Art

Gardner, James

ART DISPELLING CLOUDS THE SISTINE CHAPEL COMES UNGLUED We have all been told that our century has sacrificed the present and the past on the altars of the future, that an un ...

...Most of the admirers of the artist whom they take to be Michaelangelo, have merely been enchanted with a pall of grime cast over, and concealing, his genius, a visual interference which, it seems necessary to add, has nothing to do with his own intentions...
...Yet, the very forces that drive us forward, that desire to know all things with precision, have enabled us to appreciate the past in newer and fuller ways...
...That Michaelangelo was a great colorist rebuts much of what critics and art historians have always taught and the public has always believed...
...Not to have acted upon this knowledge," wrote M. Kirby Talley, Jr., an expert on restoration, "would have condemned the Sistine fresco to a slow but certain death...
...The colors of Mannerism, with all the phosphorescent shimmer of rainbows, the shocking misalliances of purples, pinks, and yellows, had to come from somewhere, and now, at last, we know their source...
...In a sense, it is almost unfair that each succeeding generation of humanity has more art to consider and appreciate than its predecessors had, not just because new works are constantly being created, but also because the art of the past is being unearthed, or restored to its pristine state after centuries of corrosion...
...ART DISPELLING CLOUDS THE SISTINE CHAPEL COMES UNGLUED We have all been told that our century has sacrificed the present and the past on the altars of the future, that an unhealthy appetite for progress has caused us to lose sight of the important things in life...
...But as often as they have performed these services in the name of immediacy of aesthetic response, there have been those who accused them of "skinning" their subjects alive, of wreaking untold and irreversible damage upon defenseless old paintings...
...Indeed, the case has been made that the addition of the glue not only does not protect the paintings, but is injurious to them...
...There had been some fear that this cleansing agent would have a deleterious effect on those portions of the surface that were painted "a secco" rather than ' buon fresco.'' But such fears have been allayed since a great majority of the ceiling and of The Last Judgment was carried out in buon fresco technique, rather than a secco, a distinction which means essentially that the surface can be far more readily restored, and is in much better condition than was believed by the more vociferous opponents of the restoration...
...Although The Last Judgment and the Sistine ceiling constitute perhaps the noblest undertaking in all of art, it is unlikely that many people can now look at either with any immediate aesthetic satisfaction...
...They believe that the glue was a later and temporary solution to the dust that had gathered on the ceiling which had the momentary effect of making the frescoes stand out more clearly, but which in the long term covered them over with a steadily deeping layer of grime...
...Doctor Walter Persegati, secretary and treasurer of the Vatican Museums, Professor Laura Mora of the Istituto Centrale del Restauro, and Paul Swartzbaum of the International Center for Conservation in Rome, accept the latter contention...
...While they can understand intellectually the historical importance of the Chapel and the eye can alight here and there upon faded traces of the Chapel's greatness four-and-a-half centuries of dust and the smoke of pontifical tapers have placed a hellish gloom even over the depictions of Paradise...
...The second misapprehension requires us to suppose that because the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was painted from 1508 to 1512, was one of the crowning glories of the High Renaissance, it cannot have had anything to do with the long Mannerist phase of painting that began around 1520...
...The issue touches upon some of the more arcane points of physics and chemistry, about a layer of glue that covers the ceiling which, some argue, Michaelangelo intended as a protection, and which others feel certain to have been put there by unsophisticated restorers in the century after the Chapel's completion...
...Surely, it is believed, the restorers must have made a colossal, tasteless mistake...
...The die-hard opponents of the restoration cannot accept that Michaelangelo could have been so lavish, let alone so eccentric a colorist...
...JAMES GARDNER James Gardner writes, on the arts for Commentary, New Criterion, and the New Leader...
...So integral has it become to our self- definition, that any change in it, even carried out with the most exact science, threatens permanently to uproot and dislocate something very deep within us...
...The colors, not only the figures, that we see in Raphael, Parmagianino, and the Carracci, are displayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel...
...Professor Mora developed a solution called AB-57 to combat this, and it has been shown to work in some of the other portions of the Chapel such as the frescoes of Matteo da Lecce...
...This controversy has mounted to a rare fury in recent months, as the restorers of the Sistine Chapel inch ever closer to The Creation, upon whose restoration they are about to embark...
...What the restorers of the Vatican have done is to retrieve what was slipping away, to vivify something that was dying...
...To those who have become accustomed to the muted tones of the statuesque figures, which seem to approach the grey of granite, the chromatic riot which the restorers have revealed is apt to appear most unwelcome...
...It is widely known that Michaelangelo provided the figurative patterns that were used in Mannerism and long after, but it is rarely if ever understood that Michaelangelo's color schemes also had an effect almost as influential as his figures...
...In the Sistine ceiling, as we are in a position to see for the first time, Michaelangelo created an abstract chromaticism which liberated colors from an exact correspondence to reality and paved the way for Mannerism...
...There is some grain of truth in this dualism, but surely it is outweighed by the vast disservice it does to Michaelangelo's reputation...
...It is almost as though, heretofore, we have seen the ceiling through sun-glasses which we are now cordially invited by the restorers to remove...
...One of the worthiest services that science has rendered to the humanities has been the preserving and restoring of earlier art...
...The athletically sculpted arm of Adam, extending toward the hand of God, has slipped into our heads at such an early age that most of us cannot recall a time when we have not known it...
...That something had to be done was, and should have been, realized long ago...
...It is almost as though, to 599 invoke an image dear to the Old Masters, our restorers have gone forth like so many Saint Georges in defense of beauties ravished by the dragon Time...
...When the restorations of the Sistine Chapel are complete, 600 almost five hundred years will have elapsed since the project was initiated...
...With slightly less gratitude we should consider our good fortune at having been born into a generation which, for the first time in centuries, will have seen this particular achievement of our species reborn...
...Michaelangelo has been cast traditionally as the champion of disegno, i.e., of pure outline, of contour purged of any trace of that full-bodied fleshiness that is ascribed to Titian and his followers...
...If the restorers were to add some injurious substance, opponents argue, or to remove some valuable coating that Michaelangelo had intended to be there, would it not constitute for all of humanity a partial but irretrievable loss of some part of its very self...
...With the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, the depiction of The Creation must rank as the most immediately recognizable form in the Western world's collective repertory of images...
...It is hard now to imagine the world before Michaelangelo and Shakespeare, and easy to appreciate how fortunate we are to have succeeded them, rather than they us...
...This is what James Beck of Columbia believes, and he is seconded by a dozen or so American artists, among them Robert Motherwell and the late Andy Warhol, who this past year signed a petition calling for at least a pause in the restoration, if not a complete abandonment of the whole project...

Vol. 114 • October 1987 • No. 18


 
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