18 facts to surprise you about the Vatican restoration
The restorers, who clean the Sistine Chapel frescoes, require litres of distilled water and kilograms of Japanese paper annually. The health of the world’s most treasured art is supervised by the night elves, who are invisible to the tourist’s eye. On the walls painted by Michelangelo, the secret witnesses can be found. The walls of Belvedere Palace in the Vatican are painted with the special milk from the Pope’s cows. The deterioration of marble sculptures in the gardens is prevented by oregano and thyme.
Here are 18 interesting facts about how art treasures are taken care of in the Vatican.
1. Each year, it takes a month for the team of restorers to clean the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. However, thousands of tourists visiting the hall do not see these professionals. The fact is that the experts come to the chapel at 17:30 — after all the visitors have left — and work there until midnight.
2. The scaffold must be erected and dismantled every night. They can’t be leaned against the walls as there is a risk of damaging the frescoes.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Erythraean Sibyl, Sistine Chapel fresco (detail)
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Prophet Daniel, Sistine Chapel fresco (detail)
3. The experts tap the wall to make sure if the plaster doesn’t peel off from the brickwork. They also check that the paint layer doesn’t flack.
4. One of the biggest problems of the Sistine Chapel is the moisture and salt from the human bodies deposited on the paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. Each of the 25 thousand visitors a day heats up the room as an 80 W electric bulb.
5. The accretions of salt are removed with distilled water and thin Japanese paper. Using a brush, they apply a very thin layer of water on the surface which removes the salt. Then the solution is sponged with the paper.
6. An array of 30 hidden sensors is in place around the Sistine Chapel to measure temperature, air circulation and the number of visitors. The temperature of the hall must remain between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius and humidity is between 55 and 60 percent.
7. For centuries, it was assumed that Michelangelo painted in dark, subdued tones. However, during the restoration begun in 1990, it became clear that it was only the accumulation of dirt and grime. The artist actually painted the walls with vivid greens, purples and reds.
8. On some of the paintings, little black marks, squares and triangles can be seen. They’re called witnesses, deliberately left as evidence for future restorers to give an idea of just how dark the paintings used to be before.
Left: Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment group (the left side), Sistine Chapel fresco (detail).
9. To make sure that the colours stay vibrant, they take pictures of the frescoes with a multi-wavelength camera and subsequently analyse them on computer with pixel accuracy. In six months, the procedure is repeated again, which allows the specialists to see any changes before they are visible to human eye.
The Belvedere Palace in the Vatican. Photo: subratachak
10. The Belvedere Palace in the Vatican (now the Pio Clementino museum) is a work of the High Renaissance, which was repainted with milk. This is not a nostalgia for the past. Just this ancient recipe has proven to last more than any modern synthetic paints.
11. The milk itself comes from the Pope’s cows, grown at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome. It is mixed with slaked lime and natural pigments to get the original cream colour used in the 1500's for wall painting.
12. Using this technology, the restorers use Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. Such methods are non-invasive for people and for the environment in general.
Left: an exclusive product, the milk from the Pope’s cows produced in limited amounts and branded "Ville Pontificie". Photo: CNN
13. There are 570 statues and other marble works of art in the Vatican gardens. The essential oils are used to clean and protect the slowly eroding art pieces from fungi and bacteria.
14. To find an environmentally friendly solution of the problem, the Vatican conducted several years of research, which they shared during the international conference in October 2017.
15. The scientists showed that essences of oregano and thyme were effective in preventing the bio-deterioration of marble without damaging the artwork or the health of those who work with it.
The statue of Apollo Playing the Cithara in the Vatican gardens before and after cleaning. Photo: vatican-patrons.org
16. The oils are sourced from certified organic crops grown in Sicily.
17. To look after the works of art, the Vatican prefers to employ people rather than machines, though the human labour is more expensive. Restoring artworks and architecture requires technical skills and years of experience, which are irrelevant for machines.
18. The permanent staff of only 100 people at the Vatican Museums are responsible for cleaning and restoration of the ancient art and buildings. They work for 6 million tourists who annually visit the City State.
Source: CNN. Cover illustration: a fragment of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo: Emaze.com
Artists mentioned in the article