: “The value placed on the gallery meant that it has been restored at times in the past, including an urgent fix ordered in 1994 when the ceiling threatened to collapse. Now, new cracks and leaks that threatened the masterpieces inside have demanded an immediate response to protect what many call a significant piece of cultural heritage. ” [7] French Deputy Ambassador Erkki Maillard lists issues of cracking along the side panels and the vault, concern for infiltration of water damage and lifting of paint, and “paintings obscured by time that also need to be cleaned.” [8]  These delicately and poignantly illusionistic frescoes run the risk of experiencing a traumatic face-lift. Restorers will likely uncover unfortunate remnants from the partial cleanings of the 1920s and 30s. This could, in turn, either lead them back to page one, or set them off on a path from which there is no return.

The grandiose treatment is projected to last at least until spring 2015, when the gallery will finally reopen to the public. One must also not fail to take into consideration the impact of the growing tourist industry on the newly-cleaned frescoes, once revealed. According to Maillard, the current policy for outside visitors is previously-reserved small weekly tours. [9]  While these will be put on hold during restoration over the next year, what might be the result of the frescoes unveiling next spring? Will it bring in a greater demand for viewings? How will the French Embassy respond to an increased interest in this monumental piece of Italian artistic heritage? The sharp rise in visitors to the Sistine Chapel in recent years has undoubtedly placed a new fear in the Vatican for the well-being of their own crowning masterpiece (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). The final statement from WMF as to the Carracci project’s importance: “Once completed, the current conservation project will allow the Palazzo Farnese and the Carracci gallery to be accessible to the public more regularly, following years of restricted access to this cultural treasure.” [10]

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery tour

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.



[1] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF Program: Field Project. World Monuments Fund. (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[2] Press Release: “World Monuments Fund & its Partners Announce Project to Restore The Famous Carracci Gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese,” (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[3] Frances D’Emilio, AP, “French Embassy’s glorious ceiling in Renaissance palazzo to be rescued by modern day ‘Medicis’,” 26 February 2014. Newser. (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[4] Elisabetta Povoledo, “Restoration Planned for Carracci Gallery in Rome,” New York Times. 10 October 2012.

_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sandra Cordon, ANSA, “Palazzo Farnese’s Carracci gallery to shine anew: Restoration begins on Baroque masterpieces in French embassy,” 27 February 2014. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[7] Guillemette de la Borie  “À Rome, les Carrache sous bâche,” 27 February 2014. La Croix. (last accessed 14 March 2014).

[8] Cordon.

[9] Borie.

[10] D’Emilio.

[11] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF.

2004-09-28 Vatican Rome

Restoration Planned for Pauline Chapel

2004-09-28 Vatican Rome

The Vatican has recently announced plans to restore Michelangelo’s last frescoes in the pope’s private chapel beginning this fall. The two large paintings that are the target of the planned intervention are the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. Francesco Buranelli, the head of the Vatican Museums, has announced that they are currently seeking sponsors for the four-year project, the cost of which they estimate at about $3.6 million. Restored last in the 1930s, it has been reported that they are plagued by leaks in the wall, although they have not been photographed since the 1980s.

2004-09-07 Edvard Munch Vampire Munch Museum

Issues of Custodianship

Issues relating to the custodianship of art have recently emerged in the popular press. In addition to the ongoing debate about restoration and conservation, it has become increasingly apparent that museums and other guardians of cultural property must determine how best to protect those objects with which they have been entrusted. In the last few years, there have been numerous highly publicized cases not only of theft of prominent artistic treasures, but also of acts of vandalism.

The most obvious case in point is the recent theft of two paintings by Edvard Munch from the Munch Museum in Norway, in which two armed robbers tore The Scream and Madonna from the walls of the museum while the staff and visitors watched. The director of the City of Oslo’s art collections has noted — though this comes as no surprise — that the security of the museum was inadequate. Following the theft, it was noted that the surveillance equipment was outdated and that the camera at the entrance was disconnected, even though in January they received government funds to improve security conditions. All of this despite a “warning shot” that had been fired in February of 1994, when another version of the same painting was stolen from the National Art Museum in Oslo. There, even with better security — including functioning cameras and the police quickly responding to the alarm — the two men involved made off with the painting in under one minute. The systems in place to guard the masterpiece were questioned, since the work had been moved from the more secure first floor to a special ground-floor exhibition installed to coincide with the Olympics. The thieves even found the time to leave a note to the museum, “Thanks for the poor security.” The paintings was discovered, undamaged, around three months later. Of course, in the case of Munch, there was an earlier “warning shot” still: Paal Enger, who was jailed for the 1994 theft, had previously stolen another Munch painting, Vampire, from the Munch Museum in 1988. (Referring to himself as a gentleman, he denies any involvement in the recent crime).

2004-09-07 Munch Museum

Munch Museum in Norway

Such events are not at all uncommon, as exemplified by the recent thefts of works by other masters, such as Benvenuto Cellini’s Saltcellar stolen in May of 2003 from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Duke of Buccleuch’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed by some to Leonardo da Vinci, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, Scotland in August of the same year.

Unlike the Munch paintings, Cellini’s Saltcellar was stolen after hours, with the perpetrators scaling external scaffolding to reach a window, break it, then shatter the glass case in which the object was housed, despite motion and heat sensors. Alarms appeared to have gone off, but were reset by a guard without physically inspecting the room. A ransom request was sent to the insurance company for 5 million Euro.

While there are certainly better security systems available, the question has been raised as to whether or not implementing such measures would be prudent. It has been noted, in the case of the recent Munch theft, that automatic gates that would effectively lock down the museum if an alarm was tripped would be a safety hazard, possibly endangering the lives of museum-goers. Had the painting been more securely attached to the wall rather than by steel wires, the argument goes, it might have suffered even greater damage during the robbery. And arming guards is an equally harrowing prospect, given that a determined thief would resort to greater violence. In any case, “high-tech” systems have often been defeated with the simplest of implements, as in the case of the removal of two Van Gogh paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the perpetrators thwarted the alarms and surveillance systems including cameras, motion detectors and round-the-clock guards using a ladder to climb onto a roof, a cloth to muffle the sound of the breaking window, and a rope to make their getaway.

The theft of works of art is not even the most insidious of the threats facing art objects. They are also frequently vandalized by people usually classified as “deranged,” both within museums and in public locations. There are many famous examples, with the most notorious perpetrator, Piero Cannata, attacking Michelangelo’s David in 1991 with a hammer, defacing Filippo Lippi’s Funeral of St. Stephen in Prato Cathedral in 1993 with an indelible black marker, and scribbling on a Jackson Pollock in 1999. Although he has been intermittently hospitalized, he has recently appeared in the press as a tour guide working in Florence as part of a day release program from a psychiatric institution. Michelangelo’s Pietá was likewise attacked in 1972 by Laszlo Toth, who subsequently spent two years in an asylum. Rembrandt has perhaps faired the worst, with a 1985 slashing and acid attack on Danae in the Hermitage by a Lithuanian national declared insane by the courts. In addition, a 41-year-old psychiatric patient sprayed Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum with acid in 1990, marking the third incident in the history of a work that had previously been slashed in 1911 and 1975.

2004-09-07 Rembrandt Nightwatch Rijksmuseum AmsterdamHowever, in recent years there has been a tremendous amount of damage done to art objects that are even more difficult to protect, either from thieves, mentally-ill vandals, or just rowdy individuals. Public monuments, both architectural and sculptural, that are outside of the considerably safer museum environment, are more difficult to safeguard, even with the increasing presence of security cameras. Italy’s fountains are seemingly impossible to protect. In 1997, the Neptune fountain by Ammannati was vandalized twice, with the second incident resulting in the breaking off of one of the horses’ hooves. The city had recently installed eight remote control television cameras, though their view was obstructed by scaffolding. That same year, Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona was damaged when three men climbed onto the statue and broke the tail of a sea-serpent. (One of the perpetrators vowed to sue the city over damage to his foot incurred during the incident).

More recent events have brought the issue again to the fore, with a string of attacks in both Rome and Venice in June and July of 2004. In Venice, a statue of St. Francis and another of St. Mark the Evangelist at the Redentore church on the Giudecca were broken, and a capital on the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco was attacked with a hammer as well, shattering a carving of Moses with the Tablets of the Law into 17 pieces. In Rome, statues were damaged in the area around Piazza del Popolo, and Bernini’s Fontana delle Api was another target, with one of the bees being defaced.

But what to do? Responses are invariably similar. Giorgio Rossini, the superintendent of Venice’s environmental and architectural heritage responded to recent events saying, “We can’t cordon off the entire city.” Following the 1997 Bernini incident, the mayor of Rome expressed a certain amount of defeatism as well, remarking “we cannot militarize the city”. Nonetheless, just that has been suggested. While fines have been raised and alarms and security cameras are multiplying, others have demanded more drastic measures. Art historian Federico Zeri has called for round-the-clock guards posted at the most important monuments, even employing the army for such purposes, and civilian “anti-vandalism squads” have also been considered. But as with the cases of theft, the issue of balancing accessibility and security remains the main consideration. Attempting to truly ensure the safety of these objects — particularly those to which the public has enjoyed regular access — might upset that balance. Certainly, every technological device that might improve security should be employed, and yet, ultimately, no work is safe from determined vandals and thieves. We must make particularly hard choices to decide how much we are willing to lose in our attempt to safeguard the objects with which history has entrusted us.