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Monday, June 24, 2019

Maintaining the Sistine Ceiling

Present day art preservations work over (or under) the entire ceiling every year  maintaining the work of Michelangelo as well as that of the original restoration team.
Over the past several years during which I've "gone on" about art, I've taken several opportunities to sing the praises of the most unsung heroes of at art world--the art preservationists. Each major museum has an entire department staffed by up to a dozen experts and technicians who labor daily at the task of restoring old art to the point it looks new again. Hopefully the results are much the same as when the original artist finished the work. Occasionally these skilled technicians are assigned some major work of historic importance which lands them on the back pages of the local press, complete with before and after shots as well as photos taken while their work was in progress. Of course, the holy grail of such assignments was the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, begun in the mid-1980s and not finished until 1994. The project had involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums and two interns who admitted how difficult it was to focus on just a few square inches of painting at a time while ignoring where they were and the wonderfulness of the heavenly masterpiece all around them.
The Prophet Daniel, before and after the original 1985-94 restoration.
Over seven-million visitors trek through the Sistine Chapel each year (I've been one of them) to admire both Michelangelo's ceiling and his famous Last Judgment behind the altar. That number of human beings can do a lot of damage. I'm not talking about deliberate harm but their body heat and their exhaling of carbon dioxide. The human body produces both heat and carbon dioxide. Protecting the frescoes against future damage was a key part of the restoration process. An air-conditioning system with some 92 sensors and necessitating 26km of wiring was installed to protect against rapid changes in air temperature and humidity. The air in the lower part of the building was to be kept cooler and circulate more rapidly to encourage dirt particles to fall to the floor rather than circulate up near the ceiling, while at the same time filtering out bacteria and chemical pollutants. The humidity must never be more than 60 percent and the carbon-dioxide level has to be kept lower than 800 parts per million. All these values have to be kept stable. But the number of people in the room makes that complicated. It can be one, or it can be a thousand. If they have to, technicians can completely change the air inside the chapel 60 times a day.
No, it's not some sci-fi monster but a movable platform from which preservation technician can work.

A master conservator demonstrates
a technique for removing contaminants
from a Botticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
Throughout the day, a Vatican conservation technician monitors sensors in the Sistine Chapel that track all of the environmental variables. Yet, despite the Vatican’s best efforts, thin layers of contamination inevitably develop. Carbon dioxide reacts to the plaster of the frescos. Through the process of condensation and evaporation, bacteria accumulates. The result is an almost imperceptible whitish glaze of soluble salts above the surface of the painting. To prevent the work from being damaged, the staff cleans the frescos regularly and remove contaminants while they are still soluble, using a crane-like machine nicknamed the Spider—a Multitel SMX 250 self-propelled tracked platform (above)—to access the ceiling frescoes. Michelangelo would have loved one of these babies. Thanks to modern technology, reaching the ceiling of the Chapel may be a little easier these days, but no less daunting than when Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the chapel ceiling in 1508. Michelangelo and his assistants carried out the work with the help of a system of wooden scaffolds that had to be taken down, moved and reassembled as the work progressed. Today, the ‘spider’, a type of glorified ‘cherry picker’ has replaced the wooden scaffolds.  It’s four legs anchor securely to the floor as restorers and cleaners, armed with soft cloths, vacuum cleaners and brushes are lifted the 15 meters (about 50 feet) in the air bringing them face to face with Michelangelo’s lunettes.

The preservation team at work.
When that modern-day restoration project ended in 1994, a new one began: the careful monitoring and preventative conservation of the works, which are now seen by close to seven million visitors each year. The name of the game is Constant vigilance. The delicate artworks are carefully monitored to make sure they are not threatened by contaminants brought in by hoards of visitors (more than 1,000 can crowd in at a time) who inadvertently track in dirt, dust, and leave behind traces of hair and skin. The dusting and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s covered some two-thousand, five-hundred square feet of painted surfaces. It involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums as well as that many more professionals in the art of dealing with dirt. Also, in their efforts to preserve the ceiling, the Vatican has installed LED lighting that doesn’t emit UV rays and won’t cause the paintings to fade. There is also a special HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system, donated in 2014 by the Carrier Corporation, that keeps the temperature constantly between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius (71.6 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep out impurities, four diffusers bring in and take out air. At night, staff members painstakingly dust and vacuum the entire museum. (All dust is analyzed to detect bacteria or fungi.).
Cleaning the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Barely noticeable in the photo is the long arm of the "Spider "(the Multitel SMX 250).
Maintaining the Sistine frescoes is slow, tedious, back breaking work, but no one complains. They all know it is an honor and a privilege to be part of this team. They take their responsibilities very seriously. Their nights in the Sistine Chapel will be the fodder for many a story during their lifetimes, to be told over and over again, including the part about the party they once threw for themselves after cleaning of the hand of God touching Adam, infusing him with the breath of life.
A semi-fictional look at what Michelangelo went through--


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