Michelangelo’s pictorial technique and the restoration of the Sistine Chapel of 1980

The most recent restoration works of the Sistine Chapel, and in particular the Michelangelo frescoes, carried out between 1980 and 1994

Between 1980 and 1994, careful restorations were carried out in the Sistine Chapel by a group of specialists from the Vatican Museums coordinated by the director Carlo Pietrangeli, by professor Fabrizio Mancinelli, art historian and construction manager, and by Gianluigi Colalucci, chief -restorer, and involved cleaning the frescoes of the “Volta”, carried out from 1980 to 1992, and of the “Last Judgment”, completed in 1994 after four years of intense work.

A new Michelangelo emerged, of which memory was lost, because the smoke from the candles and even the restorations (which in previous centuries had consisted of repainting or “reviving” interventions of the colors which, however, had subsequently degraded making them even more opaque the paintings), had blackened the surfaces, so much so that in the past it was believed that Michelangelo gave more importance to drawing than to color. Following the cleaning, many pages of art criticism on the artist had to be updated or completely rewritten.

In fact, the “rediscovered” colors were clear, lively, ringing, combined with great pictorial wisdom to reduce the flattening effect of the figures, inevitably determined by the distance of the spectator’s eye from the paintings.

Of particular interest is the use of “iridescent”, that is the combination of strongly contrasting colors (as in the figure of the Delphic Sibyl or that of the prophet Daniel, but even more in the sails and lunettes) to increase the volumes and emphasize the power of the masses.

For the vault, Michelangelo used very liquid and transparent colors, sometimes given with quick and decisive brush strokes that allow a glimpse of the background. The contours are generally sharp and decisive for the figures in the foreground, they become blurred with more summary colors for the images behind them, almost as if a lens focused on the closest objects.

The colors used by the artist were all of great quality, which allowed the preservation of the frescoes over time: ochres (= earth minerals) were used for the reds and yellows, for the greens, iron silicates and for the powder blues of lapis lazuli. The lilac is the morellone (derived from a herbaceous plant with purple flowers), while the white is the so-called one of San Giovanni and the black is coal.

The restoration was a worldwide event and consisted, after careful laboratory tests, of a first cleaning phase with distilled water, then in the application of a mild solvent which, while removing the various layers of dirt, however, for protective purposes, it has maintained a thin veil of patina represented by the first layer of dust deposited on the frescoes immediately after their painting.

Currently, in the chapel the air is filtered by air conditioners and a sophisticated monitoring system checks and controls the environmental conditions of the chapel.