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Rome: ‘the work of angels’

 A FRESH FACE FOR SAINT PETER’S

The facade of St Peter’s had been a uniform, dirt-streaked grey for so long, it was hard to believe it wasn’t always like that. But when the scaffolding came down for the millennium celebrations after obscuring the face of the basilica for two and half years, it revealed a surface radiant with delicate tints. This was the facade De Rossi knew when in 1620 he wrote that the basilica’s beauty “must be the work of angels”.

It took a team of 150 specialists to make it look like this again. Their monumental task included repairing cracks, replacing discoloured stucco and cleaning away the accumulated soot and dirt of hundreds of years. “The goal was never to bleach the facade to tombstone whiteness,” the project’s technical supervisor, Prof Sandro Benedetti, explained, “but always to respect its own characteristics.”

These characteristics turned out to be varied, subtle … and surprising. Under the grime of centuries, white wash and colour washes were discovered. This was a revelation even to Vatican experts. The main body of the facade, it was shown, was originally a pale ochre; the columns, window frame and top level were white. The central balcony was flanked by short red columns and decorated with a green stripe. These tints have been restored, adding depth and perspective to the facade. In particular, the darker colour behind the eight white columns serves to make the background recede and the columns stand out, stressing their support function. Not everybody likes the effect. One critic called it the “restoration of innovation”.

During the massive restoration, however, hundreds of scrapings of the facade were taken which revealed traces of paint. Manuscripts in the Vatican archives provided further evidence. An anonymous painting of the facade in 1612, shortly after its completion, showed the colour washes in place. And if that wasn’t enough, records preserved in the Vatican recorded the purchase in 1612 of paintbrushes to use for the facade.

While the “stone restoration of the century” was going on outside the basilica, the “fresco restoration of the century” was nearing completion inside the Vatican Museum. Ten years of meticulous work restored the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to their original tones. The side wall paintings by Bottecilli, Perugino, and others — as well as Michelangelo’s ceiling and the 381 fleshy figures of his Last Judgment — became startlingly, even shockingly, vivid.

Not everyone likes this effect either. The restored murals have been described as “Disney-coloured”. It has been suggested too, that the paintings which had yellowed to an amber brown should have been left as they were, reflecting the mark of time upon them.

The restorers did not see it this way. The yellowing, they pointed out, was the result of layers of candle soot and lamp black alternating with layers of glue. This had been applied first in 1565 and then systematically between 1710 and 1714, at first to cover the salt efflorescence produced by the infiltration of rain water, and then in an attempt to brighten the colours. Not only did the glue itself darken in time, but it shrank with temperature changes and caused flakes of paint to tear off.

The delicate cleaning operation was undertaken in stages. It began in 1979, with the first tentative application of a postage stamp-sized piece of paper soaked in a newly formulated solvent to a corner of one of Michelangelo’s frescoes. The trial was a success, and the restorers carried on, gradually revealing the original bright reds, glowing oranges, clean blues and greens typical of the Florentine school. Cardinal Edmund Szoka, Governor of Vatican City, said the restoration “allows us to contemplate the paintings as if we had been given the chance of being present when they were first shown”.

Opinions were also divided among those to whom the frescoes were first shown in 1541. On viewing the Last Judgment at its completion, Pope Paul III was overcome with emotion, bursting into raptures of delight and praise. The Vatican’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, on the other hand, said the wall full of swirling nudes was not “a work for the chapel of a pope but for a tavern”. Michelangelo’s response was to paint da Cesena’s face on the figure of Minos, the Underworld’s judge of the damned.

St Peter’s Basilica is open every day from 7.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m. The Vatican Museums, in which the Sistine Chapel is to be found, are open from March to October, Monday to Friday from 8.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.; from November to February, the museums are open Monday to Saturday 8.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. They are also open on the last Sunday of the month from 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

The museums are closed on all other Sundays, and on holidays. Tel: +39 06 698 81 662.
Entrance on Viale Vaticano. There is usually a very long queue, made longer by high security at the entrance.

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